Russia goes to the polls on September 19 to elect a new Duma – the country’s legislature. Russian elections are not known for their unpredictability – United Russia, the party linked to the president, Vladimir Putin, tends to come away with more than half of the vote. The remainder is split between well-established “opposition” parties including the Communist Party and the (populist right-wing, don’t be fooled by the name) Liberal Democratic Party.
Underhand administrative tricks are often used to keep genuinely opposing parties off the ballot. Any opposition parties allowed on to the ballot are part of the mechanism the Putin regime uses to give an appearance of legitimacy to what is in fact a predictable electoral outcome.
In 2021, the balancing act may prove more difficult than usual. These are the first Duma elections since significant constitutional reforms last year, which strengthened the powers of the Russian president, increased the powers of the centre over regional and local governments, and reduced the independence of the courts. United Russia’s approval rating, meanwhile, is way down after it increased the retirement age in 2018.
But the opposition is not in a strong position to capitalise on United Russia’s drop in popularity. The closest person Russia has to a genuine leader of the opposition – Alexei Navalny – is now languishing in a Russian jail, having been nearly fatally poisoned by Russian security services late in 2020, and then arrested for violating his parole in receiving treatment in Germany.
There was hope Navalny’s “Smart Voting” initiative – a tactical voting strategy aiming to maximise the chances of opposition candidates being elected – might chip into United Russia’s numbers. But Navalny’s organisation has been classified as “extremist” and its web content – including Smart Voting – has been blocked.
Russia’s domestic TV broadcasters do an effective job of managing public criticism. A recent survey found that 72% of Russians rely on the television for their news, of which the highest viewing figures go to the state-linked broadcasters Rossiya-1 (48%) and Channel 1 (47%) – both of which toe the Kremlin’s line. Opposition broadcasters have been largely forced out of Russia’s domestic media markets.
Many independent media outlets have been forced to self-declare as “foreign agents”, which involves publicly declaring foreign funding, damages advertising revenue and increases auditing obligations. Others have been forced to shut down or relocate abroad, while coordinated so-called “patriotic” media outlets flood Russia’s online space with a pro-regime line.
View from abroad
But what about international public opinion? Since 2005, Russia’s international broadcaster, RT (formerly Russia Today) has been presenting a Russian perspective on global affairs for international audiences. The network’s editor-in-chief is Margarita Simonyan, a close Putin ally who also runs the state-owned media conglomorate, Rossiya Segodnya. RT tends to present Kremlin-friendly views tailored to an international audience.
As our recently published book showed, RT has a well-worn approach for covering contentious issues. This pushes the idea that powerful forces are conspiring against ordinary people internationally. For example, it portrayed the 2020 US presidential elections as being undermined by the coordinated efforts of big business, political elites and the mainstream media.
RT’s coverage of the most recent Russian presidential elections in 2018, meanwhile, often mirrored Russian domestic coverage by foregrounding humorous stories about opposition candidates, which worked to undermine their credibility.
In the run-up to this month’s Duma election, RT’s coverage has combined “clickbait” with conspiracy. It has poked fun – for example – at the opposition Communist Party’s flirtation with religion and its claim that Jesus was the first communist. It has also drawn attention to the Communists’ attempts to block the political candidacy of Maria Butina. Butina, now a host of RT’s Russian service, first gained notoriety after she was imprisoned and deported by US authorities for unregistered pro-Russian lobbying.
Where it comes to election issues, RT tends to uncritically reproduce regime allegations about opposition candidates. The broadcaster has also emphasised splits within the opposition – especially where this indicates that the liberal opposition disapproves of Navalny for his more nationalist sentiments.
Hearts and minds
But the majority of RT’s pre-election online coverage has involved stories in which Russian officials accuse the west of plans to meddle in Russia’s election. These allegations have been a staple of Russia’s domestic TV coverage – but tropes such as this play well with international audiences mistrustful of what they see as western attempts to build global hegemony.
RT has a long history of featuring conspiratorial content. Our latest research shows how over time the network has used conspiracy theories to develop a ready-made script for interpreting any and all domestic and global affairs.
Messages pushed by RT during this election campaign include the idea that investigative journalists are in league with foreign intelligence agencies to undermine Russia. Also that the west is acting hypocritically for challenging Russian election meddling, as its own actions are no better.
In August it emerged that the OSCE would not send observers for the elections after the Kremlin placed a limit on the number allowed, citing the COVID pandemic. Candidates with near-identical names and physical appearances as opposition figures have appeared as vote-splitters on ballot lists. For these – and many other reasons – the rest of the world remains unconvinced of the election’s legitimacy.
So expect RT to double down on its clickbait and conspiracy playbook between now and the election. And don’t be surprised when the network hails what is almost certainly going to be a win for Putin’s party as a free and fair electoral triumph.
Precious Chatterje-Doody, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, The Open University and Ilya Yablokov, Lecturer in Journalism and Digital Media, Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield