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Lessons learned from the Russian presidential election

Dorka Takacsy

a photo of the Kremlin in Moscow
Photo source: Pexels

The recent Russian presidential elections clearly show us why it is important to protect our democracies. Talking about defending our democratic values and freedoms might often sound abstract and far from the struggles of everyday life. Moments such as this scam election are sobering, making it more evident what is at stake when we're talking about the need to stop and reverse authoritarian backsliding, a recent worldwide tendency.

Russia is a consolidated autocracy with dynamically growing political repression. Still, there are some lessons we might learn from this election, which resulted in a record-high participation rate (of 73.2%) and a new record for Vladimir Putin (87.3%). There were no independent election observers from the OSCE or the European Parliament, as the Russian side did not invite them. There were elections held in Ukrainian territories too that Russia illegally annexed or occupied. From the reports of domestic observers, we know that the amount of falsified votes was higher than ever before. Online voting was made possible for the first time in the history of presidential elections (for 29 regions), as well as the three-day-long voting period. None of these novelties helped to better the transparency and integrity of the electoral process, especially with no independent observers present.

Many voters were coerced into voting. Apart from the pictures where armed soldiers stand next to terrified citizens casting their ballots, other groups of society were coerced to take part in the elections too. Public administration workers, employees of state-run and state-close companies, and party members of the United Russia party received various quotas to fulfill. Quotas, for how many people they will bring to the ballot boxes with them, submitting their names and other data before the elections. Based on these pre-submitted data, the authorities could check afterward whether they fulfilled their duty and took the promised people to vote. Regional governors and local politicians were also given target numbers regarding participation rate and results. They were not only motivated by the sticks of a repressive state but also by carrots. Local and regional politicians might be rewarded for overachieving the targets, with the promise of promotion or advancement at the federal level. These practices contributed to the striking 100 percent participation rate in over 400 far-eastern polling stations.

There was no opposition and no real campaign. Four candidates took part in the elections. One was the incumbent president, Vladimir Putin, who ironically ran as an independent candidate, most likely because his reputation was almost twice as positive as that of his party, United Russia. United Russia still generously collected the necessary signatures for him to run. The other three members represent systemic opposition parties created and operated by the Kremlin. They were not allowed to criticize Putin, the invasion of Ukraine, or any cornerstones of Putin's politics. Hence, they didn't. Pre-election debates were attended solely by these three candidates, and they exclusively criticized each other. Real opposition candidates were not allowed to run. Those who could pose a political threat or challenge to the Kremlin were excluded from the race or are currently jailed, abroad, or already in the cemetery.

Let's not forget that political repression in Russia exceeds even that of Brezhnev's times. There are over 3700 people who are currently prosecuted for political reasons, along with 116.000 in the last six years. Over 19.800 people have been detained at anti-war protests since 24 February. There is widespread censorship, and countless sites were banned along with seven social media platforms in Russia.

What can be learned from this scam election?

- Community building is the core of politics. Russian domestic opposition is shattered and banned, and its most prominent leaders are abroad. Any future movement must be built from zero. In an environment where one can get detained even for protesting alone in front of a government building holding an empty paper, opposition-minded people have drastically limited opportunities to show their protest and reach out to like-minded fellow citizens. The regime plays into this, aiming to isolate these people so that they feel alone in the strictly controlled information space flooded with Kremlin propaganda.

The Navalny team announced the move for like-minded people on election day to go to the polling stations at noon sharp, according to their local times, and place an invalid vote. While the authorities threatened the participants of this move and those propagating it to be prosecuted for calling for terroristic acts, thousands of people participated in this action. These people could meet each other, which reinforced the notion that they are not alone. Together, they are stronger. There will be countless walls to break to build up an opposition in Russia, but the basis of any political action is created by a community. We should not forget this either and overly focus on technical solutions for problems that occur. Community building is key to success!

- The role of influencers. Organized opposition does not exist in Russia. Navalny's anti-corruption organization was never allowed to turn into a party, and it was labeled an extremist organization equal to a terroristic group. It was banned, and some members were jailed while others ran from the country. There is no freedom of expression in the country, so the role of prominent oppositionists living almost exclusively abroad rose. These people, who may not even have the exclusive profile of a politician but are political scientists or political commentators, have a massive reach on social media platforms. Their influence is palpable. Their recommendations on how to vote in these scam elections had measurable results on the behavior of opposition-minded Russians.

- Be conscious of your rights. Authoritarian regimes strive to keep their citizens in constant uncertainty regarding how they may act and maintain an invisible red line, which, when crossed, results in severe consequences. This is called 'planned uncertainty'. It entails having a plethora of draconian laws but selective implementation. For instance, one might be jailed for social media posts criticizing the war (or even calling it a war). Not everyone who posts ends up in prison, however. It is exactly the possibility of being severely punished that the Kremlin uses to deter the public from undesired political activism and encourage self-censorship, even when there is no repressing law in sight.

To a lesser extent, striving for planned uncertainty is also observed in numerous European countries. Take Hungary, for example, where NGOs and media outlets are often directly targeted by governmental initiatives such as the sovereignty protection law and others. The aim is to deter people from openly opposing the system. It is essential to know your rights precisely and be conscious about what we do that may breach the law or not.

- Do not underestimate the role of fear! With significant differences among countries, Putin still won among the diaspora voters residing in several European countries. Voters living abroad were just a fraction of the number of voters domestically. Even by taking into consideration possible electoral fraud abroad, an alarmingly high percentage of voters abroad (predominantly in Europe) voted for Putin. We know that a significant part of the diaspora arrived in the last two years to escape the growing political repression or mobilization. Hence, one might assume they would not necessarily vote for Putin. Many of them still did. One of the reasons is that they fear the consequences of not voting or voting invalid, not necessarily for themselves but for their loved ones who stayed at home. Whether or not their threat perception was real is of secondary importance because these fears impacted their electoral behavior. When we campaign, we should respond and give convincing answers to the concerns of our audiences; telling them rationally that they have nothing to fear is not enough. Fears are not rational, and we should be aware of this.

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