Author: Alexander Kynev
The nomination of candidates for the 2021 State Duma election has ended. The parties have filed their lists with the Central Electoral Commission. Like in 2016, there will most likely be 14 parties on the ballot. In total, 15 lists have been nominated; however, one of the parties (The Russian All-People Union) has no registration privilege1, which means it needs to collect signatures in order to register for the election, something it is not likely to accomplish.
Parties that will overcome the 5-percent barrier are to get mandates. According to sociologists, these will probably be the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia (which has incorporated two minor parties, Za Pravdu/For Truth and Patriots of Russia). Theoretically, Novye Lyudi (New People) can become the fifth, based on the outcome of regional elections in September 2020. The number of parliamentary parties in Russia remains the same since 2003 (Just Russia is a legal successor of Rodina/Homeland bloc in the 2003 election).
As Russia is the biggest country in the world by area, its regions are very different from each other politically. Ability to utilise the interests of some geographic areas has largely predetermined the success of parties in federal elections. Famous is the 'red belt' myth of the 1990s, covering primarily agricultural regions of Central Russia's south and southern Siberia, which used to stand out as the stronghold of CPRF. It is also well known that United Russia is the most successful in electorally manageable2 minority regions of Northern Caucasus and Volga Region frequently referred to as 'electoral sultanates.'
How are these four mainstream parties organised? What is their support base in regions?
Characterised by highly authoritarian regional political regimes, a number of minority regions of the Northern Caucasus and Volga Region constitute the traditional stronghold of the party; in these regions, authorities consistently report super-high turnouts (usually 80 to 90%) and an equally large share of support to the ruling party. Independent electoral experts and the opposition claim that actual turnout in these regions is not that different from other regions, and fraud is massive. 3 Named by experts 'electoral abnormalities' or 'electoral sultanates,' these regions are accompanied by some other areas with large-scale electoral deviations (Kuzbass, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, and others). 4 Their role in 'ensuring' results of the ruling party in Russia has always been important and became even more so in the 2000s because of the shrinking regional turnouts and increased competition.
The State Duma elections have been moved from December to September since 2016, following suit of regionals. It created more problems in mobilising independent voters. As a result, the turnout at the State Duma election on September 18, 2016, was the most diverse across Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 5
Given their formal record of extremely high turnouts and equally high shares of support for the leading party, 24 regions can be labelled as 'abnormal.' More than 30 million, or 27.46%, voters live in these areas. However, with their super-high turnouts, they accounted for 38.04% of all ballots cast and 49.3% of all votes for United Russia.
Electoral strategy-2021: Governors in the lead of the party's regional branches
In these and other regions alike, the party's performance traditionally rests on its links to the administrative apparatus and bureaucracy of all levels. In a run-up to the 2021 elections, the party leadership has made an effort to strengthen its administrative grip by directly appointing some governors as the heads of the party's regional branches, a previously unusual practice. 48 out of 85 governors of Russian regions are on the list of United Russia for the State Duma elections.
Being traditional for the ruling party, the very strategy of relying on regional establishments is nothing new. What is new is its choice to switch the role of governors from public endorsement (almost unchangeable since 2003) to direct management of party branches, unavoidably reducing the party's autonomy in selecting candidates and putting together campaigns. Thus, internal party functionaries' role is further diminished compared to the growing role of election 'overseers' inside administrations (working in internal policy departments or similar units).
This is meant to accomplish the following tasks:
- Utilising the personal popularity of governors, if any, for the benefit of the party. As a rule, new governors have some reserve of positive expectations from the public (i.e., 'new life under the new governor');
- Stepping up the administrative mobilisation around the executive hierarchy and its units by strengthening the factor of subordinates' support of the top figure;
- Traditional reliance on indirect campaigning, whereas a candidate is mainly promoted via coverage of their professional activities, is formally not seen as campaigning. Therefore, it is not subject to the duty of payments from electoral funds, time restrictions, and other limitations.
Will the strategy of electing (actually appointing via decisions of the Presidium of the party's General Council) governors as heads of regional party branches prove effective? It seems questionable.
First, the governors de facto were the leading public faces of all major electoral campaigns of United Russia since 2003 anyway. Their formal leadership of party branches adds nothing to this situation. It only enhances their personal accountability.
Second, by developing their platforms around the theme of a new start, new governors, in essence, work against United Russia and promote change. If change is good and necessary, it only makes sense for a voter to vote for someone new at the next election, which is usually the opposition (even if systemic6).
Third, if the reinforced role of governors in the United Russia party structure aims at the better mobilisation of the executive bureaucracy towards securing needed results at any costs, fraud and other manipulations amidst the obviously growing protest activity might produce nothing else but another political crisis and open escalation of people's dissatisfaction.
1998 – 2002: The tradition of regional bosses' participation in party elections and the establishment of United Russia
The tradition of regional rulers' active contribution to party elections dates back to Otechestvo/Fatherland, an organisation founded by the mayor of Moscow Luzhkov in 1998. Mayor of Moscow Luzhkov, ex-premier Primakov, and governor of Saint Petersburg Yakovlev led the list of Otechestvo – Whole Russia (OWR) at the State Duma elections in December 1999. The list featured regional components represented by governors of Kirov and Moscow oblasts, Sergeyenkov and Tyazhlov, the ruler of Mordovia Merkushkin, and the head of the government of Karelia Katanandov. The heads of the republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Ingushetia, Shaymiyev, Rakhimov, and Aushev, all openly supported the bloc, too.
A counterbalance to the OWR, the Shoygu-led Inter-Regional Movement 'Unity' (Medved), had initially no political heavyweight governors on board; it primarily relied on the support of federal executive power. The bloc was preceded by a joint letter of 39 heads of regions expressing dissatisfaction with the campaign management and calling for a fair election.
As it is known, the Unity Movement became the factual winner of the State Duma election in December 1999, having won 23.32% of votes, 64 seats via lists, and 9 in single-mandate districts and de facto declaring itself as the support alliance for the new head of government Putin. Formally, CPRF retained its leadership by the number of votes (24.29%, 67 seats via lists, and 46 in districts). Otechestvo – Whole Russia bloc finished third with 13.33% (37 seats via lists and 31 in districts). Resembling Unity by its closeness to the federal centre, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) received 8.52%, 24 seats via lists, and 5 in districts.
Interestingly, the OWR got over half of its votes in just five federative units: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Moscow Oblast, and republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The share of votes cast for this alliance was unprecedentedly diverse across regions, ranging between 88% in Ingushetia and 2.2% in Magadan Oblast. Unity held the lead in 48 regions, reaching its maximum in Shoygu's native Republic of Tyva (70.8%) and getting just 1% in Ingushetia, the only place where the bloc did not cross the 5%-threshold.
After this competition between the blocs of regional and federal bureaucracies (Otechestvo – Whole Russia and Inter-Regional Movement 'Unity'), the winning blocs moved on to transform themselves into parties. Shoygu and Luzhkov came up with a joint statement on April 12, 2001, about merging the Yedinstvo/Unity party and the Otechestvo movement. The Founding Congress of the All-Russian Union Yedinstvo and Otechestvo took place on July 12, 2001. The Whole Russia movement joined the Union during the next congress on October 27, 2001, transforming the Union into an all-Russian NGO. The organisation took the shape of a political party, Unity and Fatherland – United Russia (Yedinstvo i Otechestvo – Yedinaya Rossiya) soon, on December 1, 2001. The leaders of fused parties, Shoygu, Luzhkov, and Shaymiyev, were elected the co-chairs of the party's Supreme Council. The Minister of Interior Gryzlov, the former chairperson of the Yedinstvo group in the State Duma, took the lead of the new united 'power party' as the head of its Supreme Council on November 20, 2002.
Regardless of their previous party affiliation, the regional nomenklatura rushed to join the United Russia party.
2003 – 2007: Regional nomenklatura's massive United Russia entry and co-optation of regional elites
At the State Duma election of December 7, 2003, the mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov, and the President of Tatarstan Shaymiyev stood third and fourth in the federal component of the United Russia list, out of only four candidates in this component. Altogether, 27 more heads of the federal units were included on the party list. Notably, some governors on the United Russia list had previously run with the CPRF (Khodyrev and Tuleyev) or actively opposed the federal government (Rossel). It comes as no surprise that so many elected candidates – 37 – refused their mandates (the record-high number by that time), as their role was purely to get the party into the Duma and not take the actual seats.
When direct elections of governors were abolished in late 2004 and early 2005, governors grew more dependent on the 'power party,' United Russia, and more interested in exercising control over the regional party branches.
The reason behind this is definitely the significantly growing interest of governors in controlling the membership of regional legislatures, which took on the role of 'granting the power.'7 In addition, governors increasingly relied on placing themselves first on party lists to partially address the shortage of public legitimacy and respect from the federal centre. It also fit the interest of the latter, as the outcomes of the first regional elections by party lists clearly indicated that United Russia was capable of improving its results compared to those of the 2003 State Duma elections only in the regions where governors were personally in the lead of its lists (Kaluga Oblast, Voronezh Oblast, and Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District), automatically mobilising the entire administrative resource to support it. The amendments in 2005 had to serve as another incentive for governors to run personally. They enabled the parties that won regional elections to propose governor candidacies (a rather virtual possibility, as demonstrated later).
Apart from the merger of the competing parties of regional and federal bureaucracies, the restructuring of the political system was also stimulated by legislation. The Law on Political Parties and the Law on Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right of Citizens of the Russian Federation to Participate in a Referendum were passed in 2001 and 2002. They resulted in drastic reductions in the number of political actors entitled to stand for elections, limiting options of regionals elites in general and governors in particular to choosing federal parties as increasingly essential political partners for participation in elections.
Amidst the growing domination of United Russia, members of some regional elites were keener and keener to join the ruling party list. When there were no longer enough places on United Russia's list, the 'second-tier' parties came into demand. Formally and informally, the federal centre also sought as many local influence groups as possible to be on the United Russia lists to accumulate their electoral resources. Naturally, the party's ideology became even vaguer to add up to its origins as a conglomeration of multi-level nomenklaturas.
Since autumn 2007, only the parties represented in the State Duma (United Russia, CPRF, LDPR, and Just Russia) stood for elections in most regions.
As the party system grew more rigid, regional elites and authorities saw their space for maneuver in choosing political partners narrowing further. While the regional elites would try to go around prohibitions to establish their own political projects, the federal centre would close one possibility after another.
The governors participated in five out of 12 campaigns to elect regional legislatures in autumn 2005. In 5 out of 8 regions electing their legislatures, governors led lists of United Russia in spring 2006; in 9 out of 10 regions in late 2006; and 13 out of 15 regions in spring 2007. Therefore, only in three regions were governors not on party lists at the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007: Pskov Oblast, Saint Petersburg City, and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.
In December 2007, governors were not on the United Russia lists nominated to regional legislatures in two cases out of 9. Governors led the lists in 6 out of 11 cases in March 2008, in all 5 regions in October 2008, in 5 out of 9 in March 2009, in all three cases in October 2009 , in 7 regions out of 8 in March 2010, and in 4 out of 6 in October 2010 (in one more region, the leader of the list took the position of acting governor in the course of the campaign –Yurchenko in Novosibirsk Oblast).
Neverov, the Secretary of the Presidium of the General Council of United Russia, stated on November 25, 2010, that the party would limit the practice of inviting governors to lead party lists.8 As a result, governors were not on lists in 5 regions out of 12; however, this was compensated by city and rayon heads, members of the State Duma, etc., in the territorial sections of party lists. As a rule, governors were not on the list due to their choice to distance themselves from United Russia (i.e., Belykh in Kirov Oblast) or their low ratings.
Finally, governors were on the top of 15 out of 27 lists to regional parliaments in December 2011 (in parallel with the State Duma elections). It goes without saying that governors would not become members of the legislature in all cases in 2005-2011 but would refuse the mandate in favour of candidates down the list.
In addition to spearheading the ruling party lists, governors started joining it en masse. By September 2007, 75 out of 84 serving governors were United Russia members. The last communist governors reappointed – Maksyuta in Volgograd Oblast and Vinogradov in Vladimir Oblast – left their positions in January 2010 and March 2013 correspondingly.
Out of 84 rulers of federal units (in total, there were 85 regions back then; however, Tishanin ruled two simultaneously – Irkutsk Oblast and the Ust-Ordyn Buryat Autonomous District), 65 were on the United Russia list for the 2007 State Duma election. 62 out of them were party members (Aliyev, Geniatulin, and Matviyenko came as exceptions), and 15 were members of its Supreme Council.
Non-partisan governors were five in October 2010. 54 governors out of 83 federal units joined the United Russia list for the December 2011 State Duma election. Excluded from the list were either blatantly unpopular governors or non-members of and/or those in complicated relations with the party. Alongside, several governors were not on the federal list because they led regional lists at the parallel elections of legislatures. The growing number of unpopular governors is explained by the abolition of governor elections in 2005 and the transformation of quantitative change of the gubernatorial corps into qualitative.
Arguably, to make other elite groups interested in United Russia's electoral performance, the federal centre implemented the policy of co-optation by seeking members of prominent local elites that could be added to the ruling party list, such as representatives of business groups, mayors of the region's largest city, etc. By combining formal and informal methods, the federal centre has sought to include members of a maximum number of local influence groups into United Russia lists to accumulate the party's electoral resources. Naturally, only non-articulation of ideology and structural laxity could help put together an alliance of diverse elites with clashing interests under a single brand.
Any attempt towards stringent party discipline and staking on a specific elite group in particular regions would have inevitably alienated other groups, as well as voters behind them. As a result, the personnel policy of United Russia came close to schizophrenic between 2007 and 2011. On the one hand, the ambition endured to put all winners of any election on the party list, no matter the previous party affiliation (CPRF-backed mayors of Volgograd and Oryol, Grebennikov and Kasyanov; all former communist governors except two joined United Russia , etc.). On the other hand, the surplus of conflicting groups in the party made consensus impossible in more and more situations, leading to open confrontation between formal party fellows. In such cases, the attempt was to expel violators of party discipline. Paradoxically, the two strategies conflicted with each other. Excluding someone for breaching the discipline was losing its impact since everyone knew that any winner is more than welcome in United Russia and has no alternative to joining it. Under crisis, as fighting for shrinking resources grew more frantic, resolving conflicts internally, behind the scenes, was more and more of a mission impossible.
The situation by 2007, therefore, was that regional authorities stood de facto consolidated in their lining up mostly behind United Russia at elections. At the same time, the federal executive power mainly remained non-partisan.
Non-partisan Fradkov presided over the government between March 2004 and September 2007. Gryzlov – the formal leader of United Russia – left the government in December 2003 and moved to the position of the State Duma Chair. Replacing the prime minister with another one did not change the situation since Zubkov was not a party member either. Having left the position of the President and just elected the leader of United Russia (without having joined the party), Putin moved on to lead the government in May 2008. The government remained largely non-partisan, though.
2005 – 2011: Electoral highs and lows of United Russia
If we look at the general dynamics of United Russia's electoral results in the 2005-2011 regional elections, we would see two obvious leaps. The first happened in the fall of 2005 when a massive inclusion of governors on United Russia lists for regional elections began (by about15-20%). The second leap by another 20% of the elections took place in December 2007. Clearly, it was connected to the fact that in the fall of 2007, Vladimir Putin headed the United Russia list in the elections to the State Duma for the first time. In the spring of 2008, Putin personally headed the party. Besides the tremendous incrementation of United Russia's authority, the actions of the country leader led to the rise of the 'bar' that Moscow has begun to set for the regional authorities in terms of election results, which, in turn, has led to the intensification of administrative resource use by the regional apparatus. According to experts, that was when the scale of direct falsifications in elections increased.
However, after the UR electoral leap of 2007, the results of both regional and local elections began to be affected by a socio-economic crisis, which manifested in the fall of 2008. Almost concurrent large-scale replacements of governors in 2009-2010 brought about inevitable local cadre 'revolutions.' By getting rid of the teams of their predecessors, new governors were also destroying all the previously built management models. It's worth noting that as a rule, governors were substituted in the most significant regions while the governors of the secondary regions stayed for new terms. As fate would have it, the wave of governor substitutions of 2009-2010 superimposed the socio-economic crisis generated by the federal centre, as in 2005, after the abolition of direct elections of the governors, the centre tried to prompt elected regional governors to quickly amend their formal legal status by raising the 'question of confidence.' Inevitable synchronization in the substitution of regional leaders has arisen. The statements of Luzhkov, a representative of the former regional elites, were quite indicative of a reaction to the ongoing changes in politics. On December 6, 2011, the former mayor of Moscow said that he had not voted for United Russia in the last elections to the State Duma, even though he was one of the party founders. The former mayor, however, did not specify for whom he had voted.9
Thus, the preconditions for the electoral failure of the ruling party, both in the federal and regional elections on December 4, 2011, gradually shaped. This, in turn, largely predetermined the abolition of the system of appointing governors.
Although the public importance of governors in the party lists was constantly growing, throughout that period, they practically did not strive to head the regional branches of the party personally. Since 2010, the basic approach has evolved into combining the position of the political council secretary at a regional United Russia branch with the responsibilities of the regional legislative assembly speaker.
In March 2010, the Secretary of the Presidium in the General Council of United Russia, as well as Vice-Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, bluntly spoke about the basic model of leadership spreading over United Russia branches: 'The secretary of the regional branch should also be the chair of the legislative assembly. This person shall be appointed by the party that won the election.' According to Volodin, the governance model in place within the State Duma had to be transferred to the regional level. Back then, it presupposed that Boris Gryzlov, the Supreme Council of United Russia Chair, was also the Speaker of the lower house of the federal parliament. At that time, more than 30 heads of regional branches were acting both as secretaries and chairpersons of legislative assemblies. After the statement advanced by Volodin, only four governors became exceptions to this model of United Russia regional leadership. These four people personally headed United Russia in their respective regions.
2011 – 2016: 'Correcting mistakes' and changes to the electoral strategy
After the virtual failure of United Russia in the State Duma elections in December 2011, the founder of the system Vladislav Surkov, who had been in charge of all internal politics for almost ten years, was dismissed from the position of the First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation.
On December 27, 2011, Vyacheslav Volodin (former vice-governor of the Saratov region, former head of the OWR bloc of regional nomenclature, as well as former Secretary of the Presidium of the General Council of United Russia) was appointed both as a new curator of internal politics and First Deputy of the Presidential Administration. He held this position until the 2016 State Duma elections. On October 5, 2016, Volodin left the Presidential Administration to become the Chair of the State Duma. It's Volodin who was the 'political founder' of the 2010 model, according to which the secretary of the political council at a United Russia regional branch should, as a rule, also be the speaker of the regional parliament.
The period of 2012 to 2016 differed significantly both in the internal policy management and in the strategy implemented in this area. In particular, the policy of forced and total co-optation into the leading party was terminated. It was replaced by the policy of 'partition' or 'match-fixing.' No more would deputies or mayors from CPRF be lured into the ruling party. Instead, the authorities began to provide the 'systemic opposition' with 'protected' seats for governors, deputies, members of the Federation Council, etc. The policy towards the parties of the 'systemic opposition' (which had to be 'punished for their 'Fronde' in 2010-2011 and whose loyalty had yet to be restored) was quite hybrid, as the so-called 'carrot and stick' approach was adopted. Discrediting information campaigns, support of 'spoilers,'10 pressure on specific deputies all acted as a 'stick,' whereas the authorities increased the state funding of parties to fulfil the 'carrot' component (i.e., in December 2012, the party received 20 to 50 roubles per vote. On January 1, 2015, it was paid 110 roubles. On January 1, 2017, this rate increased to 152 roubles. Thus, over five years, the price of a vote increased by more than seven times). Representatives of the 'systemic opposition' managed to land governors' posts in several regions that were secondary from the point of view of political and economic importance. Initially, they were appointed as acting governors to be later elected as heads in the absence of competitors from United Russia. Significantly, United Russia never nominated a candidate against any current governor of the region or its acting proxy during this period, even if these people were candidates from other parties or self-nominated individuals. However, representatives of United Russia occupied all the key positions in all the so-called 'other party' governors' administrations.
During the 2016 State Duma elections, United Russia nominated 207 candidates for the 225 majoritarian constituencies. The party avoided nominating candidates in 18 constituencies. Later a candidate in yet another district dropped out. In response to such loyalty of the ruling party, representatives of the 'systemic opposition' reduced their open disagreement, avoided criticism of the authorities, and nominated weak candidates in other constituencies and regions.
Perhaps the implementation of such a policy was associated not only with a shortage of resources among the curators of the process (when financing started to replace positions) but also with the desire for greater homogeneity in the composition of the ruling party, one of the founding fathers of which was Volodin himself. As a result, on the one hand, the public dissent of the 'old systemic parties' decreased. On the other hand, the former total control over internal politics decreased significantly, and the influence of new, 'non-systemic' parties and their respective leaders increased.
The appointment of the 'systemic opposition' representatives as governors was accompanied by the fact that members of the ruling party got significant posts in such administrations. As a result, the regional administration worked within the framework of a single system of executive power.
From the point of view of the electoral strategy, due to the virtual failure in the 2011 elections, the authorities 'corrected their mistakes' by two means. Firstly, the election of governors was resumed. Secondly, there was a change in the political party legislation, and the new idea was to register the largest possible number of parties to split the protest votes.
But the scenario of the governor heading the lists of United Russia remained predominant in the elections of regional parliaments. Appointed or elected representatives of the 'systemic opposition,' on the contrary, refrained from leading the lists of 'their' respective parties in the elections to the legislative assemblies. For example, Sergey Levchenko was not included in the list of CPRF during the elections to the Legislative Assembly of Irkutsk Oblast on September 9, 2018.
In the elections to the legislative assemblies on October 14, 2012, governors headed the lists of United Russia in 5 regions out of 6. In the elections of August 9, 2013, no governors were in 4 lists out of 16. However, there were two regions where representatives of the 'systemic opposition' were appointed as governors. The situation was also different in the Vladimir and Yaroslavl Oblasts.
In the elections to the legislative assemblies on September 14, 2014, out of 11 elections of regional parliaments (held according to the mixed system), regional leaders did not head United Russia lists only in 2. However, this number dropped to 1 closer to the elections.
In the September 13, 2015 elections, the governors headed the lists of United Russia in 10 regions out of 11. In the elections of deputies to the State Duma (combined with the elections to 39 regional parliaments) on September 18, 2016, 31 lists were led by the regional governors. In the course of the campaign, the Kaliningrad Oblast was added to the exceptions, where governor Tsukanov, appointed as a plenipotentiary in the Northwestern federal constituency, withdrew his candidacy. As a result, by election day, the regional governors headed 30 lists out of 39.
Another feature of the 2016 elections is the fact that the party's federal leadership and the internal political bloc of the Presidential Administration attempted to 'separate' the leaders of the lists to the State Duma and regional parliaments. This was done similarly to how, with rare exceptions, the regime did not allow for the nomination of a candidate to the State Duma both by the party list and by a single-mandate constituency. It was probably done to stimulate internal competition between party lists in parallel elections and increase the cumulative effect of electoral mobilization campaigns. In the event of a defeat, candidates could not count on a 'consolation' list-related mandate or a mandate in the parliament of a lower level. The only governor who was allowed to candidate both as the head of the list to the regional parliament and as the head of the territorial group list to the State Duma was the governor of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov.
As for the State Duma elections dated September 18, 2016, United Russia continued to apply the 'electoral parovoz'11 strategy, although the number of such candidates (as well as the number of territorial groups) decreased if compared to the 2003-2011 elections. The party's list included 19 heads of regions, among them nine governors and ten heads of Russian republics.
After Volodin became the Chair of the State Duma, a technocrat Sergey Kiriyenko was appointed the new First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration for Internal Policy. He came into office on October 5, 2016. Kiriyenko was not associated with the ruling party, as he had formerly been the Prime Minister (in 1998) and the General Director (in 2005-2016) of Rosatom12.
2016 – 2021: Tightening of the federal government policy
The period from the end of 2016 to the present day has been characterized by a tightening of the federal government policy concerning political parties, the public at large, and even the expert community. Instead of co-optation and distribution of the spheres of influence, pressure and attempts to completely destroy and defeat the opponents in their rights have begun to predominate. A policy of similar harshness towards regional elites, accompanied by massive substitutions of regional governors, has been introduced for the first time since the era of perestroika. Almost two-thirds of the new appointees are 'strangers' (that is, not residents of the regions they represent). Politicians, governors, experts, and social activists have found themselves rigidly divided into the 'desirable and 'undesirable individuals. The latter are subject to maximum obstruction and pressure. Now, the question is whether this is the choice of the new leadership of the Presidential Administration, or whether, instead, such an approach is dictated by some external dynamics, such as lack of resources.
The remnants of the previous system built on the alliance between the authorities and the Duma opposition had inertly survived until 2018, when, due to the increase of the retirement age, taxes, and other socio-economic reforms, a new massive protest voting began. It appeared regardless of the weakness of the 'systemic opposition.' Like in 2008-2011, the same phenomenon emerged: when there is no one to vote for, voters start casting their votes for any existing alternative, turning the elections into a de facto referendum of confidence.
As a result, in the elections to the legislative assemblies in September 2018, for the first time since 2007 in three regions (Khakassia, Irkutsk, and Ulyanovsk Oblast), a party other than United Russia won according to party-list vote. The Communist Party, in fact, won in all three regions. In the Transbaikal territory and the Vladimir Oblast, United Russia managed to retain its leadership in the elections of deputies to the legislative assemblies. However, the party received less than 30% of the votes. In 4 regions, governors and interim governors failed to win. As a result, the second round of elections had to be held in Primorye and Khabarovsk territories, Vladimir Oblast, and Khakassia. All these rounds ended in a complete failure for the authorities.
The government's response to these problems was not long in coming. The blame for failures (even though Moscow's 'emissaries' had worked in the failed elections of Primorye and Khabarovsk) was assigned to the 'systemic opposition' both by the Presidential Administration and United Russia's leadership. As a result, massive information campaigns began against the opposition governors. There was also a massive reduction in the share of the deputies based on party lists in the elections to both the legislative assemblies and city councils in the most 'difficult' regions for the authorities.
At the same time, due to political reasons, the ruling party's candidates had to distance themselves from it. In the governor elections of September 2019, 6 candidates out of 16 were self-nominated. There were no United Russia candidates at all in the elections to the Moscow City Duma. The mayor of Ulan-Ude ran as an independent candidate, and many candidates in Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, and other cities did the same.
Following the 19th Congress of United Russia, the secretary of the General Council of the party, Andrey Turchak, said that United Russia would nominate its candidates in all electoral districts in the upcoming elections. Thus, the 2016 model of 'distribution of districts between the ruling party and the systemic opposition was challenged.13 Dmitry Medvedev, the formal leader of the party, called to end the practice when members of the ruling party ran for elections as self-nominated candidates.14
However, despite these declarations, during the elections of 2020, in 18 regions where similar elections were, five incumbent governors (including their interims) again ran as self-nominated.
The belief that the existing political and legal mechanisms could make it possible to bring practically any candidate through the 'referendum'-type elections ultimately led to the fact that by 2017-2019 the level of overriding the opinions of the regional elites, pertinent to the selection of governor candidates, reached its maximum since the beginning of the practice of handpicking such candidates. And if in June 2012-2015, in more than 50% of the cases, the stake was on local candidates, who often were not members of the team of the replaced governor, in 2016-2018 putting forth the 'strangers' as governors became rather a rule, and not an exception.
The press often refers to the period that began in mid-2016 as the policy of 'young technocrats.' Although not all of those people were young and not all of them were technocrats, they were united by their weak connection to their destination regions. In 2016-2021, 75 governors were substituted in 63 regions, that is in 74% of regions. Twelve regions experienced a double change in the government. However, not only a sharp acceleration in personnel rotation, when governors begin to resemble a manager on a business trip, is notable here. An emphasized anti-regional policy in governors' recruitment is also noteworthy. If in 2012-2015 out of 26 new governors (except Levchenko elected in Irkutsk despite all odds) there were 10 'strangers' (38%), in 2016-2020 out of 67 new governors (except Sipyagin, Furgal, and Konovalov, elected despite everything) there already were 49 'strangers' (73%). Considering the appointments at the beginning of 2021, there are now 51 'stranger' governors in 85 regions. The share of 'strangers' in the candidacies of 2017-2020 is even higher than the records of the first wave of substitutions which took place after the abolition of governors' elections, from 2005 to May 2008. In 2005-2008 there were 18 'strangers.' In 2008-2011, there were 23 'strangers' registered. In January-May 2012, there were 11 of them.
The very term 'technocrat' speaks primarily of the functional tasks related to the fulfillment of the goals assigned by the federal centre and does not imply a significantly independent political role.
A significant part of the 'technocratic' governors brought in 2016-2020 did not belong to any party at the time of their appointment since their previous work at ministries and corporations did not require such affiliation. Moreover, as a rule, such governors carried out their election campaigns, emphatically distancing themselves from United Russia, the party which actually nominated them. As noted above, during the elections of governors in 2019, out of 16 incumbents, six incumbents ran as self-nominated candidates. In 2020 this indicator was 5 out of 18.
As before, in the elections of regional parliaments, the scenario of the governor heading the list of United Russia remained predominant
At the elections of deputies to the regional assemblies on September 10, 2017, in 5 regions out of 6, the lists were led by the current governors or their interims. In the elections dated September 9, 2018, out of 16 regions where elections of deputies to the regional parliaments were held, 11 party lists were headed by governors acting as 'locomotives.' In the elections on August 9, 2019, and covering 12 regions, governors headed the lists of United Russia in 5 cases. No governor was in the remaining seven regions. At the same time, in Mari El, Khabarovsk territory, and Tula Oblast, the central part of the list was absent. In the elections of deputies to the legislative assemblies dated September 13, 2020, in 7 regions out of 11, the party lists were headed by governors. There were no governors in the party lists of the Komi republic, Kostroma and Kurgan Oblasts, and the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous territory, where the component of the all-regional part in the lists is abolished. In the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous territory, territorial groups were abundantly headed by 'small locomotives,' represented by the heads of municipalities.
Given the obvious drop in United Russia ratings during the regional elections of 2018-2020 (if these are compared with former and similar elections), voices in favour of new governors acting in the party's interests have begun to increase. However, many of such governors were not part of the party and campaigned independently.
Thanks to the novelty effect, a significant part of these new governors has a certain margin for positive expectations and a low anti-rating among the population. Obviously, United Russia technologists hope to use this effect in favour of their party. Besides what has already been said, the stakes are out on fostering the local administrative apparatus to aid the ruling party.
On October 24, 2019, the Presidium of the General Council of United Russia approved the appointment of 13 governors of Russian subjects to the posts of heads of regional branches. The Vedomosti newspaper (the first to announce the return of the practice, which involves appointing regional governors as heads of United Russia branches) explained this with the need to raise the party rating by the 2021 State Duma elections. Governors, especially new governors who did not have time to generate any anti-rating, often have a higher level of support than those of United Russia. On March 24, 2020, the Presidium of the General Council of United Russia-approved the candidacies of 8 more heads of the Russian Federation constituencies as acting secretaries of the corresponding regional branches of the party.
After several other appointments, at the beginning of 2021, 25 regional branches of United Russia were headed by governors. In 29 regions, the 2010 scenario was in force, whereby the secretary was also the regional parliament speaker. Other individuals acting as secretaries of regional branches were identified in 31 regions.
1 To nominate their candidates for the State Duma elections without collecting signatures, a party needs to take part in the distribution of mandates following the results of previous parliamentary elections or have a representative in the legislative assembly of at least one of the regions - REM
2 Several minority regions of the Northern Caucasus and Volga Region, characterized by highly authoritarian regional political regimes, tend to massively vote in favor of the ruling party – although independent electoral experts and the opposition claim rampant election fraud.
3 See, for example, https://www.rbc.ru/
4 For more, see election monitoring findings from 2016 federal elections
5 Detailed analysis of 2016 elections can be found here: https://liberal.ru/library/kak-vybirala-rossiya-2016br-rezultaty-monitoringa-izbiratelnogo-processa
6 The parliamentary opposition parties in the State Duma that are largely viewed as being more or less loyal to the government and the President. 'Non-systemic' opposition usually refers to the various opposition organizations that oppose the government and are mostly unrepresented in government bodies - REM
7 Officially, the 'System of granting power' – the procedure for electing the head of the regional executive power which replaced direct governor elections - REM
10 Candidates or parties with similar ideologies whose appearance would lead to the splitting of votes of the electoral base - REM
11'Parovoz' (a steam locomotive) – is a political technology aimed at increasing the number of voters for a list of candidates by attracting a leader with a high political rating. Such a candidate, after being declared a winner, immediately resigns from the position to which s/he was elected, passing the mandate to lesser-known party member - REM
12 Russian State Atomiс Energy Corporation - REM
14 Galimova N., Nagaev K., Bondarenko M., Kuznetsova E. Medvedev demanded from members of United Russia not to run for elections as self-nominated candidates