‘Tatarstan is one of the regions where right-wing opposition can have quite a good result’

Political expert Ilya Grashchenkov on how the pandemic influenced the electoral landscape in Russia

The key political event of the year will take place in Russia on 19 September — 8th State Duma elections. Following a recent coronavirus tradition, the voting will last for a few days — on 17, 18 and 19 September. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya on the threshold of the elections, Russian political expert, head of the Centre for Regional Politics Development Ilya Grashchenkov explained how the COVID-19 pandemic changed the political landscape and candidates’ rhetoric, why forced vaccination can become a “black swan” for the ruling party, made a forecast for new forces in the federal parliament and the specifics of the electoral layout in Tatarstan.

“People started to fight shy of communication imposed on them more confidently”

Do you think the pandemic seriously changed the political landscape, candidates’ rhetoric, promises?

Coronavirus, in fact, changed in general nothing for Russian elections. The people would traditionally go to work in a potato patch during the whole electoral campaign and did it this time. And they will return only in early September, especially the voting electorate, the elderly who traditionally actively go to elections. And the campaign will start to the full only after that. And now it is calm enough in the street, there aren’t substantial cash injections in the electoral campaign, massive banners, mail and so on.

The only thing that changed in political strategies with the coming of COVID-19 is that the number of “door-to-door” work notably decreased. If earlier an advocate would knock on your door and ask for five minutes of attention to tell you about his candidate, now their number reduced. If they anyway come, they are kicked out with a stick on the pretext of spreading coronavirus. In reality, everybody is already simply tired of numerous rogues. People started to fight shy of communication imposed on them more confidently.

Didn’t coronavirus influence the candidates’ rhetoric? Take the same proposals of the LDPR to introduce food certificates for the needy...

This issue comes from a different dimension. There is coronavirus as a story that changed the behavioural peculiarities of people. There is coronavirus as a medical problem. And there is a political aspect with forced vaccination, various restrictions of rights and freedoms against this background. The authorities decide that since we have a pandemic, we can change the rules of the game extraordinarily. And here a coronavirus agenda comes about. I don’t mean the real pandemic but its political consequences.

And in this dimension, there is indeed an influence of the pandemic. Our authorities’ party seriously went down in the rating because of forced vaccination, dismissal of people who refused vaccination, the restriction on their ability to work, QR codes were introduced in Moscow. The LDRP decided to join this game for some reason by supporting the idea of tightening the state’s control over vaccines. And as we see the position against forced vaccination is now becoming the main theme of the opposition. Particularly the CPRF, A Fair Russia, New People have opposed this situation and are now scoring points.

But not so much the problem of vaccination as the population’s discontent about the state rushing to limit their rights with so radical methods is at the heart.

“A hotchpotch of famous people chaired United Russia”

How did the pandemic influence the selection of candidates? Take the same candidacy of the Kommunarka hospital’s chief doctor Denis Protsenko from United Russia (the top 5 federal list of United Russia includes Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, Ombudsman for Children’s Rights Anna Kuznetsova and Co-Chairwoman of the All-Russia People’s Front Yelena Shmelyova besides Protsenko)...

Yes, it did but this isn’t necessarily a positive perspective. It turned out that instead of low-rated Dmitry Medvedev who is, by the way, still the leader of the party, a hotchpotch of famous people chaired United Russia. Bits were taken from everywhere: we are proud of our army, here is Shoigu, we are proud of being aggressive on the international stage, here is Lavrov. And we are seemingly fighting coronavirus, here is Protsenko. But I am not sure that now it is a positive agenda because many have already understood that such a fight against coronavirus has a cost. Of course, coronavirus is coronavirus but hospitals stopped treating other diseases well — people are dying from them, and something is always tried to be pushed forcedly, while rules are changing.

Either we have a pandemic or we defeated it in two days. And people feel that it is politics. So the doctor’s image suited United Russia’s top 5 of course, but nobody else has chosen this road.

Does it mean that the coronavirus agenda didn’t change anything in general in the electoral campaign?

Last year’s elections were completely different. A “stump” voting, online voting preceded it, rules of the game totally changed — observers cannot get closer to the table and oversee the process well, tried to introduce online voting everywhere. This year, the tendencies persist but are approximately at the same level. Remote voting is introduced but not everywhere.

And the three-day voting remained again, but they seem to have already adapted to fighting possible falsifications in such a scheme. I mean the coronavirus agenda does influence, without doubt, but at last year’s level. There is no such thing as coronavirus that changed elections a hundred per cent and now we all vote online, and only those who were vaccinated. Neither is there such thing as parties are dealing with the coronavirus agenda only — some are demanding helicopter money, while others are asking to support small businesses. No, this isn’t happening.

Basic things are anyway at the forefront. The position on the same cancellation of the pension age is now playing a bigger role than coronavirus stories.

“They fear that a ballot box will be taken in three days and another one will be brought

Does the three-day voting facilitate a worse control over the election and voting results?

The main thing they fear is that a ballot box will be taken in three days and another one filled as it should be will be brought. It seems this danger can be eliminated. There are cameras anyway, though not for a public view. Those who want can try to control the process. To frankly change ballot boxes, one should scheme — to switch off cameras, lights, it isn’t that easy. And the authorities are afraid that if such an initiative is launched at polling stations, the legitimacy of the whole system can collapse. Of course, one wants to avoid falsifications. Also, the opposition developed tactics: the voters come on the last day to impede the votes from being thrown away.

There is a long danger of recognition of election results: when a commission writes some numbers, they may not coincide with those coming from polling stations. To put it bluntly, they put down 10,000 votes instead of 5,000 and say: “Oh, you have a piece of paper signed by God knows who, while we have a paper notarised by the Central Election Commission’s electronic signature.” This is why control is tightened for three days, more costs and resources are needed, while the opposition doesn’t have such resources.

We see that surveillance cameras closed, there is a crackdown so it won’t be so simple to control as before. On the other hand, so what? There was control, stuffing was registered in the past, anyway, they couldn’t influence the results. So the oversight of elections remains stably tough. It didn’t worsen, neither did it better.

“The turnout will not be record-low”

Some experts predict a record-low turnout in these elections. How can you explain it?

I don’t think the turnout will be very low. The turnout in the Duma elections is 50-60% on average. In 2011, it was nearly 60%, in 2016, it reached almost 50%. This 10% of difference depends on the presence or absence of real opposition. There was a rise in 2011, it even seemed that it would possible to topple United Russia. Then Navalny mobilised his supporters and said one needed to vote for any party besides United Russia. And then the parties would increase their footprint thanks to this 10%. In 2016, in contrast, there was the Crimean Consensus, and the opposition didn’t get into.

There is a mixed feeling now: on the one hand, people don’t see whom they can vote for. On the other hand, there is growing irritation because of a worsening socio-economic situation (prices are growing, salaries are falling, there is unemployment, people are forced to be vaccinated). To somehow give the authorities a lesson, a person can decide to go to elections and vote obviously against the power, but it is unknown whom exactly he will vote for.

Will it be a protest voting for a recognised party from the opposition like the CRPF or LDPR? Or will it be smart voting like in 2011 with voting for opposition candidates who are ticked? Or will it be voting for something new, for instance, the New People party, Greens or Pensioners’ Party? Perhaps, we will have a new or even two parties in the State Duma.

But in any case, it seems to me that the turnout will unlikely be below 50%. A real electoral campaign will start on 1 September. This year, the elections are late and scheduled for 19 September. They used to be approximately on 10 September. 19 is good groundwork, another week and a half for the campaign. So this period can markedly change the situation and increase the number of people willing to go to the elections.

“Pensioners’ Party and New People have chances of joining the State Duma’”

You have said that one or two new parties can join the State Duma in the future. Which parties do you think?

It seems to me that the Pensioners’ Party has good chances of joining the State Duma. They are now seriously competing with A Fair Russia — For Truth, which is losing its position due to Zakhar Prilepin and his team’s stronger rhetoric. The moderate socialist electorate — teachers, doctors, urban intelligentsia that used to choose A Fair Russia as a second choice party — is leaving A Fair Russia. For them, the communists were too radical and in favour of Stalin, while the authorities’ party is not sufficiently socially oriented. Today they are going somewhere, mainly Pensioners’ Party that is offering a good programme becomes their shelter. Somebody is going to the New People party because the project is associated with a systemic pro-power story but with a stance on upgrade. Yabloko gets some part. But if the Pensioners and New People have a chance of getting in thanks to their quite systemic position, Yabloko can hope for getting into the State Duma to a lesser degree. There are niche projects like the Greens. But to be honest, I think that it is a party of the future. 2026 will likely make this green agenda a reality than 2021. These tendencies haven’t reached Russia yet.

According to the latest polls, it feels like the CRPF has notably gone up in ratings...

It is a natural process. The CPRF is the main opposition party. It accumulates not so many communists as the annoyed electorate that doesn’t know who to vote for. It is considered that it is a first-choice party against the power. Moreover, the CPRF is now persecuted like Yabloko. Its candidates are also withdrawn, they aren’t allowed to go through the municipal filter. All this works for the CPRF — they are martyrs, key oppositionists.

Does Grudinin’s withdrawal have a big impact?

He is precisely one of the persecuted. But to be honest, I would not say that Grudinin has a serious separate electorate. In a competition between Zyuganov and other possible leaders, Grudinin is more promoted as a member of the presidential race and he is a more understandable communist. He isn’t one of those who say “Let’s revive the USSR” but present a clear picture of social business. His withdrawal is a blow to people’s wish to cast their vote, and when he was withdrawn, this caused irritation.

“Forced vaccination is the ‘black swan’”

Is there such thing as strong fluctuation? For instance, if a situation in a region worsened, and United Russia gets less support, if the situation improved, the party gets more support. How big will be the accidental component in counting results?

I will explain what a voter is like. Now there is harsh polarisation. There is an electorate depending on the authorities when a person understands he has to deliver a report at work, he tries not to feel he is a serf but find something good, for instance, 10,000 will be paid in front of the school. This is mainly the core electorate but it doesn’t grow anymore. The second party is in opposition, but it is torn apart by plenty of problems. Some don’t want to go to elections. Some want but want to vote for those who aren’t on the list. Some want to vote for too different candidates, and their votes are between Yabloko and others. There is no unity, vote migration is just several per cents. For instance, the ruling party’s rating fell from 42 to 39%, these per cents can go to “I won’t go to the elections” or for instance move to the New People. It is such a fluctuation within statistical dispersion.

In other words, such improvements or worsening of the situation have an impact, but it is very limited. Key themes that can dramatically change the situation have a greater impact. For instance, forced vaccination is the “black swan.” It became possible to stop it on the threshold. But it isn’t known for sure. If they decide to do something else, the authorities’ ratings can go down. But the authorities can make something up, and the ratings will go up. But in general these fluctuations are insignificant, some 2-4%.

Do you agree that the current electoral campaign turns out to be weak?

It is now because it has little money. Earlier, more people invested in politics because politics was a way of expanding a business, increasing influence, developing a career, the competition was higher. Now there is less money in the country, businesses are closing, nobody wants to expand anything, and if somebody wants to, they aren’t permitted because it is considered it can be a political story, not a business. And we see a very restricted circle of members who are allowed to join the process. Those who are let in hope for other mechanisms of victory — some agreements with authorities — and the fact that the same administrative resource will be used not only to vote for United Russia but also other parties.

In general everybody saves money on the last days of the campaign — to hang banners, start the campaign in a month. The layout is already obvious. Now there is a lower risk, fewer non-systemic candidates who used to set the tone — they used to appear, start to muddy the waters, make others nervous, invest money in the campaign, turn loud commercials on. Also, the non-systemic opposition is excluded from this story.

So the campaign isn’t weak but it is procrastination. Those who are confident about the victory sit and keep silent, while those who hope for something fear to utter a word, nobody wants to repeat Navalny’s fate. This is why some themes are tabooed, the screws are tightened, it is calm in general.

Right projects can get more support in Kazan than in Russia in general”

Can we expect principal differences in election results from general tendencies across the country in Tatarstan?

It is considered that Tatarstan has quite a good economic situation. And Tatarstan demonstrated successful existence staying decently clear of Moscow. This is where Khabarovsk failed saying it doesn’t want Moscow’s management. Tatarstan illustrates this remoteness but absolutely systematically.

I am sure that the locals consider the local authorities as theirs, not as it often happens in other regions where local authorities are considered as some Moscow administration. The rating of United Russia in Tatarstan is anyway is the rating of United Russia in Tatarstan, not the authorities’ rating in the country.

At the same time, Tatarstan is one of the regions where right-wing opposition can have quite a good result. Moreover, it won’t be Yabloko but Growth Party or New People. It seems to me that Tatarstan has quite a lot of people who are ready to back up ideas of supporting businesses, reorientation of the tax system to a more tolerant one for a businessperson, stopping the crackdown on the freedom of speech, declaration of will. Kazan is as a big city as Moscow.

So it seems to me that right projects can get more support in Kazan than in Russia in general. Perhaps, the Greens will show something in Tatarstan. The Kushtau isn’t Tatarstan’s problem, but it is anyway a neighbouring region Bashkiria. I don’t rule out that the Greens in Tatarstan will have a more notable percentage than in Russia on average. Any developed territories start to care about the environment more than less developed ones.

Kristina Ivanova. Photo: Realnoe Vremya from 2020 elections