Russian elections: persecution, cash handouts and the Putin system


Looming over a lake on Russia’s northwestern border with Europe, the 20m-high, 50-tonne statue Vladimir Putin unveiled on Sunday depicts sword-wielding knights under rippling banners as they prepare to repel invaders from the west. The message could scarcely have been more clear.

Flanked by the Orthodox patriarch and a bishop said to be his spiritual adviser, Putin described how medieval prince Alexander Nevsky had laid the foundations for a “strong and centralised Russian state” by repelling Teutonic knights in a battle on the ice.

“Nothing can break the sacred continuity of times and generations,” Putin said.

The Kremlin’s messaging ahead of Sunday’s elections for the Duma, the lower house of parliament, has been in much the same vein.

The outcome may be a foregone conclusion: the Kremlin’s United Russia party is expected to retain its constitutional majority in the 450-seat chamber, with the other seats going to a handful of pliant “systemic opposition” parties.

But as soaring food prices and sliding real incomes have sent United Russia’s approval ratings close to record lows, the election has become a key test of Russia’s increasingly authoritarian system before Putin’s current term expires in 2024.

Vladimir Putin, second left, at the unveiling of the Prince Alexander Nevsky and His Guard memorial on the shore of Lake Chudskoye. The supposed location of the Battle of the Ice in 1242 lies near the current border with Estonia © Alexei Druzhinin/Pool/AP

Putin’s response to the tepid support for United Russia has been two-fold. To boost flagging turnout, he promised a $7bn cash handout to the party’s base. Opponents have been met with unprecedented persecution and fiery rhetoric about the danger of foreigners meddling in domestic affairs.

The government has accused US tech companies of “interfering” by refusing to scrub a tactical voting app run by supporters of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny from the internet.

The unprecedented crackdown on dissent has underscored how the Kremlin views perceived foreign threats as the crucial obstacle to its continued survival.

“It’s systematically dangerous. Not everyone who is against Putin is a bad person,” says a person who has advised Putin.

“But [the security services] think so. Foreign intelligence officers look for friends among enemies, and counter-intelligence looks for enemies among friends. And if you constantly look for enemies, it’s a problem. They’re going to find them. It’s their job.”

The Smart Voting app shown on an iPhone screen in Moscow
The Smart Voting app shown on an iPhone screen in Moscow © AP

In the months leading up to the election, officials have crushed Navalny’s organisation, banned dozens of candidates from running over alleged ties to it, and interrogated hundreds of ordinary supporters in an apparent attempt to scare them from protesting against the result.

The overriding goal of the president, say analysts, is to demonstrate that there can be no alternative to his leadership. Last year, Putin changed the constitution to allow him to extend his rule potentially until 2036, though he has not said whether he plans to run again.

“Putin needs personal confirmation of his mandate and of the lack of alternatives to him. The election is another chance for him to convince himself that the people still support him,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik.

“He needs the elections to strengthen his place in the system and let the elite know that Putin is the only figure who can hold up the whole system and has a monopoly on deciding when to transfer power, who the successor will be, and when that will happen,” Stanovaya adds.

Crackdown on competition

Last year, opposition supporters were planning to make the Duma elections their main target after Navalny-backed candidates won city council elections in Siberia.

Navalny was arrested in January when he returned from Germany — where he was recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he accuses Putin of planning. Since then, opposition supporters seeking to bring change at the ballot box have seen their hopes crushed. Several were barred from running over their ties to Navalny after a court ruled his Anti-Corruption Foundation was an “extremist” organisation in June. Some have complained of dirty tricks campaigns against them — including registering doppelgängers with identical names and, in one case, even appearances — as well as outright harassment.

The bans are part of a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent that has all but destroyed Navalny’s organisation and has targeted several other groups the Kremlin appears to see as fellow travellers.

Detained protesters are escorted by police during a demonstration against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg
Detained protesters are escorted by police during a demonstration against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg in January this year © Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

“It’s disproportionate to the threat,” says the person who speaks to Putin regularly. “They’re reacting to foreign policy emotionally, partly Belarus,” where hundreds of thousands of people protested against a highly disputed election last year, they added. “Navalny was causing problems, but he wasn’t an electoral threat. But the Kremlin can’t have that many people out on the street.”

Many of Navalny’s top allies have fled the country. Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer who defended Navalny’s organisation against the “extremism” ban, found himself facing charges for disclosing information from a closed treason trial against a former journalist, Ivan Safronov. After trying to represent his clients without internet or telephone access for a few months, he left Russia for Georgia last week to escape pre-trial restrictions, which he said made representing his clients impossible.

Pavlov’s legal aid group disbanded in July after Russia banned its website on the pretext that it had published information from an “undesirable” Czech organisation. The police, however, did not seize his passport when they searched his house — a step Pavlov said he realised was a “signal” to leave.

“There’s a purge. Obviously it’s got something to do with the election, or something to do with the transfer of power so there’s nobody out of place in the country” when Putin’s current term expires in 2024, Pavlov said in an interview. “They’re trying to get rid of everyone who might have an effect on public opinion.”

A woman walks to cast her ballot to vote in regional elections at a polling station in Novosibirsk, Siberia
A woman walks to cast her ballot to vote in regional elections at a polling station in Novosibirsk, Siberia © Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

The crackdown has also stretched to independent media outlets, often funded by grants from western organisations. Dozens of media outlets and their staff have been labelled “foreign agents”, as have NGOs such as Golos, the election monitor whose reports of widespread fraud helped spark large protests against Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2011, when Navalny urged supporters to vote against the “crooks and thieves” in United Russia.

The pressure has even touched local elections thousands of miles from Moscow. After activist Violetta Grudina told friends in the Arctic port city of Murmansk that she wanted to run for city council, unknown assailants left leaflets in her stairwell accusing her of “perverting children”, then ransacked and shot up Navalny’s local office, which she headed before the “extremism” designation.

When she tried to register as a candidate last month, a court ordered Grudina to self-isolate for coronavirus treatment even though she said she had recovered from a mild case of Covid-19 and tested negative for the virus. Grudina went on hunger strike and was released from hospital a few days later in time to file her papers — but was nonetheless struck from the list of candidates over her past ties to Navalny.

“If they wanted to get rid of me, they’d do it without a second thought. This was a show for other people, to show locals what political repression is like. Look what happens if you suddenly decide to get involved in regional politics — this is how we’ll deal with you,” Grudina said.

Economic reality

Putin has not campaigned directly, and he will spend the election in self-isolation after being exposed to aides who fell sick with Covid-19. On Tuesday, he told the cabinet to implement United Russia’s economic ideas — but is not a member of the party himself.

The elections put Putin in the odd position of lending his star power to boost United Russia’s flagging fortunes while simultaneously distancing himself from the party so as not to be damaged by its toxic brand.

Whereas Putin, as president, is able to remain somewhat above the fray, frustration with poor living standards, crumbling infrastructure and widespread corruption has led ordinary Russians to direct their ire at his vassals. The Kremlin has also forced local officials to take the rap for unpopular lockdowns and compulsory vaccination campaigns.

The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) speaks to the press after after a court ruling in June that the group was an ‘extremist’ organisation
The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) speaks to the press after a court ruling in June that the group was an ‘extremist’ organisation. The ruling barred FBK members from running in the elections © Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE

“He’s a pragmatist,” the person who speaks to Putin regularly says. “He knows that some people don’t like lockdowns and masks, so he says the popular things and doesn’t say the unpopular things.”

Though Putin’s own approval ratings remain at a relatively robust 56 per cent, United Russia’s ratings cratered to a mere 27 per cent in August, according to FOM, a Kremlin-connected pollster.

The party’s top candidates are the foreign and defence ministers Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu. The men are expected to drive turnout among Putin’s base but not leave their prominent posts to take up seats as MPs.

Both ministers have emerged as standard-bearers for the Kremlin’s hostile turn against the west. “They’re using [Shoigu and Lavrov] like locomotives, because they’re the most popular ministers — they are defending our homeland, both in the diplomatic arena and literally on the battlefield, from hybrid attacks,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, head of the domestic politics programme at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Ivan Safronov stands inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing on suspicion of treason last year. Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer who faced charges for disclosing information from the trial, is now in Georgia
Ivan Safronov stands inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing on suspicion of treason last year. Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer who faced charges for disclosing information from the trial, is now in Georgia © Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

The problem for United Russia is whether patriotic sentiment can trump pocketbook issues. Real incomes are down 11 per cent since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, while 20m people — a seventh of the population — live below the poverty line. Russia has also struggled to control skyrocketing food prices amid rising inflation and increased demand from China.

Two-thirds of Russians would rather it became “a country with high living standards, even if it’s not one of the world’s most powerful”, while only one-third want it to be “a great power that other countries respect and fear,” according to a poll by the independent Levada Center last week.

Evidence suggests the cash handouts, which only amount to Rbs10,000 ($137) per person, have not helped much: United Russia’s ratings have only risen to 29 per cent since.

The most likely beneficiaries of the discontent are the communists, the second-largest party in parliament, who bucked their normally tame opposition when they opposed a rise in the retirement age in 2018 and Putin’s constitutional amendments last year.

Some of the communists’ younger activists are seeking to challenge the Kremlin more directly, even adopting Navalny’s rhetoric.

But the party’s leadership remains reluctant to rock the boat — perhaps mindful of the fate of Sergei Furgal, a “loyal opposition” governor in Russia’s far east who was arrested in 2020 after becoming a focal point for discontent with the Kremlin.

Opposition activist Violetta Grudina in Murmansk
Murmansk-based opposition activist Violetta Grudina. She has been struck from the list of parliamentary candidates © Courtesy of Violetta Grudina/Handout via Reuters

Amid widespread apathy, the growing social discontent is unlikely to translate into defeat for the party. State-run pollster Vtsiom expects turnout of about 48 per cent — 12 per cent less than the 2011 total, which was bolstered by opposition supporters heeding Navalny’s call to vote against the “crooks and thieves” in United Russia.

“You can’t really call the Duma a proper parliament, and MPs’ popularity is not high,” says Mikhail Vinogradov, a political scientist. “It’s more like a ritual. You can do something painful or helpful to the government, but you don’t really have any expectation that something will change.”

Election monitors have complained that new rules will make it more difficult to track potential violations. Moscow and six regions have introduced online voting, which critics say is essentially impossible to verify, while the polls have been extended to three days, stretching volunteers’ ability to monitor them.

The election commission has also discontinued livestreams from every polling station, a step it claims is necessary to prevent cyber attacks.

The Kremlin is counting on driving its core supporters to the polls while encouraging apathy in others, analysts say. Moscow is even raffling off cars and apartments as prizes to online voters.

Election posters depict various United Russia candidates including defence minister Sergei Shoigu, centre, and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov
Election posters depict various United Russia candidates including defence minister Sergei Shoigu, centre, and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov © Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

Those not enticed to vote by the cash handouts may be encouraged to do so at work — particularly state employees, who make up one-third of the workforce. Vtsiom reported last week that 14 per cent of industrial workers were pressured into voting in the elections, while a total of 48 per cent said their bosses had mentioned the election at work.

“They’re dependent on the state. That’s how they get paid, so they vote because they’ll get fired if they don’t. That’s how the system works — so that the right people go and vote, and the democrats sit at home,” says Kolesnikov.

Bucking the party line

Unable to register their own candidates, Navalny’s team are focusing their strategy on a “smart voting” app that directs supporters to back the candidate with the best chance of beating United Russia.

They point to its apparent success in local elections last year, where it gave candidates backed by the app an average 10 per cent gain in the vote, according to a statistical analysis by Mikhail Turchenko and Grigorii Golosov, political scientists at the European University in St Petersburg.

Only half of the 450 seats up for grabs in the Duma are first-past-the-post, with the rest assigned according to a proportional party-line vote Navalny’s team say is difficult to affect. But “smart voting” may be driving turnout among otherwise despondent opposition supporters, Golosov says.

“One of the goals of the smart voting campaign is to get people to the polls so that they know what to do when there’s no real opposition candidates,” Golosov says. “If they vote for a candidate suggested by smart voting in their local district, then they definitely won’t vote for United Russia on the party line. And on the party line every per cent counts.”

More than half of the app’s 225 picks — including 11 of the 15 candidates in Moscow, where opposition sentiment is highest — are communists, indicating their likely role as a focal point for discontent.

The party leadership, however, has distanced itself from Navalny and agreed with the Kremlin’s claim that he is a CIA puppet.

The foreign ministry recently claimed that Navalny’s team were funded by western embassies and developed their tactical voting app with help from the Pentagon. Last week, it summoned the US ambassador to warn it had “irrefutable evidence” that Silicon Valley’s “digital giants” were “interfering in the internal affairs of our country” by not excluding the app from search results.

That determination suggests the crackdown is likely to continue after the election, Stanovaya says.

“When you start criticising Putin, you start calling into question important narratives the authorities consider to be their spiritual bonds,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a politician or not. You could be an ordinary person, a journalist, an expert, an academic — the authorities don’t care any more.”

Election hotspots

Moscow Opposition sentiment is sufficiently high in the capital that United Russia declined to run candidates in four districts. Instead, mayor Sergei Sobyanin has backed nominal independents including Oleg Leonov, head of a missing persons’ organisation, whose slogan is “You Won’t Get Lost With Me!”, The candidates have fought off accusations of secretly running at the Kremlin’s behest.

Khabarovsk Last summer, the city 6,000km east of Moscow saw weeks of protests after popular governor Sergei Furgal, a member of the far-right “loyal opposition” Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, was arrested on murder charges. He is still in pre-trial detention in Moscow. Apathy in the city is now high after the Kremlin made no concessions, while Furgal’s son Anton was barred from running.

St Petersburg Boris Vishnevsky, a liberal member of St Petersburg’s city council, discovered that two apparent spoiler candidates had changed their names to his — even sporting bald pates and greying beards so as to look almost identical to him on the ballot poster. Newspaper reports falsely linking the LDPR to a “gay boat party” were also used as a smear tactic.

Saratov The city on the Volga is home to both Duma speaker Viacheslav Volodin and communist Nikolai Bondarenko. Though Bondarenko’s social media following of more than 1m and fierce criticism of United Russia has earned him the moniker of the “red Navalny”, the party abandoned plans to have him face Volodin in the same district — seen by analysts as a compromise with the Kremlin.


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