Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Putin and Russian Subnational Politics in 2014

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Putin and Russian Subnational Politics in 2014

Article excerpt

The year 2014 may come to be seen as a political turning point for Russia on two fronts. At a time when Russian foreign policy was consumed with the instability resulting from growing conflict over the Crimean annexation and President Vladimir Putin's support for the separatists in southeast Ukraine, voting held simultaneously throughout Russia on its unified day of regional and local elections on September 14 presented a welcome domestic contrast. Kremlin-endorsed candidates won overwhelmingly in races for over 6,000 different offices in the elections for 30 governors, 14 regional assemblies, vacated deputy seats in 18 other regional assemblies, and numerous local councils and chief executive positions.1

There were no sudden unexpected crises threatening the boundaries of political participation imposed on opposition candidates throughout Russia.

Putin's efforts to centralize authority in Russia were entrenched long before the September 2014 election. The elections were held throughout Russia simultaneously with the launching of a national reform plan to consolidate greater Kremlin control over Russian municipal governments. The reform, adopted by the Russian national parliament and signed by President Putin on May 27, 2014, effectively disempowers local self-government throughout Russia over the next few years by abolishing the offices of many directly elected Russian city mayors and even citywide councils.2 Through reform of local self-government, Putin would consolidate his control over the last remaining vestige of democratic pluralism in Russia, namely the powers still ceded to cities through directly elected and competitive political offices.

The September election and the reform, however, only seemed to ensure Putin's unquestioned authoritarian dominance over Russian subnational politics. Compounded by the fallout of his foreign policy from the Ukrainian crisis, the reform of city governments may leave Russia internally less governable and its political future less stable than the September 14th election results appeared to suggest.

The September 14th Election

Clean Sweep for Putin and United Russia

The election on September 14 produced an unqualified success for Putin and his efforts to dominate Russian subnational politics. The campaign itself was effectively a national referendum for Putin personally and his actions in neighboring Ukraine during the previous months.

Any imminent risk to the standard of living for Russian consumers resulting from Western sanctions and the retaliatory import embargo imposed against Western goods by the Russian government seemed a remote concern. A mere 5 percent of nationally surveyed Russians on the eve of the elections in August feared serious direct consequences for themselves and their families from the economic sanctions and import embargo; 63 percent supported Putin's actions in Ukraine; and 82 percent said that they again would vote for him as president.3 Early voting, previously disallowed because of vote fraud, was reinstituted in 2014 to boost turnout nationally from the low participation in the previous unified national election day on September 8, 2013. Including pensioners, state employees, and students bussed to polling precincts in early voting, an estimated 37 percent of eligible Russians voted on September 14 compared to only 26 percent in 2013. Few Russians just back from their August holidays or dacha gardening would have been upset about their economic futures by the abbreviated summer campaign. Candidates from almost all political parties embraced Putin's policies in defiance of the West without question and conducted their campaigns against the background of nationalist euphoria over Russia's renewed superpower status heralded by the national media.

For Putin, who publicly regretted the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the greatest 20th century tragedy, the election results on September 14 succeeded with the political reversion of Russia to a state closely resembling the former Soviet era. …

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