2016 Russian Duma Elections in Turbulent Economic and Political Context

Kräver registrering
Arkady Moshes / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Arkady Moshes / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Kirill Rogov / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Kirill Rogov / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Veera Laine / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Veera Laine / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä

Ons 14.9.2016 kl. 10:00-11:30
The Auditorium of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Ankkurikatu 5, 4th floor, Helsinki

The result of the Duma elections of the Russian Federation on 18 September is not likely to be surprising. The regime has been consolidating United Russia’s position well in advance by introducing technical changes to the election system as well as limiting the possibilities for genuine political competition. What remains to be seen, however, is what happens in Russia domestically after the elections. How, if at all, would a strong mandate received in these elections affect the policies of the ruling party? How does the leadership of the country plan to solve the challenge of deepening economic problems while maintaining necessary amount of popular support? In the forthcoming FIIA seminar the overall context of the elections will be analyzed .Trying to understand what drives Russia’s political debate at the moment and what kind of governmental response can be expected, the seminar will look, among other issues, into the economic discussion as well as recent developments of Russian nationalism.


Kirill Rogov, Liberal Mission Foundation, Member of Supervisory Board of Levada-Center, Moscow

Veera Laine, Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Arkady Moshes, Director, EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar

Arkady Moshes started by an observation that it was the most boring and dull election, with no sign of an ongoing campaign in Moscow up until three weeks before the elections. He provided a context for the Parliamentary elections, highlighting three schools of thought. The first school asks whether this election really matters. The result is well known. United Russia (UR) will win, and it will potentially have a constitutional majority. The second school is not represented in the public debate, but its representatives are active. Levada Centre, which published the polls indicating the decreasing popularity of UR and was declared a "foreign agent”, leading to the termination of its operation, is one example showing that at least the authorities are not indifferent to elections’ outcome. Finally, the third school claims that although the parliamentary elections as such do not matter, they are a landmark in Russia’s political history. They will partly determine the next presidential term of Vladimir Putin as the team that runs the campaign will surround Putin.

In his presentation, Kirill Rogov focused on the political economy of Russian political de-modernization. He presented a broader perspective of Russian political developments and political economy. While Russia faces numerous economic problems, he emphasized that the economic debate was poorly reflected in the campaign.

He showed that Russia’s recent political development is a sequence of crises. The first one was the limited political crisis of 2011–2012, which exemplified the crisis of the competitive authoritarian regime in Russia. It was highlighted by the poor results of United Russia in the December 2011 elections, and extended falsifications which led to mass protests.

The second crisis is the international crisis – a stylized ‘Yugoslavian scenario’. It is exemplified by the annexation of the Crimea, and the war in eastern Ukraine. The core feature of this crisis is that a broad conflict with the West became the new framework of Russian political and economic development and a new source of regime legitimacy.

The third crisis is the economic crisis 2014–2015. It is always misunderstood, as it is not merely caused by the dropping oil price. There is a bigger problem stemming from a long-term stagnation, which has deep causes. As Mr Rogov noted, in 2008–2015 the annual growth averaged 1 %. There is no stability and Russia is not an emerging market any more.

In this regard, Mr Rogov distinguishes two periods of oil boom. During the first period based on the economic boom, the regime was consolidating power but remained competitive in nature. During the second period in 2011–2014, there was no economic growth, which led to the erosion of legitimacy. This trend was slowed by the increased public redistribution policy, however from 2014 when the oil price went down, this policy was undermined and necessitated the creation of a new ideology and new legitimacy, which was provided by a policy of political mobilization to compensate for the economic downturn. It was accompanied by a transition to a more repressive regime, and the adaptation of institutions to new goals.

The political mobilization was achieved by the ‘Yugoslav’ scenario: contestation of the boundaries of the old empire. This helped to mitigate political and socio-economic consequences of the crisis. The high potency of political mobilization through confrontation with the West was supported by poll data. Declining economic conditions and a lowering personal economic assessment do not affect the President’s rating, though satisfaction with the socio-economic situation and the government’s approval rating started to decrease. There is a 10% reduction in real incomes, but it is back to the 2011 level, which is still a good level.

He noted that opposition is weak and cannot attack the government. Moreover, the election is in-between political periods. There was a demobilization of voters: the election takes place two weeks after August, which is a dead time in politics. The real turnout will be at least 20–25% lower than during previous parliamentary elections.

This demobilization is strange in times of such popularity for Putin, but the regime sees a danger from the silent part of society. The campaign is addressed to less educated, less advanced part of the population. All the parties are populist. The middle class is not addressed and is excluded.

The current economic debate is poor. There are two poles: Alexei Kudrin, who is a fiscal conservative, pro-business and in favour of policies to improve investment climate, and Sergei Glaz’ev, who is an economic nationalist in support of expansionary policies. However, they both lack influence.

Two influential figures are President’s Economic Assistant Andrey Belousov – he is in favour of macroeconomic stability, and Elvira Nabiullina, whose policy is to promote inflation targeting policy, which corresponds to the interests of Putin, to save currency reserves. Yet, Belousov criticizes Nabiullina arguing for a need to mitigate oil price oscillations, have less floating currency and create special institutions to substitute weak market institutions. This debate is not included in the campaign. The main discussions take place behind the curtains. However, these hidden problems will be dominating the agenda during the next years.

Veera Laine focused on nationalist argumentations in the Russian elections asking why this election does not bring any surprises, and why there will be no mass protests. Nationalism is one form of political contention. She noted that the "nationalist argument” (John Breuilly) is widely used in Russian politics: a) that there exists a nation with an explicit character b) that the interests of this nation take priority over other nations and c) the nation must be as independent as possible.

Until late 2013, ethnic nationalism kept challenging the state, but since 2014 the state tries to monopolize the nationalist argument. Ms Laine continued by reminding about the events in Moscow in 2010, ethnically motivated riots on Manezh square, and mass demonstrations on the Bolotnaya square against electoral fraud in 2011, referring to Rogov’s socio-economic explanations. After the 2012 protests eroded, new legislative changes emerged as well as less tolerant policies towards contention.

But the nationalist argument in its ethnic form survived – as events in Biryulevo in October 2013 showed. These events were similar to Manezh square. There was a peak of xenophobic attitudes and an anti-migration campaign on TV. On this wave, liberal opposition politician Navalny, who also was known for his ethnic nationalist sympathies, reached a surprisingly good result in Moscow mayor’s elections.

After Crimea, there is a turning point and ethnic nationalism diminishes. Ms Laine argues that political nationalist contention is no longer possible for a few reasons. First, the field of nationalist movements is divided from within. Second, the attention of the public is elsewhere and xenophobia towards migrants diminishing. Third, migrants from Central Asia are also leaving because of stricter work permit legislation and a weaker rouble. Finally, there is stronger state repression towards the known nationalist movements.

The state also tries to monopolize the nationalist argument. First, the state interpretation is ethnically inclusive (but maintains hierarchy). It is based on the idea of shared values, shared history, and conservative world-view. It also creates new ”others”: instead of an internal threat, the threat is now external. Finally, new loyal movements have emerged (Antimaidan, NOD, Night Wolves?), but they were not formed as parties.

As a result, nationalist arguments in the 2016 campaign were loyal to the Kremlin’s line. Challengers to United Russia are few and compliant. ”Systemic opposition” party LDPR has for long used ethnic nationalist rhetoric, but has always supported UR. The second challenger within the system, KPRF, is relying on social policy claims. Both have around 10 % support. As examples of non-systemic parties using nationalist argument, the reinstated (2012) Rodina party and Patriots of Russia (2005), were mentioned. Both have less than 1 % support.

Ms Laine endorsed Rogov’s statement that challenging or difficult topics are not discussed in the electoral campaign. But they need to be followed and analysed nevertheless, as their importance will not diminish after elections.

During the Q&A session, Mr Rogov stated that UR has no message to the people. Its core idea is that opposition is weak and not serious. It prevents any real debate. UR was described as an empty place. As for the elections in Crimea and non-recognition of them by Western countries, he stated that it was a logical appeal of the Ukrainian government. Arkady Moshes added that in practice, it is difficult not to recognize the elections in the all-national multi-mandate district, but it is possible to add single-mandate MPs from Crimea into a sanction list. As a political statement it will matter, although in practice this will not have much of an effect.

Kirill Rogov also noted that the society can protest when the opposition can provide some coordination to the protest, but the opposition is weak and uncoordinated. He showed that the future of Yabloko looks good. They have the most carefully prepared campaign with an eye on 2018. Yavlinsky is a perfect candidate for the Kremlin as a running opponent for Putin in 2018.

The economic downturn affected the elites, and there is a huge tension within the elites. In this regard, Rogov noted that the annexation of Crimea was a coup d’état within the elites, and non-West elites became more important. So far, the repression against elites is much wider that against the opposition.