A common joke on Russia’s social networking websites is that ballot papers have just two choices—do you mind whether Putin becomes President, or don’t you mind? In this vein it is perhaps most surprising that United Russia’s highest election results came not from the most traditional, Slavic heartlands of European Russia but from the Federation’s ethnic Republics.
Tatarstan polled 78 per cent for United Russia, Bashkortostan 70 per cent, Mordovia 91 per cent, and Tuva 85 per cent. According to Rashit Akhmetov, columnist for Volga Region newspaper Zvyezda Povolzhya, “places where United Russia polled more than ninety percent were Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and psychiatric hospitals.” In these more volatile Republics in the North Caucasus, where the power of so-called regional strongmen as local leaders is more evident, United Russia polled 99 per cent, 91 per cent and 90 per cent respectively.
Indeed, United Russia seemed so popular in Chechnya that the Jamestown Foundation reported that the number of votes cast for the party exceeded even the number of registered voters ! Such successes were not limited to the Caucasus; Tatarstan’s Nurlat Region polled some 99 per cent for United Russia . Meanwhile in the country’s more Russian regions, the party suffered several setbacks—in Yaroslavlskaya Oblast 29 per cent, in Kostroma Oblast 30 per cent, and in Moskovskaya Oblast 32 per cent. It was pointed out in the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta that one in five voters in the Don region had voted Communist .
There have been demonstrations on the streets in several important cities—Kazan included—yet this is no Tahrir Square. Political apathy and an older population than the restless countries in the Middle East are both key contributors. Yet how has the party whose leader ended elections of regional governors and can fairly been considered strongly centralist been able to dominate the ballots in Republics such as Tatarstan?
It is tempting for the Western observer to rule every electoral anomaly down to the cunning genius of corrupt bureaucrats—and indeed this must be taken into account in some cases—yet it also leads to overlooking other interesting facts the election results have shown us. Certainly given the unstable context of the Republics in the North Caucasus, and the credentials of some of the authoritarian leaders there, it would be naive not to be suspicious. “99 per cent is ridiculous,” one online commenter said about the Chechen vote. “Even Jesus didn’t get those sort of numbers. Besides, where are the separatists? Did they all oversleep?”
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s declaration that it was time for the Parade of Presidents to end only highlighted both Moscow’s anti-Federalist credentials, and Kazan’s resulting murmurs of discontent. President of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov has stated that he would refuse to change his title to Head of the Republic. Moscow has shown time and time again since canceling elections of regional leaders, that although it can make Republican presidents, it can break them just as easily. As a result, regional leaders can’t use good results for United Russia at the polls as a bargaining chip anymore—it is simply what is expected of them. The example of former President of Bashkortostan Murtaza Rakhimov is an interesting one. Taking power during the turbulent Yeltsin years, Rakhimov was ejected by the Bashkir Kurultai (Parliament) with Moscow’s blessing. Rakhimov had criticized Moscow for what he called “excessive centralism.” Many other long standing regional governors with a taste for the generous autonomy Yeltsin offered them—Chuvash President Fyodorov, Tatar President Shaimiyev, Kalmyk President Illyumzhinov and governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast Eduard Rossel, to name but a few—were all replaced in 2009 and 2010. More recently, on 8 December the Mayors of Akhtubinsk and Ulyanovsk, two cities on the Volga where United Russia had polled less than satisfactory, tendered their resignations. Their successors all owe their jobs to United Russia, to Putin rather than to Yeltsin.
There is a distinct possibility that those regional governors and presidents who want to try and defend what little real autonomy their regions have left from the Yeltsin years have just been tapped on the shoulder by reality. If a republic such as Tatarstan, which has always been unapologetic in asserting its autonomy from Moscow, were to vote en-masse against the Kremlin, those in power would find more than enough reasons to install a more loyal local leader. It is consequently wiser for those who want to try and save their regional autonomy to try and do so within the context of the most powerful ruling party.
There are, of course, obvious problems in ruling majority non-Russian Republics such as Tatarstan and Chechnya. (Why else, after problems of secessionism, would it be the case that every political party in Russia has to be all-Russian, making parties campaigning only on local issues for certain regions unelectable?) Yet there is also something that, if tamed, could be a formidable weapon indeed—the local elites. In European Russia, Moscow tends to be something of an economic and political vacuum, sucking in money and raw materials and luring the ambitious from the provinces with its so-called bright light syndrome. Regional governors around Moscow have little to lose: their provinces are under far more economic and political pressure from Moscow than impoverished areas of Southern Siberia where the Communists still hold sway in local governments.
Sergey Sobyanin, who became the new mayor of Moscow in 2010, isn’t a Muscovite, he is from Tyumen in Southern Siberia. In contrast, there has never been a President of Chuvashia, Kalmykia, Bashkortostan, Mordovia, or Tatarstan, who is not a member of the ethnic group for which the Republic in question is named. In Bashkortostan, for instance, where ethnic Bashkirs are only roughly a quarter of the population, this means there is a relatively small selection of regional rulers for Moscow to choose from. Therefore, there is a distinctly ethnic flavor to the recent elections. Minnikhanov is a Tatar President as well as President of Tatarstan. He has a Presidency legitimized partly on his very ethnic group to lose, more so than an official from Siberia appointed to be a governor of a Western Russian provincial town. This, of course, begs the question: do United Russia Tatars see themselves as voting for Minnikhanov, or for Putin? The Tatar President may be “one of them” (a United Russia official), but he’s also “one of us” (a Tatar), a distinction which is lost in the majority Russian provinces.
Political analyst for Novaya Gazeta Vladimir Belayev wrote: “United Russia didn’t even try in this election, and the other parties didn’t even have the money to. It’s so boring.” This is not to say that other parties did not make a distinct effort to court the voters of the republics in these elections. Material handed out by the liberal Yabloko party on Kazan’s streets during campaigning was a 62-page booklet by Andrei Babushkin, the party’s Moscow deputy chairman called “To Be A Russian Is To Be An Internationalist.” The booklet emphasized the value Russia’s unique cultural diversity. United Russia meanwhile simply reproduced their campaign materials in the Tatar language. It seems to have worked. United Russia campaign posters in Tatar, whilst the anti-Putin slogan “Partia Zhulikov i Varov” (Party of Swindlers and Thieves) can only be seen in Russian. In the Caucasus, where United Russia is likely seen as the party that won the Second Chechen War, voting for the ruling party is probably also a manifestation of loyalty to Russia as a state. In the words of Grigorii Golosov in a recent article for “Open Democracy,” “[United Russia’s] biggest successes were in areas with a concentration of ethnic minority groups. A reputation as a provincial and un-Russian party is not the best.”
In all these cases, whether in the republics along the Volga such as Tatarstan, those in the North Caucasus such as Chechnya, or even those further to the East, power has an ethnic component that can be either harnessed or feared. These recent results are testament to Moscow’s having achieved the former. Yet now that United Russia’s leaders know that their votes are more dependent on the Republics than before, perhaps the non-Russian vote has the potential to be of even more crucial importance in next year’s Presidential elections.