Staunton, April 27 – The conflicting reports that the Kremlin is either about to cancel this year’s gubernatorial elections or announce that they are going forward reflects the fact that “the Kremlin, when it comes to domestic politics, isn’t a unified group but instead involves several powerful groups which don’t always agree,” Aleksey Shaburov says.
Indeed, the editor of the Yekaterinburg Politsovet portal says, “one shouldn’t be surprised” when the Kremlin press service says one thing and the domestic political department says exactly the opposite.” Those two units report to different people, and those people haven’t reached consensus (politsovet.ru/73742-vybory-gubernatorov-otmenit-sohranit-perenesti.html).
Ultimately, of course, Vladimir Putin will have the last word; and at present he is focused on the war in Ukraine. But given his history – he cancelled gubernatorial elections once before, it is not impossible that he will cancel them again or indeed decide that the time has come to cancel them altogether.
In the present system, Shaburov continues, “gubernatorial elections are one of the most vulnerable elements in the Russian political system, vulnerable in the sense that the system can safely do without them or at least believes that it can do so. Yes, they perform several important functions, but there are situations when other tasks may be more important.”
And that means that if these elections aren’t cancelled this year, they remain “under threat” of being cancelled in the future. “If suddenly the system finds itself in a more stressful situation than it does right now, the gubernatorial elections will be among the things it will dispense with first.”
Talk about cancelling the elections this year began when Putin began his “special military operation” in Ukraine; but no quick decision was made as it easily could have been. Instead, promises were made that it would be taken by the end of April but that hasn’t happened, with both backers and opponents of such a step still speaking as if each had a chance.
In public, those who favor cancelling the elections talk about them as being “a dirty game,” occasions that “hostile forces” might exploit, and occasions when opposition forces have the chance to present their views. In private, such people fear the economic situation may deteriorate by the fall and worry about finding the money for such elections.
Those opposed to canceling the elections believe that canceling elections is a sign of weakness and could undermine the legitimacy of the regime, that the regime can easily control outcomes even if it can’t always control debates in the campaigns, and that elections can serve as a disciplining factor in the political system.
Behind these debates, Shaburov says, is the future of those on the two sides of the question. Those who win will gain in power; and those who lose will lose it. And consequently, talk about gubernatorial elections is a clear sign that there is real politics within the Kremlin, albeit of a kind that Putin likely could end whenever he chooses.