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The Russian election wasn't one

September 20, 2021

President Vladimir Putin has retained his power in the Duma as his country heads further down the road toward autocracy, writes DW's Christian F. Trippe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed his power base in the DumaImage: Mikhail Voskresensky/Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP/dpa/picture alliance

How often was it said and written in the run-up to this election that the results were a foregone conclusion and that the only thing the country's gray eminences needed to fiddle with were the digits to the right of the decimal point? This certainty expressed by so many political observers made the visible apprehension in Moscow prior to the elections hard to explain. "The power" — which is the name people have given to the Russian government — left no stone unturned to maintain its political grip on the country.

From the Kremlin's point of view, this act of political theater needed to go off without a hitch. And that's why months of work were put into writing and fine-tuning the political script that would play out this past weekend. Hundreds of opposition politicians weren't allowed to run, mostly on flimsy grounds. And in St. Petersburg, fake candidates were even put forward as doppelgängers using the same names as liberal politicians who were in with a good chance of doing well.

Accusations of foreign influence

This was a farcical kind of manipulation — but in other places, the way opposition figures were prevented from doing their work was not funny at all. International election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were blocked, and some independent media and civic organizations were stigmatized as "foreign agents" — to prevent them from taking part in the political process.

Christian Trippe, head of DW's Eastern Europe service in Bonn
DW's Christian Trippe Image: DW

Russia's Central Election Commission even claimed that the United States, Germany and Ukraine targeted the election with cyberattacks. They provided no specifics for the serious accusations, however. Russia's neurotically inflated fear of foreign influence is a matter of policy these days, something that this election demonstrated once again.

Two US tech giants, Google and Apple, felt the pressure, too. Their digital platforms were used by the organization of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, which the government has banned as extremist, as part of a "Smart Voting" system to help anyone but the pro-Putin party United Russia at the polls. The Kremlin obviously saw this system as such a provocation that it went on the attack. 

According to media reports, Russian security forces threatened to arrest Google and Apple employees in Russia if all references to "Smart Voting" were not removed from their platforms. Apple and Google have since backed down. "Smart Voting" is an attempt to promote candidates, regardless of their political orientation, who have the best chance of defeating candidates backed by the Kremlin and the United Russia party.

A 'managed democracy'

For a good two decades now, Russia has referred to itself as a "managed democracy." President Putin's chief advisers once used this very telling designation to justify the country's transformation from a young and unfinished democracy into an authoritarian regime. This journey has been frighteningly successful, but it is not — in the eyes of its inventors — yet finished. The Kremlin was thus unable able to achieve all of its election goals.

Despite all their interventions in the election campaign and, allegedly, in some cases even in vote counting, it is still very clear to those in power in Moscow that they can't completely rig an election. The vote in neighboring and Putin-friendly Belarus in the summer of 2020 is a cautionary tale for them in this regard. The Lukashenko government manipulated the election to such an extent there that it sparked months of protests in the capital, Minsk. And Moscow, too, hasn't forgotten widespread protests 10 years ago following an election that many thought was stolen from them. 

A democratic facade over an autocratic core

The goal going into the election was to defend the Kremlin party's extremely comfortable majority. But this was anything but easy. United Russia, the party in power, and those behind the scenes pulling the strings staged an election that they had hoped would serve as something of a confidence vote in the Putin government. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were the official faces of the campaign, despite the fact that neither of them is likely to ever take up their mandate. That's how unimportant parliament is when it comes to actually running the country. 

From the standpoint of Russia's ruling elite, the elections were a stress test that was meant to help them close ranks. And viewed in this way, things didn't go half bad. But for those working for real political alternatives in Russia, the elections weren't elections at all, but rather a further step toward a state whose autocratic core is barely plastered over with a makeshift democratic facade.

This article was translated from German.