The opposition victors in Russian regional elections were not anti-establishment liberals but traditionalists and paternalists, unhappy with the Kremlin’s modernization agenda.
The Kremlin’s chosen candidate lost the gubernatorial race in Russia’s Primorsky region. In part, that can be chalked up to local economic and political conditions. But while the Primorsky loss might seem like an outlier now, it may also foreshadow problems that the Russian regime will encounter as the country moves into the 2020s.
A crackdown on online “extremism” has drawn rare resistance from both the Russian public and the political elite, forcing the Kremlin to support changes to the country’s main anti-extremism law.
The Kremlin obviously understands that elections held under the old rules will result in more defeats. The rules, therefore, will have to change. Just like in 2013–2014, when opposition candidates started winning mayoral elections, the Kremlin first welcomed their victory, but then dispatched local legislatures to scrap mayoral elections altogether. They remain in just seven out of 83 regional centers. A similar fate may now await gubernatorial elections.
Unhappy with plans to raise the retirement age, the decline in their living standards, and tax hikes, Russians can’t vote for the real opposition. Strong candidates are either not allowed to run or prefer to cooperate with the authorities by not running, while in-system parties deliberately tone down their rhetoric. Under such conditions, the protest vote becomes random: people are willing to vote for anyone but the ruling regime candidates.
Ahead of Sunday’s elections, the multifunctional Sobyanin brand was promoted like the latest washing machine.
Russia has opened its doors to thousands of foreigners for the World Cup, but the realities of Putin’s Russia are bigger than the feel-good spirit provided by the football.
Opposition forces are competing for the spotlight in Russia.
The tradition of sport acting as a kind of hybrid war has seamlessly continued in Russia into the post-Soviet period. It is victory at any cost, because victory has political significance. It’s soft power, the face of the country, the image of an invincible nation ruled by a wise leader.
There are several misperceptions about Russia that make relations with Europe worse than they need to be. Acknowledging these illusions is the first step to Russia and Europe being able to understand each other.