Rostislav Turovsky, Head of the HSE Laboratory for Regional Political Studies, and the Laboratory’s Research Assistant Olga Khlopovskikh presented their research on ‘Opposition in Russia's Regional Political Regimes: Between Conflict and Incorporation’ at the XIV April HSE Academic Conference.
Opposition attitudes in Russian regions today are an unstable andfluid process. Factors such as the living standards of the population have almost no influence on the opposition’s success. They had more weight in the mid-90s, although even then, their influence also was limited, R. Turovsky and O. Khlopovskikh believe.
An illustrative example are the elections of 1993 and 1995, where the Russian electoral space became clearly polarized in accordance with the results of the liberal reforms for certain regions. The authors emphasize that those regions with higher levels of population income, and where the changes in the pre-election year were positive or at least not very negative, expressed higher support for liberal parties.
Today the situation is different. Election results bear almost no relationship to the level of people’s satisfaction with their living standard. People do not believe that the victory of opposition candidates will positively affect their social and material status. ‘Opposition attitudes are replaced with loyalty among the poorer segments of the population who have not profited from reforms, since they don’t believe that the opposition’s victory matters, and the government’s authority is growing’, R. Turovsky and O. Khlopovskikh conclude.
What influences the opposition vote? The research authors outline some factors caused by the local specifics of political regimes. They include consolidation of the elite, public conflicts within governmental bodies, and the level of personal influence of specific politicians. Often the governor’s personal authority turns out to be the key factor. This is confirmed by many examples when the partywhich is supported by the most popular governor has improved its election results. The most striking example, according to the researchers, is the influence of Aman Tuleev, governor of the Kemerovo Oblast.
The 2011 elections are interesting from this point of view, since they were precededby many changes of governor, including the replacement of some experienced and rather popular officials. ‘These replacements lead to considerable differences in the election results, most often in decreasing support for ‘United Russia’ in the regions where inexperienced leaders came to power, especially those from unrelated organizations’, the report says. A remarkable example of growing opposition attitudes as a result of the change of the governor was in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, which had always been very loyal.
This means that a change of governor, even those who are electorally non-effective, can affect growing opposition attitudes and lead to a worsening of the situation for the ‘power party’, the researchers say.
All these arguments prove that there is a latent opposition, although this is successfully repressed in its transition to electoral forms, but is not impossible in the form of regional and local surges, which are a reaction to changes in the balance of political powers within the region, the authors believe. Nevertheless, in any situation the power either neutralizes and forces the opposition out, or uses its resources for its own profit. How does this happen?
Having a limited and inconsistent support from the voters, opposition parties and politicians in Russian regions have to choose between integrating into in the existing regime orloss of influence, the authors say.
The heads of regions and municipalities who came to power with the support of the opposition in the end either lost their power or joined ‘United Russia’: ‘Out of 16 governors who were members of the Communist Party, two went to ‘United Russia’ (and both of them still hold their positions), and only N. Vinogradov, governor of the Vladimir Oblast, retains both his membership of the Communist Party and his position in 2013. The rest of the governors from the Communist Party lost power, and although some of them came into conflict with the Communist Party and were expelled from it, they could not integrate into the regime of power relationships formed by the central government’.
Even on the municipal level a popular trend is that the opposition is forced out of executive bodies. On the level of regional capitals, some of the politicians who had been nominated by the communists or had been members of the party, used the same tactics as the governors and switched to ‘United Russia’.
It is remarkable that opposition voters barely mention the opposition merging with the government, and these processes don’t tend to influence the voters’ behaviour. First, if a party, for example, as a result of its strong opposition nature wins the majority of seats in a legislative assembly, the voters do not see it as collaborating. And, second, most of the voters are simply not interested in the distribution of vice speaker’s positions and committees. Thus, conflict with the government is an effective electoral tactic, while cooperating with them after the election is desirable, R. Turovsky and O. Khlopovskikh emphasize.
According to the authors, the opposition’s co-optioning in regional power is a stabilizing factor for the regime. The practice of distributing administrative positions is used in the State Duma, and has started to be used even more actively after the opposition’s success in 2011. ‘On a regional level, ‘United Russia’ controls all the positions of vice speakers and heads of committees and commissions in only 34 regions. The Communist Party holds these positions in 33 other regions of the federation’, the research says.
The researchers conclude that a sustainable and widespread opposition electorate has not yet formed in Russia, and the existing resources for opposition electoral behaviour are actually converted into reproducing and sustaining the existing regime.