On Sunday, Russia will hold regional elections. Voters will cast ballots in some 9,000 races in 83 regions, with everything from elections to fill national legislature vacancies to elections for regional governors and municipal councils.
According to the respected Russian election monitoring group Golos, these elections are likely to be a sham. Even the Communists, a tame, officially recognized opposition party, have not been allowed to register candidates in seven of the 18 governor’s races. Real independent candidates have found it harder than ever to get on the ballot.
Since the beginning, the Putin system has been built on twin pillars. On one side, Putin has relied on a formidable apparatus of authoritarian control and repressive security organizations. On the other, he has claimed true popular legitimacy, buoyed by high levels of mass support and an ability to dominate elections.
But surveys we conducted this summer reveal that the second pillar is cracking, thanks to a faltering economy, a stubborn pandemic and unease over Putin’s unchecked power.
Discontent with current living conditions and demands for accountability are now stronger than at any time since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin and his party run the risk of no longer coming out on top.
Power for the sake of power?
By asking questions about past and current support for the president, and re-interviewing respondents who had taken part in an earlier 2019 survey, we were able to identify significant fissures that may have already cost Putin up to 20 percent of his support.
Chief among Putin’s problems is public unease over his most recent power grab. While Putin is still popular enough to win an election, significant fraud tarnished a referendum this summer that freed him from term limits. Roughly a fifth of Putin’s 2018 voters reject the idea that a leader needn’t bother with democratic institutions. As we saw in 2011 and 2012, when tens of thousands of Russians protested electoral fraud, elections and the appearance of political democracy do indeed still matter to many.
The consequences of the coronavirus
Putin has lost the support of about half of those who are dissatisfied with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and about a third of those who blame him personally for its severity.
For many Russians, the coronavirus pandemic is not an abstract issue. Russia ranks fourth in the world among countries most affected, with over a million confirmed cases. In our survey, Russians who had personal experience with the virus were more than twice as likely to abandon Putin as those who didn’t.
Support is faltering particularly in parts of the country where coronavirus caseloads have been high and Russia’s chronically underfunded public health system has struggled to cope. That includes St. Petersburg, which had the country’s highest coronavirus mortality rate this spring, and the Urals, where Yekaterinburg emerged as a hotspot. Though neither will hold a regional election this year, next year’s national parliamentary elections will be the real test.
An ailing economy
On top of all this, the Russian economy has been sluggish in recent years. The pandemic hasn’t helped. Growth has exceeded 2 percent annually in only one of the past eight years. A slide in the value of Russia’s currency since mid-March is hurting Russian consumers. The last time the economy was contracting and the ruble was so weak, the Kremlin was still popular from its Crimea annexation.
Since the pandemic began, Russia’s official unemployment level has risen by more than 30 percent. At the same time, collapsing world oil prices have limited the Kremlin’s economic response. As a result, real disposable incomes, a key metric for the living standards of ordinary people, contracted in the first quarter of 2020 and are set to decline further.
We found that Russians who had lost their jobs or a significant part of their income as a result of the pandemic, or who knew someone who had lost their job because of the crisis, were much more likely to abandon Putin. Putin also lost support among those who work in sectors such as construction and retail that have been hardest hit. Support has remained strong among workers in heavy industry, which the Kremlin has sought to shield.
Risks of a repressive election
The Kremlin may prevent these elections from being seriously contested, though opposition activists in a creative Vote Smart movement have picked 1,171 candidates for whom the discontented can vote.
But repression and fraud are unlikely to be a long-term solution for Putin. One of the strengths of Putin’s regime has always been its ability to balance repression with popular legitimacy. A regime that is able to tolerate the activity of opposition leader Alexei Navalny is stronger than one that tries to murder him.
Bryn Rosenfeld (@brynrosenfeld) is an assistant professor of government at Cornell University.
Samuel Greene (@samagreene) is reader in Russian politics and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
Jeremy Morris (@russophiliac) is an associate professor in the School of Culture and Society at Aarhus University.
Grigore Pop-Eleches (@grigopop) is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
Graeme Robertson (@gbrunc) is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.