Russians who oppose Putin can do little but change the atmosphere of the presidential election

Some will participate to win prizes, or because they must. Others will boycott. The outcome is certain, but the suggestion to show up, supported by Navalny, may be the last best hope for protest.

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Elections in modern Russia have long been a symbolic performance designed to show the world the indestructible unity of the Russian population with the ruling power.

The outcome of this month’s presidential election is pre-ordained, leading to understandably scant enthusiasm among the electorate. 

To address that indifference, this election cycle will see the Kremlin use an innovative array of techniques to bolster participation rates among politically passive populations. 

Online remote voting has been arranged in several Russian regions for the first time…enabling the Kremlin to tweak the results according to preset targets. 

Despite this skewed electoral playing field some opposition-minded Russians still plan to come to polling stations. But how much can they influence the predetermined outcome? 

Coercion, online voting, and incentives from the Kremlin

The Kremlin has long mastered the art of engineering electoral turnout to legitimize its rule, but every new electoral cycle takes new approaches and techniques to manipulate elections. This weekend it is aiming to secure an historic victory for the president, using a process that will be non-transparent on an unprecedented scale.

This year, online remote voting has been arranged in several Russian regions for the first time, providing officials with real-time updates, and enabling the Kremlin to tweak the results according to preset targets. 

E-voting also makes it easier to control turnout: in recent months, state employees and workers at government-aligned businesses have been forced to participate in a process that requires them not only to register for e-voting, but also to ensure the participation of two other people from among their friends or family members.   

The Kremlin will also use incentives in its fight against the concept of free and voluntary participation. Prizes and gifts are on offer for voters, cultivating an upbeat atmosphere: authorities have organized raffles of cars, flats, and cash prizes, while weaving nationalistic and family values into the proposition.

The Kremlin also wants to demonstrate the ’high level of support’ for Russia’s so-called special military operation and reinforce the idea that Russia’s rule in the occupied territories is legitimate.

In the occupied Ukrainian territories, where early voting began as early as late February, the authorities are using a stick rather than a carrot. Locals are being coerced to vote at gunpoint; Russian troops must vote, even in the trenches. 

Serving as a new wave of repression against Ukrainians, the Kremlin also wants to demonstrate the ’high level of support’ for Russia’s so-called special military operation and reinforce the idea that Russia’s rule in the occupied territories is legitimate.

Protest Vote vs boycotting

Putin will have no genuine rivals in the upcoming election, but the Kremlin is still keen to project the impression of competition, seeking to draw Russians’ attention to the intrigue of who will come second. 

Opposition-minded citizens, however, are seriously considering resorting to voting for a ‘spoiler candidate’ or simply spoiling their ballot papers, seeing no other way to demonstrate to the authorities their protest at the ever-increasing totalitarianism. 

Some may still favour Alexei Navalny’s previous strategy of ‘smart voting’, that is to support any candidate except Putin. 

Others may consider backing Vladislav Davankov, as a spoiler: unlike the other nominees, Davankov favours a peaceful settlement of the war in Ukraine (without, it must be said, specifying the terms of a settlement). 

But such tactics will increase the turnout rate, which plays into the Kremlin hands, and the numbers of votes for politicians with pro-government views: that alone will put off many opposition voters.

In the absence of an ‘against all’ option, the strategy of spoiling the ballot paper by ticking two or more boxes looks much more attractive – and potentially safer. 

However, this too has a downside: while it demonstrates to the Kremlin a negative attitude towards the procedure of ‘elections without a choice’ it still increases the overall turnout. Supporters of the strategy are also unlikely to ever know the numbers of spoiled ballots, and thus will never be able to assess the success of the protest vote.

The only tactic that most opinion leaders have expressed support for is the ‘Noon Against Putin’ campaign

But in the current environment, the strategy of boycotting the elections looks even less sensible, since the decrease in opposition voters’ activity will result in a relative increase in support of Putin. 

The stronger move would therefore appear to be to not boycott the symbolic performance, but to use it as a platform for a flash mob. The only tactic that most opinion leaders have expressed support for is the ‘Noon Against Putin’ campaign, an impromptu street protest where Russians around the world are encouraged to come to polls on 17 March at noon local time…and just stay there. This was the option endorsed by Navalny before his death in a Siberian prison, and that which his movement still supports.  

What participants do afterward is of secondary importance: the move is set to determine not the result of the elections, but the atmosphere in which they take place. This, in turn, is supposed to refute the misconception of growing popular support for the ruling power. 

Delegitimization and lessons from Belarus

Since the largest opposition rallies that were triggered by rigged presidential elections in 2012, the Kremlin has significantly advanced its use of technology to crack down on protests. 

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Facial recognition software and mobile data surveillance mean there is little appetite for public displays of dissent, making it less likely that Russians will follow the example of Belarusians – who stood up against their own once-again-elected dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenka, in the summer of 2020 (even though they, too, failed in the end). 

Nonetheless, lessons from Belarus have inspired some Russian opinion leaders in exile to call on the West not to recognize the legitimacy of Putin’s elections. 

It’s debateable that non-recognition would cause any significant division within Kremlin elites or help Ukrainian resistance. 

But it may begin to provoke a change of sentiment in Russian society, where the geopolitical context is important in shaping public opinion.  

However, with its state, society and institutions deeply flawed, Russia’s main problems still go far beyond the context of these elections.