Staunton, VA, February 16, 2016 — In addition to all the other “administrative resources” Moscow officials have to control the outcomes of elections, two developments this week suggest that the upcoming Duma vote, if in fact it is not put off on one pretext of another, is likely to be especially meaningless.
On the one hand, the four parliamentary parties appear to have agreed not to contest each other in at least 40 single member districts to ensure that their leaders return to the Russian parliament. And on the other, the Federation Agency for Nationality Affairs wants to regulate all campaign speech lest it provoke new ethnic tensions, as has occurred in the past.
But if these latest moves do ensure that the vote will go exactly as Vladimir Putin wants, they also have the effect of creating a situation in which ever more Russians are likely to see through the Kremlin’s stratagems and come out into the streets in protest as they did after the elections in 2011-2012.
Indeed, there is already reason to think that both of these moves will be resisted even before the vote takes place and that these fights over their implementation in and of themselves will create problems for the center far greater than leaving the situation well enough alone would have.
According to Moscow media reports, the leaders of the four parties currently in the Duma have agreed that in ten single-member districts, the leaders of the other four will not challenge the candidate of one of them so as to ensure that each will be able to ensure that its top ten leaders will be in the new Duma.
That has sparked sharp criticism from Russian commentators like Pavel Svyatenkov who say that this does no honor to Russian democracy even though they concede that there are precedents for it in other countries and what is more important threats by party leaders in the regions to torpedo the agreement.
These threats could destroy what little party unity there is and even lead to the kind of public disputes and fragmentation that will reduce still further the legitimacy of one or more of these parties and of any electoral outcomes that such arrangements may make possible in one or another part of the Russian Federation.
The other development this week affecting the upcoming campaigns was a call by Igor Barinov, the head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, to have the parties agree not to make use of nationalist slogans and, failing that, to allow his agency and the judicial system to block campaign materials using them.
It is certainly true as he and others have said that no electoral campaign in Russia has failed to exacerbate ethnic tensions as parties and candidates seek to win votes by playing to the views and prejudices of the Russian electorate, including through the use of such slogans as “Russia for the Russians.”
But efforts to ban this or that slogan will either offend those who like it or lead parties to seek workarounds in order to appeal in a covert manner to the same attitudes. Both will reduce the legitimacy of the election campaign given that nationalist attitudes, both Russian and non-Russian, exist in Russia, as Valery Vyzhutovich points out.
And the Moscow commentator concludes with words that show just how difficult the task Barinov has set himself is likely to be. “Nationalist hysteria as a mass psychosis doesn’t exist in the country,” Vyzhutovich says. “But the temptation to exploit it” very much does. “And the closer to September the country goes, the stronger will be that temptation.”
Not surprisingly, many Russian nationalists and Siberian activists are anything but pleased by the idea, seeing it as a survival of the communist past – they note that the Duma deputy who came up with the idea is a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation — and Moscow’s tendency to address all problems with gigantist projects.
And they also, in the words of one Russian nationalist, believe that the introduction of large numbers of ethnic Ukrainians in the region would threaten Russia’s national security. In the words of one, “the rebirth and rise of Russia will be possible only” if those populating the area are people with “a truly Russian consciousness.”
In the 1920s, the Soviets repaid these allies with massive political and social repression, trying or expelling the leaders of what was known among Ukrainians as the Green Wedge. And subsequently, Soviet officials promoted the massive re-identification of Ukrainians there as ethnic Russians.
Were Ukrainian refugees tempted to go there and then disappointed as they likely would be, they could constitute a new and potentially powerful nucleus of a genuinely Ukrainian national movement in the Russian Far East, clearly the last thing Russian officials would like to see emerge.
For background and references to sources on the once large and vibrant Ukrainian community in the Russian Far East and on Moscow’s recent nervousness about its revival, see “‘Zelenyi Klin’ isn’t Only Ukrainian ‘Wedge’ in Russia, and Some in Moscow are Nervous,” June 12, 2014; “A Second Ukraine Being Reborn in Russian Far East,” June 6, 2014 ; “Moscow Views Ethnic Ukrainian NGOs in Russia as Continuing Threat,” July 15, 2013; and “Russians Repress Ukrainians in Far East and Threaten to Deport Crimean Tatars There,” March 26, 2015.