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The army versus Putin?

Pavel Luzin looks into the voting habits of Russia’s military and wonders why military personnel were more likely to vote against constitutional amendments than their compatriots

Experts question both the procedure and the results of Russia’s recent vote on constitutional amendments. Officially, 77.92%, or more than 57.7mn people, were in favour of the amendments. 21.27% — more than 23.2mn voters n— were opposed. Turnout reached 67.97%, more than 74.2mn people.

Interestingly, a paradoxical situation occurred. In some specific locations, the percentage of those voting ‘no’ turned out to be abnormally high (see table 1). These spikes were not only in comparison with the nationwide results. They were also high compared to the surrounding regions where the polling stations were located (see table 2). These polling stations, in various parts of Russia, have one thing in common: members of the military, civilian defence personnel and their families vote there.

For example, 32.94% of voters said ‘no’ to Putin’s constitution in Sverdlovsk Oblast. In the same region, the number of dissenters reached from 40.92% to 51.03% in the closed town of Svobodny, home of the 42nd Rocket Division of the Strategic Missile Troops. The situation in the closed town of Zaozyorsk, Murmansk Oblast, home of a North Fleet submarine base, is similar: ‘No’ votes ranged from 43.91% to 50.14%, compared with 36.33% for the oblast as a whole.

To be fair, there are similar results in locations without military bases too. However, the military’s unusual voting results are worthy of attention. Troops are traditionally seen as loyal to the Russian authoritarian system. As a voting bloc, they usually vote as ordered.

Methodological issues

For this table below, data was collected in polling stations which according to open sources can be linked with a high degree of probability to military bases. At the same time, undoubtedly, the bases represent only a small portion of the Russian military, civilian personnel of military bases and their family members. In other words, an attempt to explain the existing ‘anomalies’ in voting by the military and extrapolate from the popular vote requires more research beyond the scope of this article. Besides, Russian military personnel do not always vote on their bases, especially if they have the opportunity to live outside them. In Russia, many bases are within towns or next to them. Such distribution blurs the votes of the armed forces.

There are also polling stations located on base territory which do not stand out against the backdrop of the artificially high approval of Putin’s version of the constitution. Novaya Zemlya would be one such example.

Whenever possible, all data are broken down into separate polling stations. However, for the closed towns of Alexandrovsk, Vilyuchinsk, Svetly and Severomorsk, aggregate data from territorial election commissions was obtained in order not to overload the final table.

Specifics of military voting

Organisation of any voting process in Russian garrisons is up to unit commanders as much as it is to the election commissions. Judging by the data, not all commanders had the opportunity or desire to motivate or force their subordinates to vote in favour of the Kremlin’s preferred option. Recruits definitely found it difficult to vote against the constitutional amendments: they are brought to polling stations in an organised manner. For the most recent vote, representatives of election commissions could hypothetically come to the barracks themselves. It is much more difficult to control voting by officers, warrant officers, sergeants, contract soldiers and their family members. Especially when we are talking not about separate military units amidst the taiga, but closed towns with the status of a closed administrative-territorial formation.

At the same time, direct vote-rigging at the level of precinct or territorial election commissions in garrisons and closed towns is limited if not absent. This comes down to two factors. First of all, unit commanders are reluctant to take on extra professional risk with their superiors and counterintelligence. Secondly, regional election commissions do not risk imposing the proper results on garrisons and closed towns, since their command and management are independent from the regional authorities. Additionally, members of precinct election commissions include civilian personnel of the Ministry of Defence and soldiers’ family members.

So the chances are that the higher percentage of ‘no’ votes (compared to the official national average) among some garrisons and closed towns is not an anomaly. Rather, it could be the result of voting in the absence of coercion and falsification. Hypothetically, voting at such polling stations can be treated as an indicator of Russians’ real attitude to the constitutional amendments. Notably, there were no such anomalies in military polling stations during the 2016 parliamentary and 2018 presidential elections. In other words, two years ago the Russian military, civilian personnel of military bases and their family members delivered the expected results in the absence of direct vote rigging. Now this is no longer the case everywhere. And these anomalies should have caught the eye of the Kremlin.

What made the military less than unanimous in their choice? What made so many defy orders and their own natural political conformism. One answer could be Putin fatigue, which is growing even in the army with the increasingly irritating, widening gap between propaganda and the real situation in the army. Whatever the explanation, this dataset makes for interesting reading.

Table 1: Protest vote in selected garrisons and military bases

Polling station Region Branch of troops ‘No’
PEC (precinct election

commission) 533

Khalino, Kursk Oblast Russian Aerospace

Forces (VKS)

48.05%
PEC 263 Vysoky, Olyenyegorsk, Murmansk Oblast VKS 45.30%
PEC 264 Vysoky, Olyenyegorsk, Murmansk Oblast VKS 51.75%
PEC 2746 Sokol, Savinskoye, Perm Krai VKS 50.65%
PEC 34 Baltiysk*, Kaliningrad Oblast Russian Navy (VMF) 57.82%
PEC 291 Closed town of Zaozyorsk, Murmansk Oblast VMF 50.14%
PEC 292 Closed town of Zaozyorsk, Murmansk Oblast VMF 48.75%
PEC 293 Closed town of Zaozyorsk, Murmansk Oblast VMF 43.91%
PEC 294 Closed town of Zaozyorsk, Murmansk Oblast VMF 47.50%
PEC 295 Closed town of Zaozyorsk, Murmansk Oblast VMF 46.68%
TEC (territorial election

commission) Alexandrovsk

 

Closed town of Alexandrovsk, Murmansk Oblast

 

VMF

 

43.50%

TEC Severomorsk,

including:

Closed town of Severomorsk, Murmansk Oblast VMF 40%
PEC 163 Shchukozero, closed town of Severomorsk,

Murmansk Oblast

VMF 51.16%
PEC 164 Severomorsk-3, closed town of Severomorsk,

Murmansk Oblast

VMF 51.65%
PEC 421 Closed town of Severomorsk, Murmansk Oblast VMF 53.18%
TEC Vilyuchinsk Closed town of Vilyuchinsk, Kamchatka Krai VMF 43.29%
PEC 304 Yelizovo, Kamchatka Krai VMF 52.94%
PEC 305 Yelizovo, Kamchatka Krai VMF 55.23%
PEC 2619 Kytlym, Sverdlovsk Oblast Russian Strategic

Missile Forces (RVSN)

42.40%
PEC 2591 Closed town of Svobodny, Sverdlovsk Oblast RVSN 45.72%
PEC 2592 Closed town of Svobodny, Sverdlovsk Oblast RVSN 46.25%
PEC 2593 Closed town of Svobodny, Sverdlovsk Oblast RVSN 40.92%
PEC 2594 Closed town of Svobodny, Sverdlovsk Oblast RVSN 41.08%
PEC 2595 Closed town of Svobodny, Sverdlovsk Oblast RVSN 51.03%
PEC 495 Closed town of Komarovskaya, Orenburg Oblast RVSN 50.40%
PEC 497 Closed town of Komarovskaya, Orenburg Oblast RVSN 43.85%
TEC Svetly Closed town of Svetly, Saratov Oblast RVSN 41.74%
PEC 687 Luga, Leningrad Oblast Ground forces 45.04%
PEC 688 Luga-3, Leningrad Oblast Ground forces 47.22%
PEC 690 Luga-3, Leningrad Oblast Ground forces 49.16%
PEC 530 Marshal Zhukov’s village**, Kursk Oblast Ground forces 41.82%
PEC 455 Poroshino, Sverdlovsk Oblast Ground forces 44.40%
PEC 470 Chebarkul, Chelyabinsk Oblast Ground forces 55.70%
PEC 471 Chebarkul, Chelyabinsk Oblast Ground forces 53.87%
PEC 2230 Chebarkul, Chelyabinsk Oblast Ground forces 60.39%
 

TEC Znamensk

 

Closed town of Znamensk, Astrakhan Oblast

Kapustin Yar rocket launch and

development site

 

41.59%

* The polling station is located directly in the Officers’ House of the Baltic Garrison of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

** Home of the infamous 53rd Air Defence Missile Brigade.

Table 2: Overall protest vote by region

Region ‘No’
Astrakhan Oblast 12.73%
Kaliningrad Oblast 27.02%
Kamchatka Krai 37.16%
Kursk Oblast 25.35%
Leningrad Oblast 19.80%
Murmansk Oblast 36.33%
Orenburg Oblast 25.29%
Perm Krai 28.27%
Saratov Oblast 16.96%
Sverdlovsk Oblast 32.94%
Chelyabinsk Oblast 29.55%

 

Photo: Scanpix