Hours before succumbing to the nerve agent novichok in a plane to Moscow, Russia’s most prominent opposition activist Alexei Navalny posted a photograph of himself on Instagram with a group of supporters in the Siberian city of Tomsk.
His message was aimed at voters in the city, who go to the polls on Sunday in one of dozens of elections for local governors and parliaments in 23 of Russia’s 85 regions. Mr Navalny urged them to turf out lawmakers backed by President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party.
“The party in power has a lot of money, but we can only rely on the help of good, honest people,” said Mr Navalny, who emerged from a medically-induced coma in a Berlin hospital on Monday. “Crooks will not expel themselves!”
Sunday’s regional elections represent the most important test of the popularity of Mr Putin’s party ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. A stagnant economy and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic have helped inflame public anger sparked by specific local issues where voters feel abandoned or slighted by United Russia, which holds a supermajority in the national parliament but whose popularity fell to a record low last month.
“It is definitely a dress rehearsal [for 2021],” said Tom Adshead, director of research at Macro-Advisory, a strategic consultancy. “Showing Putin that the machine is in place, it all works and that he doesn’t need to worry about next year . . . It is an audience of one.”
But the machine is showing signs of malfunction.
Protests in Khabarovsk, a region in the Far East, have run for two months after its governor was arrested and replaced by the Kremlin, sparking copycat protests across the country.
While there are no polls in Khabarovsk on Sunday, opposition candidates are targeting other restive regional electorates in a bid to upset incumbents backed by the ruling party.
United Russia’s popularity fell to 30.5 per cent last month, according to the state-run pollster. It won 54.2 per cent of the vote in the 2016 parliamentary election, but since then has presided over falling real incomes for three of the past four years, an increase in the retirement age and a pandemic response that has seen Russia record the world’s fourth-highest number of Covid-19 infections.
The tightly centralised system of control implemented by Mr Putin means regional governors and parliaments exercise limited power. But they are also beholden to the Kremlin for handouts, making them prime targets for his opponents.
“As a local administration your incentive is not to be friendly to your constituents but to the centre so you get more resources and support for your re-election,” said Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance. “And the financial situation has not got better over time, but worse.”
Analysts say that Kremlin-backed candidates in gubernatorial races in the Irkutsk, Komi and Arkhangelsk regions face the strongest challenges, while opposition parties could overturn United Russia majorities in the regional parliaments of Novosibirsk and Magadan, among others.
While detailed polling at a regional level is either not conducted or not made public, in all five of these regions, roughly a third of voters rejected a new constitution ratified by a national referendum that allowed Mr Putin to remain as president for an additional 12 years.
In Irkutsk, a region in eastern Siberia, the federal government is accused of poor handling of vast floods last year that killed dozens and left thousands homeless. In the north-western regions of Arkhangelsk and Komi, protests have run since 2018 against plans to build a landfill for Moscow’s rubbish at a site close to their joint border.
Mr Adshead said regional political upsets typically occur when “the centre does something that really pisses off the locals. Arkhangelsk and Khabarovsk are classic examples.”
The pandemic has also disproportionately affected Russia’s regions, where hospitals, medical provisions and healthcare budgets are far worse than those in the capital, and many are still under various levels of lockdown.
The Kremlin has in recent weeks sought to play down the threat of its nominees failing to win more than 50 per cent of votes in gubernatorial elections, prompting a run-off that can galvanise opposition sentiment. “There is no tragedy in second rounds,” Mr Putin’s spokesman said last month.
That said, certain administrative barriers — such as a requirement for gubernatorial candidates to obtain the support of a proportion of local lawmakers to be listed on the ballot — have been deployed to block potential challengers from running in races that are likely to be close.
In Arkhangelsk, Oleg Mandrykin, an environmental activist backed by the anti-landfill campaign, was last month barred from standing as governor despite reportedly gaining enough signatures. The Kremlin-appointed incumbent has since declared that he is against the rubbish tip.
The likely beneficiaries of poor showings by United Russia will be parties from the so-called systemic opposition: parties approved by the Kremlin that offer voters a choice, but typically support Mr Putin on critical national issues.
But while they rarely challenge United Russia in the federal parliament, candidates from these parties can become lightning rods for anti-Moscow sentiment in regions where voters feel ignored by the Kremlin.
“It’s easy to negotiate with the federal centre . . . But to speak on equal terms, proving that we are not aborigines who wear beads, is really difficult,” said Mikhail Shchapov, the candidate from the Communist party seeking to unseat the Kremlin-appointed governor in Irkutsk.
Mr Navalny and his organisation represent true opposition to United Russia and are often barred from ballots. Instead, he has developed a system of “smart voting”, which in elections last year helped unseat incumbents by directing opposition votes to the most likely challenger.
Some of his supporters claim he was poisoned in a bid to stall that effort. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
“Our major project is smart voting, the primary aim, and probably the Kremlin’s primary concern,” said Vladimir Milov, a senior aide to Mr Navalny. “This will continue regardless [of his poisoning].”
“We want more regions like Khabarovsk, where this worked and created a major public uprising,” he added.