21st Sep 2021


September's Russian election - a glimmer of hope?

  • Football on Red Square in front of the Kremlin - but which sides are playing in the September election? (Photo: kremlin.ru)
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The parliamentary elections set for 17-19 September could be an opportunity for democracy in Russia - amidst voter dissatisfaction over economic recession, growing inflation, environmental problems and an unfolding health crisis.

Yet few are optimistic about a substantial change, given that leading opposition figures remain in jail and the "non-systemic" opposition are not allowed to participate in the elections on various, doubtful, grounds.

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The declining turnout coupled with ever-changing election rules (now also allowing Russian passport-holders in eastern Ukraine to vote in Duma elections while encouraging online voting - which could make elections more vulnerable to fraud) are certainly not opposition-friendly.

The runners and players

Due to the specifics of the current party system in the country, the second place is usually occupied by candidates from the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) - which is seen by Russians as a "surrogate opposition" - or from the so-called right-wing party with harsh nationalist rhetoric LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia).

It appears that the non-orthodox voter of democratic convictions will be torn between two extremes, with no real alternatives but the ruling URP (United Russia Party) - which in turn would legitimise the existing system.

But chances are this scenario may not come true this time.

According to the study of the independent movement in defence of the voters' rights, Golos, about nine million Russians have been deprived of the right to be elected prior to the elections.

Within the opposition, most of whose leaders were forced to leave the country due to repression, there is a wide discussion about the right way to present some alternative ideas by electoral methods (shunning elections, protest vote, etc.) through the mobilisation tool "smart voting" created by the jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose movement was banned as "extremist".

App loss

However, Russia's communications watchdog Roskomnadzor has recently asked Apple and Google to remove the app from their stores in addition to using digital hardware targeting the app.

Given the difficulties to register new parties and to become independent candidates, the only political party reminiscent of the years of freedom in the 1990s, seems to be the social-liberal party Yabloko (the Russian word for apple).

Yet, attempts were made to shut down this party (which is a full member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) party, now rechristened Renew Europe.

Importantly, few leading candidates from the party were prevented from participation in the elections and others were labelled as "foreign agents".

While Navalny's movement and Yabloko are disunited on many issues, they agree on one thing: their existence is of utmost importance for freedom, pluralism and democracy in what they see in "an artificial political diversity under a virtually one-party system".

These elections may be the last chance for the opposition to bring about real change and to turn the tables before it is too late.

Yabloko's return to the Duma after two decades away could enrich democratic debate and increase hopes for the country's future.

Author bio

Eli Hadzhieva is a lecturer on the role of the EU, European politics and elections, foreign affairs, security, immigration and digital economy. She studied economics and political science at the Middle East Technical University, the University of Manchester, King’s College London, Sciences Po Paris and the École Nationale d’Administration. After joining the OECD as a consultant and serving at the European Parliament's INTA, AFET, DROI and LIBE committees as a parliamentary attaché, she founded the Brussels-based think-tank Dialogue for Europe.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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