State Duma Elections: How Russia Used Donbas and Crimea to Legitimize Its Weakened Regime

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Real-Time History

In early 2021, the Kremlin launched a campaign to politically side-line the opposition accompanied with multiple bans including the FBK ban, the incriminating case of A. Navalny, branding the fight against corruption as “extremist activities,” restricting access to information flows, etc. Quite illustrative examples were the closure of ‘Open Russia,’ including Medusa, Dozhd, PASMI, and VTimes to the cohort of foreign agents. The culmination of the illusioned choice (particularly its technical part) was Roskomnadzor’s appeal to Google and Apple to stop technical support for Navalny’s Smart Voting application. Thus, Russia tried to prevent the disclosure of reliable information about the course and results of the election. Even methods of involving the population of the illegally occupied Donbas and Crimea were used, which testifies the critical situation of “United Russia.” If in 2016 its support reached 44% of the population, this time it was about 27% before the elections, and given that a third of voters did not want to go to the polls, it could be indeed considered a passive protest.

Instructions for bureaucracy and the quintessence of the (un) legitimate regime

According to the Constitution, the legislative power in Russia is formally reduced to the activities of such entities as the Federation Council and the State Duma (which constitute the Federal Assembly – analogous to parliament). The State Duma has the legislative initiative, actually participates in the approval of bills, ratification, denunciation of international treaties, and resolving issues of war and peace. Elections to the State Duma, of course, should be considered as a complex phenomenon with many variables, the core of which is the bureaucratic machine. Given that the bureaucracy works by default according to instructions, the legislation passed by the State Duma outlines the coordinate system by which Russia will function as a state body. It was important for Kremlin to nominate “reliable, loyal and correct” candidates in the State Duma because it is within this conference that many changes will take place, including the possible transit of power.

Before the dissolution of the previous conference, the State Duma adopted several legislative acts, including supplementing them with modifications to foreign agents. Such steps were crucial for the higher echelons of power, which usually resort to colouring the socio-political canvas with “self-other” narratives. Finding an external enemy diverts attention from numerous internal problems. The adoption of the new national security strategy only confirmed that opposition, foreign agents, and various harmful organizations are beneficial for the ruling regime in their perception of threats by the Russian Federation. This is because personal autocracy in Russia in modern conditions feels an urgent need to create the illusion of legitimacy. Otherwise, such a regime would not be recognized by the international community, which, in turn, would significantly increase rates for Russia in many dimensions.

In addition, even though 41 (!) political parties have been registered on the website of the Ministry of Justice (i.e. the initiative is still present), the monopoly of United Russia is rooted in the State Duma. All ministers are affiliated with the United Russia party. The presence of 3 more parties (Communist Party of Russia, “Fair Russia,” Liberal Democratic Party) does not play a huge role, because they together hold only 24% of seats, so we can safely say not only about the attraction of Russia to one-party but about rooting this phenomenon in the socio-political architecture. Opposition parties such as Russia of the Future, led by Alexei Navalny, does not even allow elections. One-party rule has become a symptom of a political regime that, while declaratively defined as a “sovereign democracy,” is authoritarian. Pluralism for Russia remains only an imitation that inevitably affects foreign policy – especially the choice of partners. Labelling individual actors in international relations as enemies due to homogeneity (because authoritarian regimes are always easier to cooperate due to the higher level of trust between the parties) and search ephemeral “foreign agents.”

Ministry of Post-Truth and Metapropaganda

There is, essentially, no independent media in the Russian Federation. All content produced by the media is scrutinized by the ruling party, the highest echelons of power. It is almost impossible to obtain unbiased information from Russian sources. The scientific and expert community is formed around a certain core of values, deviation from which can cost careers. Such values should be understood as the priority of the state’s national interests and the predominance of state security over the security of the individual. In foreign policy, the scientific and expert community promotes several narratives that often intersect: the isolation of the Russian Federation, its unique role in Eastern Europe and Asia, and the justified asymmetry in relations with the post-Soviet bloc. Securitization of NATO is designed to strengthen the existing regime, so such narratives are also quite popular in this context. Therefore, in general, expert circles actively articulate meanings and ideas that are harmoniously intertwined in the ideological outline of the Russian worldview, outlining the range of public opinion. Designing such an information environment allows an electoral autocracy like Russia to resort to democratic instruments (elections) while maintaining control over them, especially in the current year, when the situation has become critical.

The pre-election climate of “sovereign democracy” in Russia with a pronounced cult of personality, which was enshrined in the so-called “zeroing” of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, is not surprisingly intense in terms of numerous manipulations amid declining support for the ruling party. This time, the authorities could not openly ignore such developments, given the precedent in Belarus and the intensification of protests at the beginning of this year. Despite the struggle against the opposition, feeding the uninterrupted conveyor belt of information garbage, the Russian authorities were forced to take extreme measures to preserve their position, attracting about 600 thousand voters who were imposed Russian citizenship in the illegally occupied territories. Thus, the involvement of the DPR and LPR in electing deputies to the State Duma has become an instrument of Russian propaganda and a symptom of the weakness of the internal regime. It is not enough for the Russian authorities to eliminate potentially dangerous voters, provoke electoral absenteeism and provide the already traditional mechanism of falsification. In recent events, including ones in Belarus, it is becoming clear that “fake” elections are not enough. They still need to be “sold” to society. Even if a community is aware of the falsifications, the result should be perceived as not far from the truth. Of course, deja vu with 80% in Russia would lead to similar consequences as in Belarus, so for “United Russia,” the problem of legitimization has been exacerbated. The population’s involvement in the illegally occupied territories also indicated that the Russian leadership vitally needed a pool of 600,000 potential voters (according to Russian sociological centers). Especially if we consider that voting for the residents of Donbas and Crimea took place in an electronic format expanding the space for all kinds of falsifications. And to make these falsifications look pretty natural, Russian political discourse was pierced with numerous statements about the “United Russia” orientations of the inhabitants of the occupied territories, for whom the ruling party seemed to be the only political force that could guarantee the support for the future. Given the lack of opportunity to obtain a reliable sociological base from the occupied territories, it is almost impossible to verify the accurate value orientations of the population.

As for the interest of the Russian Federation directly in the inclusion of representatives of the DPR and LPR in the political orbit, this aspect should be considered through the prism of natural grounds for the integration of the occupied regions into the federation. In this context, Russia’s key goal in the confrontation with Ukraine is to return Donbas on Russian terms as a “Trojan horse.” It will be almost impossible to achieve this goal under the full integration of the occupied territories into Russia. Therefore, involving representatives in the election process and concluding various agreements with them, such as with the Union of Volunteers of Donbas, are only situational steps aimed primarily at the possibility of holding elections on principle “no matter how they vote, it matters how they count.” Russia involved the occupied population in its socio-political life, turning this pool of voters into another instrument of legitimizing its regime, but only with a negative result for the people themselves in the long run.

In addition, given the fact that issuing passports in the occupied territories takes place on a non-voluntary basis, and the environment is part of Ukraine, voting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as in the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, is legally considered as such that has been organized on a foreign site. Therefore, the results of such elections raise reasonable doubts and cannot be regarded as legitimate, let alone recognized by the international community, which supports Ukraine’s efforts in the process of finding ways to resolve the conflict.

Thus, the sharp drop in the ruling party’s ratings in Russia forced the Kremlin leadership to resort to several radical measures, including not only “helicopter money,” mobilization of electoral sultanates in the North Caucasus region, dirty information campaign, and traditional falsification, but also the involvement of the population on the occupied territories. Given the violation of international law and national law of Ukraine in an attempt to involve residents of the occupied territories in political races within Russia, such a composition of the State Duma, of course, cannot be called legitimate. Even despite numerous attempts by the Russian information autocracy to create artificial content to substantiate the legitimacy of such a process of forming a bureaucratic top.

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