The World

The Russian Liberal’s Dilemma

Putin’s opponents faced the agonizing dilemma of voting for his hand-picked “opponent” or just staying home. Neither worked.

Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak.
Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images, Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images and Gajmar/Wikipedia.

Is it worth voting in an election when the outcome has been predetermined? Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin’s reign already had several occasions to ponder this before Sunday’s presidential vote. As early as 2004, all opposition parties had been brought under the Kremlin’s direct control, reducing voters to little more than extras in the spectacle of the regime’s self-perpetuation. The unchanging karaoke playlist for those wishing for an alternative to Putin’s United Russia consisted of the Communists, the hard-right comic-relief Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and the designated liberal of the moment, always polling in low single digits.

The result was a slow swell of apathy. As an American reporter in Moscow, I covered both the 2008 election, which swapped in Putin’s hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and the 2012 election, which swapped Putin back in; both times, barely any of my Westernized, socially active acquaintances bothered to vote. In 2008, a few threw a protest vote to the Communists; in 2012, to the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. In general, the country’s most successful and educated demographic dismissed voting as something pensioners and byudzhetniki (federal employees) did, under the increasingly obvious stick-and-carrot enticements.

But a crucial change had occurred ahead of this year’s election: The opposition now has a genuine populist contender in anti-corruption blogger turned protest leader Alexei Navalny, who won 27 percent in a 2013 run for the mayor of Moscow; by 2017, in a remarkable first for an independent candidate, he had cobbled together a nationwide ground operationAfter getting barred from running on a flimsy pretext, Navalny called on his supporters to boycott the election. His campaign headquarters around the nation turned into “boycott centers.”

The Kremlin, for its part, offered Navalny’s electorate a curious replacement: the famous, if not exactly loved, establishment heiress and television personality Ksenia Sobchak. Sobchak, whose father, the former mayor of St. Petersburg, was Putin’s political mentor, claimed to stand for the same principles as Navalny, but with a much softer touch. In 2012, after participating in anti-Putin protests, Sobchak had been blacklisted from state-controlled TV channels; now, suddenly, she was back on all of them, a sure sign that her campaign had been approved from the top. (Conversely, Navalny’s very name appears to be taboo on Russian TV news). Still, she spoke directly for, and to, the demographic that, up until then, had found itself ignored at best and demonized as “national traitors” at worst. Overnight, “Sobchak or Boycott” became an electrifying quandary, sending vast swaths of the opposition into game-theory weeds.

On the one hand, an election with a predetermined result, with one candidate running virtually unopposed, is a de facto confidence vote for that candidate. Turnout thus becomes the only meaningful metric, and tanking it the only means of lodging a protest. On the other hand, getting all opposition to voluntarily stay home is the ultimate gift to a hybrid regime like Putin’s. The president has proved to be a surprising stickler for the outer trappings of democracy—more so, in certain ways, than the current U.S. administration.

Faced with this conundrum, many were forced to invent whole new rationales for voting or not. Anton Dolin, a leading film critic, voted for Sobchak, explaining: “My voice is simply a way of saying thank you to Ksenia for the things she dared to say out loud: about [the annexation of] Crimea, political prisoners, freedom of speech.”

Russia’s few genuinely independent elected officials were divided on whether to participate. Yevgeny Roizman, the abrasive mayor of Yekaterinburg, took to YouTube to agitate for the boycott as “a matter of hygiene: When you have a chance not to get dirty, don’t get dirty.” Lusya Stein, a young municipal deputy in Moscow, pointed out on Facebook that the boycott simply raises the relative share of Putin’s votes. One of the opposition’s few surviving media voices, the channel TV Rain, coyly reminded in a Saturday mailer that “tomorrow’s weather is perfect for staying in.”

Still others claimed to be turned off voting simply because the regime’s desperation for a high turnout had become so stark: Exhortations to vote blared from everywhere, from roadside posters to grocery-store receipts. Aeroflot, the state-controlled airline, used push notifications normally reserved for flight-delay announcements. More malevolently, reports of rising institutional pressure had described many Russians forced to vote by bosses, supervisors, etc., with some even instructed to take a photo of the filled ballot as proof. As these stories proliferated, Navalny’s ground organization eagerly collated them as additional reasons to join the boycott. “Never before has political protest assumed a form so in tune with my natural proclivity for simply staying in bed,” quipped Varya Babitskaya, a journalist.

As it turned out, Sunday’s election result has Putin reascending for his fourth term as president with more than 76 percent of the vote and a reported turnout of 67.7 percent. The latter number will be sporadically challenged as more and more stories of ballot stuffing, intimidation, and “carousels” (organized repeat voting) inevitably come to light. The former, one assumes, will not budge.

From these numbers alone, both strategies, the boycott and the protest vote, seem to be equally moot. Without access to the media, the courts, or the Václav Havel–style moral high ground, and absent a vicious economic downturn, the opposition will simply never have the numbers to make more than a dent in the polls outside Moscow.

In 2012, Mikhail Prokhorov actually came in second in the capital region, pushing Putin below the 50 percent barrier for the first time since 2000. What felt, for a second, like a symbolic little win for the opposition was in fact a disaster: For Putin’s camp, the lesson was that, if even a transparent Kremlin plant like Prokhorov, running the laziest imaginable campaign, could end up consolidating the protest vote, someone like Navalny must never, in any circumstances, be allowed on the ballot.

Prokhorov followed up his loss with the creation of a party called Civic Platform, which, over six years, won exactly one Duma seat and promptly slid into irrelevance. Sobchak, who ran a similarly relaxed campaign bordering on a kind of cosplay (especially during her U.S. visit, where she donned power pearls and took photos by the Lincoln Memorial), is already following suit: She has announced the launch of an organization called Party of Change, cementing her dissolution into the “systemic opposition.” In the election itself, she came in a distant fourth with less than 2 percent of the vote.

Perhaps, however, the benefits of either approach are just not as immediate and evident as we’d like. “The chances of immediate change by elections are greatly reduced by boycotts,” concludes a 2013 study of “Election Boycotts and Hybrid Regime Survival,” “but the likelihood that the incumbent will lose in a future election is significantly higher when the opposition boycotts.”

In the other corner is Vasily Sonkin, a young Russian media entrepreneur who had publicly voiced his inability to decide between Sobchak or the boycott in the runup to the election: He woke up on Sunday and impulsively went to the polls. When I asked him which of the many pro-Sobchak arguments had finally swayed him, his answer was unexpected: none. “It’s a symbolic gamble,” he explained. “What if Sobchak suddenly builds a decent organization? Then my vote will acquire some meaning in the future. In the absolute absence of consequence, any action is better than inaction.”