Russia’s election apathy bodes ill for the country’s future

Newsletter: Europe Express

The writer is a senior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center

Early on the morning of September 17, as polls opened across Russia for three days of voting, a huge queue formed in central Moscow reminiscent of the line for vodka during Mikhail Gorbachev’s shortlived prohibition era. The difference is that back then people queued voluntarily. Now they are coerced. Anyone working for a state organisation, the rumour goes, was required to vote before midday, though no one will admit it — there would be repercussions at work if they did.

The morose morning queueing and the election more broadly are indicative of widespread voter apathy. Official turnout was 52 per cent in an election that looks set to deliver a two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament for the United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin. People hope that once they have cast their vote the authorities will leave them alone, at least until the next time their loyalty must be summoned. This time, the state bought off members of the military and law enforcement with a one-off payment of Rbs15,000 ($200) designed to “protect the social needs” of the recipient ahead of the vote. Other social groups such as families with children and pensioners received Rbs10,000 ($135).

In a system in which the state is the main player, arbiter, and employer, elections are a ritual of anticipatory obedience. But by carefully cultivating a submissive population, the Kremlin has created a citizenry that prefers to work for someone else, preferably the state, than to run their own businesses, and one which is suspicious of any politician, including opposition activists.

Social manipulation of this order will eventually provoke a crisis of human capital, among other problems. An apathetic populace will not, for example, bring about much-needed growth in labour productivity. The main economic motivation frequently expressed, even by young respondents, in focus groups to the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Levada Center — of “getting a mortgage, paying it off, getting another loan, and paying it off” — will not assist the development of Russia.

Ordinary Russians simply do not believe that they can make a difference or effect change. Instead they look for the future in nostalgic visions of the past perpetuated by state propaganda. In a recent poll, half of those asked said they would like to return to the Soviet political system, while 62 per cent would like to have a Soviet-style planned economy. Another poll found that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s popularity among young Russians was on the rise. Sustained by the empire’s former glory, Putin’s Russia is walking backwards.

The imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters have tried to set a political fire under disillusioned voters using a form of tactical voting. Using information from an internet app, people were encouraged to vote for the opposition candidate with the best chances of beating the United Russia party contender. The aim was to show the Kremlin that its power is not absolute. But the most viable alternative candidates were often those running for the Communist party. Navalny’s tactic turned this election into a choice between the “party of Chekists” and the communists. This does nothing to alter the disempowered mood among the public, nor the political vector.

The authorities are perfectly content with the system that has emerged, one which combines fearsome repression of the politically active with maintaining disengagement. But in addition to the deteriorating quality of Russia’s human capital there are other problems, including stagnating real disposable incomes and changes in global energy usage. The Kremlin will not always have oil and gas revenue to buy loyalty.

What Putin and his inner circle are relying on is that there will be enough political and economic heft for the rest of their time in power. What happens after that, beyond the 2030s, is of little concern to them. Like Madame de Pompadour, their attitude is “Après nous, le déluge.”

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