Russia will hold parliamentary elections in 2016. The Kremlin views this as a period of increased political turbu-lence, one it hopes to speed through with as few bumps on the road as possible. The opposition sees elections as a narrow window of opportunity it can use to make political inroads. What can the liberal opposition hope for this time, and will it be able to consolidate power enough to stand up to the regime?

Who is Out?

Strategy in the 2016 elections will be closely determined by the format of political participation and by the resources available to the opposition when campaign season begins. Prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who in late April announced that he would form a coalition with former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, said he aimed to create a faction in the Duma (Russia’s lower house of parliament) that would represent those voters who cast their ballots for him in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election—namely, the progressive middle class, the intelligentsia, and the liberal segment of society.

Today, this goal appears to be clearly unattainable. Protests have ebbed and the Kremlin has reasserted its strategy of maximizing control over society.  The authorities are convinced that President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are off the chart, which makes the decision to bar Navalny from participating in elections a "truly democratic" choice.

Navalny is the key character in this campaign. Public opinion polls conducted in 2011 and 2012 proved him to be the most popular and recognizable leader of the protest movement. His ability to draw 27 percent of the vote in the Mos-cow mayoral election despite difficult conditions makes him a top-tier politician. Navalny not only demonstrated that he has electoral resources—he was also the only leader to succeed with a specifically anti-Putin stance. No other second or third-tier political players can compete with him.

In Russia’s current, unchanging state, the most likely scenario is that Alexei Navalny will be unable to participate in the elections in any capacity (he can’t be on the ballot because of two suspended sentences he is already serving). This makes the Justice Ministry’s decision to annul the registration of his Party of Progress a “logical” step. The Kremlin doubtless perceives Navalny as a threat in the medium and the long term, and therefore is taking a political rather than a legal stance in its standoff with him. It logically follows that no registered candidate will be able to compete for a seat in the Duma if he or she is affiliated with Navalny.

That is why any discussion about which party should be chosen for the opposition to run in parliamentary elections is meaningless. So far, only two registered parties are prepared to take on that role: the Republican Party of Russia-People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS, led by Mikhail Kasyanov and Ilya Yashin), and the former economy min-ister Andrei Nechayev’s Civil Initiative. But neither of these parties can claim to represent the opposition-minded middle class without Navalny.

The Kremlin sees participation in elections as a means of bolstering awareness and shaping an alternative, one which may not be very noticeable on the razed political playing field of 2016, but which could manifest itself in the long term when the stability of the current regime is less predictable. Access to the elections allows contenders to hone political skills, train campaign staff, and gain vital experience. Alexei Navalny was very successful at this in the Moscow mayoral elections, but it cost him the opportunity to participate in any future campaigns. There is little doubt that Putin, who most likely personally signs off on any decisions relating to Navalny, is genuinely convinced that the U.S. State Department is backing him as part of an effort to undermine the Russian people’s confidence in their government by any means possible. The question is also not about whether Navalny may win votes, because Putin isn’t afraid of that. The main threat for the Russian president is that Navalny could gain or expand support from major players within the Kremlin or within the Russian business community. Alfa Group’s interests in Navalny scares the Kremlin more than 27 percent of the vote.

Who is In?

Nonetheless, the Kremlin will look for alternative options which it can use to distract the liberal, anti-Putin segments of society. The first group is made up of the 1990s-era liberals that, unlike Navalny, the Kremlin views as small fry. Whereas Navalny is a politician worthy specific attention, 1990s liberals are the inconsequential background noise of the non-systemic opposition. In fact, Navalny himself has a similar attitude toward them—not because he’s arrogant, but because he has so much more political potential. Ultimately, the question of whether or not this group participates in the 2016 elections is meaningless when it comes to the future parliament, unless the Kremlin risks allowing the 1990s liberals to run in an informal alliance with Navalny in order to discredit them completely. The latter scenario significantly increases the risks of strong-arm measures against Navalny himself, who could end up with an actual prison sentence. At the very least, nobody will put up with his ubiquitous promotional campaign booths on the street anymore.

The second group that will likely be allowed to participate in the 2016 elections is comprised of  “constructive liber-als,” those who are compatible with the Putin regime. First and foremost this is former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who once aspired to be an arbiter between the Kremlin and the protest movement. Kudrin can be a conven-ient sparring partner. The liberal elite and the business community trust him, but he has fairly limited potential at the polls—it was the so-called “economic bloc” of the early 2000s government that was among the least popular. Most importantly, Kudrin himself doesn’t claim to be a real alternative to Putin. His participation in politics extends only as far as competing programs that are already under consideration by the government from the All-Russia People’s Front (a party launched by Putin to present an ostensible alternative to the pro-Kremlin United Russia), professional communities, official political parties, and moderate liberals. Here the only questions are ones about organization: will the Kremlin go with some sort of Union of Rights Forces (SPS) 3.0? The first version lost the 2003 elections in the wake of growing anti-oligarch sentiment and the start of the Yukos oil company’s demise. The party was then led by Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who never succeeded as a politician. Kudrin would be an adequate candidate to lead just such a party.

However the 2016 elections do play out, the regime can use all administrative resources and forceful measures pos-sible to ensure that the ballot list is to its liking. If for some reason RPR-PARNAS’s registration is rescinded, there won’t be any 100,000-strong crowds protesting in the streets. If the non-systemic opposition understands (as it does) that its battle for a place of its own in the Duma is little more than a political stage piece, what is the real objective of coalition-building? Who can unite with whom, why or why not?

If the Kremlin pushes the real opposition out of the political system, making it unable to compete within the political framework proscribed in the constitution, the non-systemic opposition will also be forced to accept these rules of the game. In practice, we could see the emergence of a political alternative to Putin’s platform—a liberal project that has existed de facto for a long time, but which always lacked the right medium. The distinct aspect of this project is that all players with any chance of electoral success are already embedded in the pro-Putin regime. The fight for recognition and votes under the current circumstances is therefore not a means of garnering seats in the Duma, but rather an intermediate step toward amassing social and political resources that can be transformed into tangible political dividends only when the Kremlin loses its ability to maintain the current political system.

Tatiana Stanovaya - Head of the Analytics Department, Center for Political Technologies

  • Tatiana Stanovaya