How does the regime crack down on dissent?
The poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year, followed by the arrest and imprisonment of Navalny this year, may have been the first major sign that the authorities’ attitude towards of political dissent hardened.
Authorities have also enacted new legislation that criminalizes anyone associated with Navalny, calling her an “extremist,” a label previously used for terrorist groups and which can lead to heavy prison sentences.
The crackdown went far beyond Navalny’s immediate allies. Some more moderate opposition politicians were also barred from participating in the elections because they expressed support for Navalny or took part in political protests. Pavel Grudinin, a Communist businessman who was runner-up in the 2018 presidential election, was also expelled, allegedly due to undeclared assets abroad.
In the meantime, the authorities have launched a widespread crackdown on independent media. Several publications have been designated “foreign agents”, which impairs their ability to attract publicity and business. The authorities went further in the case of a magazine, Proekt, which had investigated high-level corruption, forcing its immediate closure, calling it an “undesirable organization”.
Is the repression much worse this time than the approach of the previous elections?
The ban on opposition political organizations for “extremism” is new, as is the concerted use of the label “foreign agent” for a wide range of independent media publications. So yes, it is a heavier repression than in the previous elections. This does not mean that the previous Russian elections were free and fair: they were far from being. But the methods used to exclude candidates or control media coverage were a little more subtle than is currently seen.
Is it just about the elections or is there something more important?
The timing, ahead of the election, suggests the Kremlin wants to exclude or deter critical voices who could influence voters. However, the crackdown also has deeper roots. The Navalny-led protests have intensified since 2017. And the Kremlin’s concern has undoubtedly been fueled by last year’s protests in neighboring Belarus, which underscored that political unrest can sometimes emerge with speed and speed. surprising suddenness.
Technological and generational changes are also fueling the Kremlin’s paranoia over Western-backed plots to undermine Russia. New Internet publications (sometimes based abroad) are more difficult for the Kremlin to control than traditional newspapers and television channels. Meanwhile, opinion polls in Russia show that public enthusiasm for Putin is waning, especially among young people.
That doesn’t sound good to him, what are the polls saying?
According to one, led by the Levada Center in February, only 31% of 18-24 year olds wanted to see Putin stay in power for another presidential term after 2024, compared to 57% among this age group who opposes it. Russians aged 25 to 39 were only slightly more enthusiastic, with 39% of them in favor of keeping Putin and 51% against. They were almost mirror images of attitudes among age groups over 40.
Despite this, Putin remains significantly more popular than United Russia. Recent opinion polls show that around 30% of those polled are preparing to vote for the party, compared with around 45% in similar polls ahead of the last Duma elections in 2016. His support among likely voters, however, is more higher than this raw poll data suggests, given that Russians who are skeptical about Putin or United Russia are also less likely to vote.
What are Russian voters currently worried about?
As in many other countries, the election follows difficult economic times linked to the pandemic, with issues such as high inflation now troubling voters more than usual. However, the Russian economy has recovered in recent months and the virus appears to be receding again after a brief resurgence over the summer. The biggest problem for Putin and his party is that economic growth and living standards have been lackluster for several years.
So, the big question: what is Putin so afraid of?
He is probably more afraid of political turmoil, like what happened in Belarus last year or Ukraine in 2014, than voters. Russia still lacks well-organized and independent political parties with large audiences that are capable of mounting an effective electoral challenge. Small parties typically face registration barriers, have limited media access, and face an unfavorable electoral system, with supporters signature collection requirements long used to eliminate unwanted candidates.
But Russia has seen significant political protests in the not-so-distant past (the Duma elections in 2011 were followed by months of protests), and election-related unrest was quite common in other post-state states. Soviets, most recently in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. Russian history has also been characterized by chaotic political turmoil far more often than by peaceful transitions of power through the ballot box. For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire was a formative political experience.
Does increased repression carry risks?
The main risk is that the tough tactics will intensify discontent and dissent, thereby accelerating the political tendencies that the regime is trying to prevent. This is exactly what happened in the last months of the Soviet Union.
But repression is not necessarily a politically flawed strategy, because there are also examples that prove to be quite effective. In truth, there is not much evidence at present that the Kremlin is sowing the seeds for possible public backlash.
Some other risks are probably more immediately relevant. A society in which critical voices are silenced is unlikely to be effective in solving problems such as corruption. Original thinkers will avoid politics and business. New tensions on relations with the West will have an additional deterrent effect on foreign investment.
How secure is Putin’s grip on power?
The escalating crackdown makes him feel vulnerable. Yet it is still a very one-sided political conflict in which the Kremlin still holds most of the cards.
Putin’s public approval rating still remains around 60%. It is also surprisingly resilient, changing remarkably little over the past three years despite the many societal hardships caused by the pandemic. In general, the attitudes of the Russian public change very slowly. According to opinion polls, most Russians still express very little interest in political freedoms or civil rights. They are also generally skeptical about whether protesting can make a difference.
So Putin probably doesn’t have much to fear yet – at least for now.