In 2016, Russia’s political system could face its moment of truth. As compared to before, the population has become much more focused on the actual consequences of Russian foreign policy: the economic crisis, which creates an unprecedented feeling of depression. Given these conditions, the September 2016 parliamentary elections could reveal serious political risks.
The problem of elections triggering instability in Russia has emerged from a very high fragmentation of the socio-political space. After the collapse of the USSR, a system of national cross-cultural discourse was not established. Russian political movements chose clusterization rather than creating a culture of dialogue and suitable formulations for their political projects. In clusters, political activism has been directed into developing a counter-identity and supporting group identity markers. The parliamentary opposition is an exception of sorts. However, this is due to its affiliation with the structure of power.
In many ways, the only functional cross-cultural consensus was “Putin’s agreement,” which implied increasing welfare in exchange for minimized political participation. It was this consensus that ensured the efficiency of the Russian electoral system, as the national agreement of all social groups was that the political fate of the country should be determined through peaceful voting and not through political violence.
However, the two sides of Putin’s agreement equation have changed radically since the events in Ukraine. First, after thirteen years of indifference, political activity become the dominant norm of social atmosphere — reflected in unprecedented support of Putin’s foreign initiatives. Secondly, welfare gain has been suspended, replaced by a loss in real incomes.
Revival of the left
The first risk, particularly important for the local investors, is that the economic crisis could create sharp social polarization during the elections. Such a situation already happened in Russia twenty years ago during the 1996 presidential election. At that time, the power-holders, represented by Boris Yeltsin, were also unable to answer the dissatisfaction with the economic situation. This was, in turn, exploited by the Communist Party (CPRF).
In the current situation, the recurrence of such events is quite possible. The 2016 elections are already seen by the population as a way to express their vision of a new crisis reality. Meanwhile, the CPRF has already stated its determination for the fervent and uncompromising struggles of disillusioned voters. The traditional “red tier” – a zone which includes regions that are strategic goals for CPRF’s electoral struggle – has significantly expanded this year and includes St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The Communist Party enjoys considerable popular support. Even in the “wealthy” 2011, when economic growth gave weight to the United Russia agenda, CPRF received the vote of every fourth Russian, according to an independent Baykov’s Institute study. In case of electoral success by the Communists, the United Russia party can resort to a harsh response. Chairman of the State Duma Sergey Naryshkin has already labeled any attempts to link social discontent with the election campaign as provocations.
In the past fifteen years, the social security programs traditionally advocated by the CPRF have become much more important for Russians. At the same time, the number of labor protests has increased exponentially and almost doubled in comparison to the pre-crisis period, while the total number of social-oriented protests has risen in 2015 by 15% and continues to grow. The Communists are ready to saturate these social and labor protests with political agendas. This could trigger strong support for any anti-capital agendas among the population. Moreover, in an attempt to take votes from the communists, United Russia may enhance its anti-liberal stance for further private-sector pressure.
A second risk emerges from the emotional response to external events creating and radicalizing the political discourse in Russia. In the pre-Crimea system, the quartet of parliamentary opposition parties pushed out all extremist forces into the extra-parliamentary realm, which was then actively marginalized. During the Ukrainian crisis, these forces managed to participate in the political violence on the side of the separatists and, thus de-marginalized the realm of extremist ideas.
The skill-set, developed within the extra-parliamentary political space, to intelligently manipulate group markers of political identity, could suddenly become very valid. The anti-liberal movements of Novorossiya—or the Committee of January 25 by Strelkov-Girkin—may have a strong chance of success at a local scale, promoting their agenda of nationalization and radical measures against the private sector.
Radicals could also receive additional political capital because the population is tired from the depreciation of the ruble and the inclusivity of the current electoral system. An interesting phenomenon is the ironic Barsik the Cat case. In an online election for the mayor of Barnaul, a cat named Barsik won the internet vote and then received a volunteer headquarters and a full election campaign. This case reflects the desire of citizens to participate in the electoral process even within ridiculous conditions, but not as within an official electoral system. Such a desire only contributes to the extremist call to demolish the system.
Even though Barsik the Cat case seems ironic, the story’s finale had a certain frightening flavor. In response to the natural refusal of the local authorities to recognize the legitimacy of the elections, Barsik was proclaimed a “popular mayor” – a term which appeared in the Russian political lexicon within the context of the uprising in the Donbass.
Possibility for political violence?
The combination of political revitalization and economic crisis may lead to the most negative scenario of all. The voter now expects the authorities to start acting and has a desire to share his voice in these days of economic hardship. However, the current system of parliamentary consensus is completely unresponsive to the radical reforms demanded by the economic and political situation. In these conditions, the very belief in elections as a consent to refuse political violence may be lost. Now, when the resilience of the systemic political machine may prove insufficient, the radical groups could sabotage the very idea of the electoral struggle for power, particularly as many of them already have demonstrated in the Ukrainian experience.