After 16 years at the country's helm, the administration's hold on power seems to be slipping. Opinion polls put United Russia at an abysmal 31 percent approval rating, down by nearly half since the start of the year. Much of this slip can be attributed to Russia's continued economic woes. The country's economy is still mired in recession; in fact, it is on course to contract by 0.6 percent this year, even more than originally expected. The Russian people have borne the brunt of the downturn. Over the past year, the average monthly wage in Russia fell 9.5 percent, slipping below $450 per a month, less than in China, Serbia or Romania. Inflation, meanwhile, hit 13.4 percent in early 2016, the highest rate in 15 years. Now Russians are forgoing medical treatment and new clothing to buy food, which takes up an average 50 percent of their income, a figure on par with many African countries. What's more, nearly 14 percent (20 million) of all Russians now live below the poverty line ($139 a month), a proportion that is expected to grow at its fastest rate since the 1998 economic crisis.
More than a quarter of Russians have experienced salary cuts or nonpayments in the past year, while 15 percent have lost their jobs. In response, aggrieved Russians from an array of professions, including drivers, teachers, doctors, miners and farmers, have taken to the streets to protest. So far the demonstrations have been small enough and far enough from Moscow not to cause the Kremlin too much worry. (The government has dispatched Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to various regions to quell the growing outrage, though he has only added fuel to the fire, advising teachers, for instance, to take on second jobs to cope with salary cuts.) But a poll conducted in early September showed that salaries have begun to fall in the capital as well. The Kremlin would be forced to respond if widespread or organized protests were to erupt in Moscow, lest they trigger nationwide demonstrations.
Given the already tense political atmosphere in the country, the Kremlin will not risk overtly tampering with the results of the parliamentary elections, as it did in 2011. (Despite the government's blatant manipulations — including stuffing ballot boxes and banning other parties from running — and United Russia's 60 percent approval at the time, the party managed to win only 49 percent of Duma seats that year.) Still, it is all but certain that United Russia will come out on top in the elections, in which both houses of the 450-seat Duma will be up for grabs. The question is by what margin the party will prevail, and how.
Well in advance of the parliamentary elections, the Kremlin began efforts to massage its results as a kind of trial run for the 2018 presidential vote. To ensure lower voter turnout — and to cut its losses as public support falls ever lower — the government moved the parliamentary elections up from December. In mid-September, many Russians are on or just returning from summer vacation and are not fully attuned to politics. Moreover, most of the people who are home to vote at this time of year work for the state. This should be a boon for United Russia, since state employees make up much of its support base and are often required to vote by their managers.
In addition to the date, the Kremlin changed voting procedures for the elections. Now, deputies for half of the seats in parliament will be chosen from party lists, while the other half will be elected through direct popular vote. United Russia and the three other parties currently represented in the legislature — Just Russia, the Communist Party and the Liberal Democrats — carefully negotiated the candidates running for directly elected positions. According to leaks circulating in Russian media, the three opposition parties have agreed not to compete for more than 40 of the spots and will divide the less contentious districts among themselves, taking pressure off United Russia. In exchange, the Kremlin reportedly promised the parties' senior members coveted positions in business and the government.
The Kremlin Puts Its Best Face Forward
Beyond its interventions in the vote's timing and procedures, the Russian government has been working on its image in hopes of influencing the outcome. Going into the elections, the Kremlin has worked furiously to produce signs of improvement in the economy. And its efforts have paid off, at least in some areas. Inflation, the most pressing economic concern for Russian voters, has been reduced to 7 percent in the past two months. However positive, the drop was mostly the result of stabilizing prices, a recovering ruble (up 14 percent against the dollar this year) and declining purchasing power among the country's increasingly impoverished populace. The week before the vote, the Kremlin pledged to make a one-time payment to retirees. Because retirees make up some 30 percent of the population, and most families include at least one, they constitute an influential voting bloc in Russia, and their welfare is a hot-button topic among the electorate.
The Kremlin is also trying to tap into the country's surging patriotism to galvanize support for the administration and its activities. Over the past two years, patriotism has soared to an all-time high in the country, buoyed by its interventions in Syria and Ukraine and strengthened by the perception that the West is conspiring against Russia. The swelling national pride sweeping the country has helped the government maintain some of its popularity and curb organized protests despite the public's dissatisfaction with the economy. Even so, glimmers of economic recovery and patriotism will not be enough to prevent popular unrest from breaking out and taking hold across the country. The 2011 protests, after all, spun out of a small anti-Caucasus demonstration. After the parliamentary elections, the protests grew to include tens of thousands of people across the political spectrum, and when Putin announced his intention to run for a third term as president, participation increased tenfold.
To prevent a repeat of 2011, the Kremlin has resorted to various tactics, which, though heavy-handed, once again fall short of electoral rigging. For instance, the government labeled Levada, considered the only reliable pollster in the country, as a "foreign agent" because it receives funding from the United States and Europe. (The organization had recently revealed United Russia's dismal approval ratings, along with an 11 percent drop in support for Putin.) The Kremlin also passed a raft of controversial counterterrorism legislation criminalizing expressions of opposition or dissent in the media or in electronic communication, including emails, text messages, social media and phone calls. The draconian laws were so widely criticized that Putin vacillated over whether to enact them just weeks before the elections.
Even if all these measures fall short and protests erupt during the parliamentary elections, the Kremlin has organized a new internal force, the National Guard, to deploy instead of (or alongside) the Interior Ministry's forces. Ensuring the military and security forces' continued loyalty in times of upheaval has long been a concern for Russian leaders, but the National Guard was designed with that contingency in mind. The guard's personnel were handpicked from among the Interior Ministry forces most loyal to Putin, and the entire force is at the president's sole command.
The Litmus Test
For Russia's president and ruling party, the parliamentary elections are a litmus test. If United Russia wins the seats necessary to maintain its standing in the legislature, the victory will affirm the party's mandate and pave the way for Putin to seek another term in power. It remains unclear, however, whether success in the parliamentary elections will give the president enough leeway to ensure that his reign will continue into the next decade.
The president has begun to overhaul his power base, the circle of confidants and political allies who have backed Putin since long before he reached the presidency. Over the past year, he has ousted some of the most influential men in Russia, replacing them with loyal technocrats who do not have a support base of their own from which to challenge him or his policies. Though the Kremlin has tried to portray the reshuffling as an effort to bring in fresh perspectives, it is much more about protecting the president's rule. What's more, the country is rife with speculation that Putin intends to undertake even bigger restructurings, challenging some of the country's most powerful people and institutions. But to change the order within the Kremlin's walls, he must first be sure that his rule is secure beyond them.