In the two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Smart Voting campaign of Aleksei Navalny has had past successes and the protest vote is traditionally strong, though this also means that in several single-member districts (SMDs) there are too many plausible opposition candidates, such as Number 198, where United Russia does not even run (it essentially offered the district to a politician from Fair Russia, a Kremlin-created “opposition” party).
Or take Moscow-Lefortovo, where the former communist Maxim Shevchenko is running; in recent months, he has become a “Navalnist within the system.” — a candidate with no links to Navalny himself who has gone on to criticize political imprisonment and corruption on national television. In several Moscow districts, such as Khorvino and Chertanovo, prominent opposition candidates were removed from the ballot. In others, “spoiler” candidates are running.
Valery Rashkin, the Communist Party’s Moscow leader who offered mild support to Navalny in 2020 is running in SMD Number 196 but in his old district, Number 199 there is a candidate with an identical name (save for the patronymic). The most infamous “doubles” are the two “Boris Vishnevskys” in St. Petersburg’s Number 217 who is running against a local liberal politician of the same name and even made themselves look like him, generating a wave of social media jokes and memes. But there are more than a dozen such districts — most of them competitive — throughout the country.
Results in regions affected by some of the most important changes to electoral legislation also matter a lot, mostly because the Duma vote almost certainly represents a test run of techniques for the 2024 presidential election. Online voting, which many (rightly) fear further reduces electoral transparency and can be used to make fraud easier, will be held in seven regions, including Moscow and the Rostov Region – where hundreds of thousands of “passportized” residents of the Russian-occupied Donbas will also vote.
It will be worth looking at some so-called “protest regions” where recent years have seen significant protest action or votes. Khakassia, for example, elected an opposition governor in 2018 and was one of the regions where United Russia officials were accused of preparing fraud. In the Far Eastern Republic of Buryatia, wherein 2019 people protested against electoral fraud and the imprisonment of a shaman who wanted to “exorcise Putin,” the campaign appears to be especially competitive between a colorless pro-government candidate, a flamboyant stylist, and a young local communist. Or take Khabarovsk, the scene of massive protests over the detention of governor Sergey Furgal last year. In 2018, the surprise election of Furgal, a systemic opposition politician, inspired Smart Voting; this time his son was going to run in SMD Number 70. He was disqualified, but this likely harmed the position of the governing party.
Over the past years, several mid-sized cities have become opposition or protest hot spots, partly due to the extension of Navalny’s regional network. Several of these cities also experienced the worst of Russia’s spectacularly mismanaged covid-19 response and rising inflation. Cities are typically sliced up to dilute the urban protest vote with votes from rural settlements where people tend to be more conservative and fraud is easier to commit, but protest votes in some of these mid-sized cities could still make a difference. Prominent among them is Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals, which saw the largest protest turnout apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg in January. Here United Russia party emblems are conspicuously muted on campaign material. In another such city, Nizhny Novgorod, locals have recently seen an influx of money and high-profile visitors (including Putin himself.) Cities with significant opposition activity in recent years (Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk) and flagging industrial centers (Chelyabinsk, Samara.)
It will be worth watching the regions where prominent United Russia politicians run and which are therefore much better resourced, and also in the crosshairs of opposition investigators too. Navalny’s team, for example, published investigations into the fortunes of Yevgeny Popov, a television presenter running in Moscow-Kuntsevo, and Alexey Gordeyev, a vice-speaker of the Duma, running in Voronezh. An interesting duel is unfolding in the Saratov Region, where Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Duma is running in SMD Number 163 while Nikolay Bondarenko, a social-media-savvy communist firebrand is running in Number 165, but it is clear to everyone that they are actually running against one another to see who can win the biggest vote share. Bondarenko’s campaign was fairly tame in recent weeks — perhaps in a bid to avoid disqualification — but if he stays in the race, numbers will be compared.
Lastly, it will be interesting to watch SMDs where local conservationists and other activists are running. These candidates are typically supported by Yabloko, a semi-systemic liberal party. In the Arkhangelsk Region, for instance, two leaders of the “Stop Shiyes” campaign, arguably Russia’s most successful environmentalist movement of recent years, are running, one of them against a United Russia deputy who supported the construction of the garbage dump that triggered the protests. Other such candidates include an ex-policeman who supported Navalny (in the Ivanovo Region), or Vladimir Zhilkon, a rights defender (in the Tambov Region). While these are not all competitive districts and these activists are not necessarily the strongest candidates, these outcomes will provide important information about the electoral impact of such movements.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that every region, every district has its own specifics: rigging is widespread, but not completely centralized; independent observers, who can make a significant difference, have varying degrees of access to polling stations; issues and personalities differ from region to region. And as long as the biggest swindle in the electoral system is also its weakest point — the single-member districts — the Kremlin has not only one big crisis of legitimacy to deal with, but also, potentially many smaller ones.