From September 17-19, 2021, Russia held its eighth elections for the State Duma, which is the lower house of Russian Parliament. In my July 28 MEMRI report, "On Russia's Upcoming Elections," I opined that the outcome of these elections would be both expected and controversial.
After most of the independent candidates were not allowed to run, and the supporters of Alexey Navalny, the jailed and most acclaimed critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, were officially proclaimed extremists (even mentioning them in the daily press or on the Internet was prohibited), there was little doubt that "United Russia" would get the majority of seats.
The only question was whether this majority would have been a "simple" one (50 percent plus one deputy), or a "constitutional" one (67 percent), with the latter being enough to adopt constitutional amendments and for overturning presidential vetoes. Another minor question was whether the new puppet party, created by the presidential administration and called Novye Lyudi ("New People"), would be allowed in the Duma. However, in the end, Putin's United Russia won 49.82 percent of the votes (it is worth noting that in August 2021, a poll showed that United Russia had only 27 percent support). Novye Lyudi became instead the fifth party in the Duma for the first time since 2003 with 5.35 percent of the vote, barely passing the minimum five percent threshold. Yet, the elections will become famous not for their results, but rather for their conduct.
United Russia Was Seemingly Not Able To Secure Its Lead
The main fact of this election is that all predictions went bust. Even though most of United Russia's opponents were not on the ballot, and all the employees of the state-owned and oligarch-controlled enterprises (not to say military and bureaucrats) were forced to vote for the ruling party (they even had to send pictures of their ballots to their bosses – this was the rationale behind the three-day voting, as most of these employees were escorted to the polling stations on September 17), United Russia was seemingly unable to secure its lead.
In order to grant United Russia's victory, the authorities broke all the rules they themselves had established: The CCTV was switched off at the polling stations; the members of local electoral bodies stayed in their offices overnight, a practice which was strictly prohibited; groups of people were moved from one polling station to another to cast votes; many cases of people throwing packs of ballots into the polling boxes were filmed with police doing nothing to prevent it. By the end of the voting, not only observers and candidates' representatives but also many members of the local election commissions themselves were taken to police stations, supposedly due to their "hooligan" behavior. Candidates' cellphones were blocked, their travel between the polling stations disrupted, and some of them were even assaulted with police officers present on the scene (of course, all of the above happened exclusively to opposition candidates). All this reflected United Russia's growing weakness, rather than its strength.
As the polling results came out, it appeared that almost everywhere – in Siberia and the Far East as well as in Moscow – United Russia candidates had lost to Communists and to other opposition figures in many single-mandate constituencies (half of the Duma is filled according to the voting for the party lists, but another 225 deputies are elected in face-to-face showdowns). By midnight on September 19, United Russia was defeated in all 15 Moscow constituencies and in many of St. Petersburg ones. United Russia got less than 30 percent in many Siberian and Far Eastern regions, as well in large cities across the country. But then almost everything turned around, and there was an important rationale behind this.
Not A Single Candidate Supported By "Smart Voting" Won In Large Cities
Even before the elections, it was mentioned that the most radical "anti-Kremlin" force was Navalny's team. With most of its members wanted by police or already being sentenced to different kinds of penalties (some of them managed to leave Russia and move to Warsaw and Vilnius), the team launched a strategy called "Smart Voting." This tactical strategy guides opposition-minded Russians to vote for candidates, who are considered to be capable of beating United Russia candidates. Navalny's team published the list of names of the candidates for the State Duma and local councils to be supported just two days ahead of the elections, producing huge turmoil in the opposition, as it appeared that the majority of candidates picked by the team were communists, and not "liberals." Voters responded well to the tactics, and candidates promoted by "Smart Voting" gained between 10-20 percent in their result, whereas even well-known and decent liberals, who were happy enough to get on the ballots, trailed far behind. But Putin, who considers Navalny his personal enemy (he has never ever called him by name in public), had no intention of allowing even a single Navalny-supported candidate to be elected.
To this end, an "experimental voting" was organized in Moscow and several other regions, allowing people registered on the Gosuslugi ("Public Services") web-portal to cast their votes over the Internet (I should mention here that many well-known Russian liberals, including Alexey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the most independent radio station Echo of Moscow, promoted this new technology and oversaw its work).
In Moscow alone, more than two million people, or more than a quarter of all eligible voters, had registered for this service by September 13, making the number of "electronic" voters exceed the number of those who actually went in person to the polls. After all the 15 constituencies reported their results, the Internet voting figures were expected to be available soon after the polls were closed – but it took 17 hours (!) to get the results published. When the ballots were finally counted, the Central Election Commission announced that out of the 15 constituencies, no opposition member got in the Duma, even though opposition candidate Anastasia Udaltsova was in the lead after 99 percent of ballots were counted. Instead, everyone on the so-called "Sobyanin's list," a list of candidates supported by the United Russia mayor of the capital, passed to the State Duma.
In Moscow, as a result of all the wrongdoing, United Russia managed to get 30.1 percent of in-person votes and 44.77 percent of online ones, so one needs to agree with those who have called the Internet voting "an absolute evil." Not a single candidate supported by "Smart Voting" won in large cities, but the strategy itself appeared to be so successful that the Kremlin was forced to press Apple and Google to block websites and apps linked to Navalny's resources. Hence, I believe, there is a far lower chance now that Navalny will leave prison alive. Those of his supporters who are still in Russia will be squeezed out of the country in the coming months and the support from his team will be considered unwelcome, since it may now turn any prospective activist into a foe of the regime and effectively end her or his political career quite quickly.
I would also add that with electronic voting, the Kremlin seems to now possess an electoral "nuclear bomb" that it will use more and more widely. Yelena Pamfilova, the Chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, already announced that this kind of voting procedure will be introduced nationwide, while President Vladimir Putin argued that no one should stand in the path of the technological innovation embodied in this new technique.
Putin Will Rely On Repressive Tactics Much More Than Before
Russia's political landscape changed a lot after the recent elections. The Kremlin now knows for sure that it cannot win anymore without substituting the real results with full-scale fakes. On election night, neither Putin (United Russia's "sacred leader"), nor the party's formal leader Dmitry Medvedev, nor the five candidates topping the federal party list, appeared in public. The "victory" that secured the State Duma to United Russia appeared to be extremely costly for the party's public image, as nowadays, being associated with the ruling party carries a kind of a stigma.
Therefore, this may be the last nationwide parliamentary election in Russia. The next election may be organized in a completely different fashion: by some kind of appointment, by voting of regional assemblies, or via another kind of multi-level voting process, as happened in the late Soviet Union, where a huge crowd of "People's Deputies" (many of which were selected by the Communist Party and different public associations), later elected the member of parliament among themselves. It is hard to imagine that the ruling elite will try to organize national parliamentary polls along the existing rules anytime soon.
Furthermore, from this time on, Putin will rely on repressive tactics much more than before. People are already being arrested only for reposting online photos of the "Smart Voting" symbol, and – it goes without saying – for wearing t-shirts with Navalny's face. On Election Day, the government also announced that the list of "undesirable organizations" could be expanded by adding 20 more organizations.
The regulation of Internet activity will become much tighter in the coming months. International social networks that do not comply with Russian regulations may be fully blocked in Russia, and the major international search engines will have to follow Russia's rules. Many Russian experts say that a China-style "Great Firewall" is already being built in Russia and that a similar system to regulate the Internet domestically could be enacted quite soon. The Kremlin will now try to check how significant the response to an introduction of a "sovereign Runet" (i.e. a Russian national web independent from the global one) could be among the younger population, which actively uses international social media platforms despite the deterioration of information freedom that has been present in the country for years.
Russians Believe That Voting Does Not Change Their Personal Lives At All
The very last, and quite important, point about the recent elections is the way the results were received by the Russian society. On the one hand, there is a limited group of people or activists who are deeply devoted to their cause and strongly supported the opposition candidates. They distributed leaflets, wrote posts on social media, organized groups of volunteers, and spent days and nights overseeing the elections and trying to document all the existing irregularities. On the other hand, there is a vast majority of Russians who may even go to the polls and outvote the official candidate but who do not care about what happens to their ballots. I was sure well before the elections started that falsifications and irregularities would not bring people into the streets, contrary to what happened in 2011.
Generally, a part of the population is frightened by the government's repressions, others are just pleased by the little presents Putin has delivered just before the elections: All pensioners received 10,000 rubles ($137) and all servicemen received 15,000 rubles ($203). Many others believe that change in the country is close to impossible. The overall mood is much bleaker than the real result of the elections. People may have gone to the polls, but believe that voting does not make any change in their personal lives.
The announced election results look like a tremendous success for Putin and his clique. They showed their subjects that nothing will change no matter how they vote, and that nobody cares about people's attitudes. Only the Communists organized a rally on September 20 in Pushkinskaya Square in the center of Moscow, but just 200 people responded to their call with a bit over 1,000 assembling for the next rally held on September 25. The rally was peaceful and most probably will not be followed by protests organized by other parties. The candidates whose victories were stolen by the authorities, voiced their readiness to appeal to the Central Election Committee as well to the courts, but there is no hope at all that these appeals will matter much. No appeal made by an opposition candidate against a pro-Kremlin candidate has ever been approved in Russia.
Conclusion – The Ruling Elite Makes Revolution The Only Means For Changing The Existing System
The lesson of the 2021 Russian parliamentary elections is that it is very unlikely that the Putin regime will ever be overturned through any kind of democratic process. Since 1990, elections in Russia have not brought the "uncontrolled" change of a new president or of a parliament capable of conducting its own policies contrary to those of the Kremlin. Any subsequent elections became less free and bore an ever-growing number of falsifications and other irregularities.
Several respected Russian analysts have suggested that since before 2011, elections in Russia cannot be considered to reflect the will of the people, as the electoral results became inexplicable from a statistical point of view. I would neither support these theses nor criticize them, but the recent elections have nothing in common with the expression of the popular will.
By defying the will of its subjects, the ruling elite makes revolution, or any other kind of mass action, the one and only means of changing the existing system. This is, I would argue, the most important point that may be seen as the consequence of the recent elections. Russia turned into a dictatorship where the elections are just a fiction having no influence on anything that happens to the ailing society.
*Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, Ph.D. in Economics, is a Special Advisor to MEMRI's Russian Media Studies Project.
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