For years, Russia’s governance structure allowed for a modicum of self-correction through a loyal but ineffectual opposition — parties that could win votes without ever challenging the hegemony of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. However, following increased suppression of dissent in the aftermath of what’s termed the “special military operation” against Ukraine, even this limited avenue for public participation is now virtually shuttered.
The Kremlin now finds even the appearance of opposition too risky to maintain, particularly in a Russia that is at war. September’s regional elections foreshadowed the end of the lip service once paid to democracy.
Popularized by Russian political theorists in 2005, “sovereign democracy” emerged soon after Putin had effectively brought to heel the media, economy, and regional governance. So-called sovereign democracy held that the prerogatives of the nation, embodied in the state, reigned supreme, with democratic input merely a means to that end.
This credo took tangible form in 2007 when United Russia clinched 68% of the vote in legislative elections, almost double its total from four years before. A fusion of legal mechanisms, occasional investigations, and docile opposition leaders stymied any significant challenge to United Russia’s rule, while still allowing for some of the self-adaptation that sets democracies apart from totalitarian regimes.
Parties such as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), and the socialist A Just Russia–Truth (SR) provided voters with a nominal say in which direction the country would take under United Russia’s rule.
After the introduction of unpopular pension reforms in 2018, support for the systemic opposition surged. The main opposition parties garnered almost as many votes as United Russia, reflecting a broad-based dissatisfaction that persisted into the 2021 legislative election. (This disappointing vote for the Kremlin was heavily rigged — it supposedly won 49% of the vote when pre-election polls placed it around 26%.)
That year, KPRF lambasted the ruling party for failing to adequately defend the Russian speakers of Ukraine’s Donbas. The party increased its seat share in the legislature by a third. The next month, Russian troops deployed to Belarus for war games and never left, forming the bulk of the force that would invade Ukraine from the north in 2022.
The Kremlin intended this year’s election to signify overwhelming support for that decision. However, regional candidates decided that making no mention of the war was the better tactic and sidestepped mention of the invasion. This seemed effective: United Russia secured 78% of the votes, a 15-point uptick from the last electoral round, although once again there were claims of ballot rigging and implausible turnout figures. Strikingly, the party’s victory announcement omitted any mention of the ongoing invasion.
The Kremlin, like its regional servants, is chiefly concerned with retaining power. Although their preference may be a population mobilized in support of the war, a nation indifferent to the world is just as pliable. The leadership has helped to maintain public indifference by insulating the majority from the war’s impacts, relying instead on an amalgam of recruits — from prisoners to Central Asian migrants — and euphemistic language like “special military operation.” Mikhail Vinogrodov, president of an independent think tank, told Russian business daily RBC that while the election failed to offer a resounding endorsement of the war, it confirmed the system’s readiness for 2024 — a tacit nod to Putin’s re-election plans.
Systemic opposition parties are not oblivious to their symbolic role. To take a case in point — after initially decrying the 2018 pension reforms as genocidal, the communists ultimately unanimously voted in favor. LDPR leader Leonid Slutsky — seeing his party’s regional seats disappear under the steamroller of United Russia — could only boast that the KPRF had performed even worse.
The recent regional elections serve as yet indication that the opposition has no capacity to oppose. They are mere window dressing for an increasingly absolutist state.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which tracks authoritarian influence online.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.