In Russia: The vote and the virus

Steve Gutterman

Russians go to the polls — and Putin goes into self-isolation. Amid a clampdown that has further narrowed the field and limited the right to representation, voters cast ballots in parliamentary and local elections, while the president retreats after an extensive outbreak of COVID-19 in his administration.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

An Act Of Defiance

A small protest on Red Square this week served as a poignant punctuation mark at the close of a bewildering chapter in Russian politics.

On the cobblestones near Lenin’s tomb, under gray skies, four activists unfurled a banner reading: “Freedom for Navalny! Prison for Putin!”

They were quickly arrested and at least one of them was beaten, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors protests and the police response. A journalist who shot the demonstration on video was also detained and his equipment confiscated.

The simple act of defiance came amid a sweeping clampdown on dissent that has snowballed for months ahead of elections that, as tightly controlled as the Kremlin appears determined to make them, will leave a mark on Russia and help shape its future.

The banner that was swiftly grabbed by three officers on the square at Russia’s heart bore two names at the center of the lopsided confrontation between the Kremlin and its opponents: Vladimir Putin, who has been president or prime minister for 22 years and could potentially remain in the top office until 2036, thanks to a constitutional amendment he pushed through last year, and Aleksei Navalny, who has been Putin’s most prominent foe for the past decade.

Navalny was barred from challenging Putin in the last presidential election, in 2018. The wide-ranging crackdown on the opposition, civil society, independent journalists, and ordinary Russians who have fallen afoul of the Kremlin seemed to expand and accelerate upon Navalny’s return to Russia in January from Germany, where he was treated for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The onslaught seems to have altered the atmosphere in Russia, potentially for years to come.

There is no sign that a letup will follow the September 17-19 voting in elections for the State Duma, which is the lower house of parliament, and as well as for the leaders of nine regions around Russia and dozens of provincial and municipal legislatures.

And in the week ahead of the elections, there were several developments that suggested that, for now at least, nothing seems about to change.

Kremlin efforts to control the results of parliamentary elections are certainly nothing new: Over his years in power, Putin’s government has used an array of strategies and tactics at all stages of the process — from keeping challengers off the ballots to election-night antics that alter the vote counts, critics say.

Deny And Coerce

Since the mid-2000s, the state’s mechanism for manipulating the results of elections has stood on “four pillars,” according to Stanislav Andreichuk, a leader of Golos, an independent vote-monitoring group that has been instrumental in reporting alleged fraud in past votes and is under increasing pressure from the government.

“The first two are the government’s control of candidate registration and of media coverage. The third pillar is voter coercion, while the fourth is vote-rigging on election day itself,” Andreichuk wrote in a September 13 article. “The balance of these variables [has] differed between election cycles depending on the political situation at hand.”

The first pillar — control of candidate registration – has been employed heavily in advance of the current elections. Navalny’s entire network of supporters was effectively barred from running due to what he says is the absurd designation of his organizations as “extremist.”

And the sweeping use of the “foreign agent” laws has also thinned the ranks. Golos says that more than 9 million Russian adults — possibly millions more — are barred from seeking public office.

If electoral manipulation is nothing new, why the big push this time? Why is the Russian state staging “its most repressive Duma elections yet,” as Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, described them?

There seem to be at least two main factors: Putin’s “2024 problem” and the declining popularity of United Russia, the Kremlin-controlled party that dominates the Duma — where it has held a constitutional two-thirds majority since the last elections, in 2016 — and the vast majority of regional administrations and assemblies nationwide.

Putin’s current term was supposed to be his last, or at least his last for a while. The constitution that was in place when it began barred presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms — which is why he handed the reins to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 and stepped down to the No. 2 post — prime minister — before returning to the Kremlin in 2012. But last year, he engineered a raft of constitutional amendments — including one that allows him to run again in 2024 and again in 2030 if he wishes.

He has not said whether he’ll run in 2024, and there are other potential paths he could take to keeping a hand or two on Russia’s reins, including tapping a favored successor or ruling from a position other than the presidency.

Whatever he does, he’ll want as big a United Russia majority as possible in the Duma to turn to for support and for an air of legitimacy, or at least what the Kremlin will cast as legitimacy.

Last Elections On Paper?

Problem is, United Russia is unpopular — increasingly so, according to many polls. While the official election results are unlikely to reflect it, for several reasons, an early September survey by the state-funded VTsIOM found that only 30 percent of respondents said they would vote for United Russia — up, mysteriously, from 26-29 percent every previous week since late June.

But for a number of reasons, United Russia may be able retain its two-thirds majority. One of them is that many viable candidates have been barred from the race. Another is that half of the 450 seats in the Duma will be filled by voting in individual districts, rather than for the parties themselves. A third is that while Golos is attempting to monitor the vote despite being labeled a “foreign agent,” there will be no observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, widening the window for fraud — as does the three-day balloting, another result of the constitutional amendments of 2020.

So, are these elections destined to be Russia’s least democratic ever?

Don’t count on it: Online voting, which Kremlin critics warn is a recipe for opacity and fraud, is being used in seven regions this time around, including Moscow, where prizes have been offered in an effort entice residents to register.

“The bad news is that these elections, while far from perfect, could end up being Russia’s last in paper form,” Andreichuk wrote. “It is obvious that the government aims to implement electronic voting all across the country by the 2024 presidential election. If that happens, monitoring the sanctity of the vote will not even be theoretically possible.”

Isolation

If the protest on Red Square seemed symbolic of the extraordinary events in the lead-up to the elections, so did Putin’s announcement — three days before the voting began — that he was self-isolating after dozens of people in his entourage came down with COVID-19.

Putin said the experience would serve as a “test” of the efficacy of Sputnik V, the Russian-made vaccine that he says he was inoculated with several months ago.

As a test of his handling of the coronavirus, however, the big outbreak in Putin’s “inner circle” just ahead of the elections seems far from a sign of success.

When the pandemic emerged, early in 2020, Putin seemed to believe it might bypass Russia. In March of that year, he declared that his government had managed “to contain the mass penetration and spread” of COVID-19.

But the virus has hit Russia hard ever since, and the government has struggled to get people vaccinated, a problem analysts say results from a lack of trust — a phenomenon that also applies, among other things, to the government’s official coronavirus numbers and to chances of an election whose outcome is not predetermined.

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