Over the last several months, harassment of Russia’s political opposition has intensified, with legislative elections as a clear cause. Many people have erroneously believed that once the elections were over, the repressions would ease, if not entirely disappear.
Since the elections ended, there has been little reason for optimism in this regard—the Putin regime has continued repressions against its opponents and critics, including against members of political movements that have usually been spared in the past—most notably, members of the Communist Party.
Why is that the case, and what does the future hold? First of all, the Duma elections played an important role, particularly in the way the campaign unfolded and its final results. Putin’s United Russia was far less popular than the Kremlin would have liked, and covering that up required flagrant election fraud on the part of the authorities.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, these elections highlighted at least three groups of citizens that pose a threat to the regime. First of all, there are Putin’s radical critics and opponents, who harnessed the Duma elections to create stress on the entire electoral system—most of all Alexei Navalny’s team and its active supporters in Russia. The “smart voting” tactic strengthened the Duma parties’ electorate via protest votes, influenced election results, and in many cases, forced the authorities into a Catch-22 between admitting defeat or engaging in shameless election fraud.
Secondly, there is the independent media, along with influential bloggers and all kinds of civic activists and NGOs that highlighted violations throughout the run-up to the elections and during the vote itself. They published and discussed negative information about the governing party and its candidates and disputed the official election results. The regime views them all as a threat.
Finally, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) proved a danger to the regime, not as an independent force on its own, but as a tool of the radical opposition. Despite the best efforts of some Party leadership, not least of all Gennady Zyuganov, to distance itself from smart voting and discourage protest voters from voting for the Communists, there were some Party members who welcomed support from Russia’s liberal-minded opposition, and in fact stood in solidarity with Putin’s radical critics. Moreover, after the election results were announced, dissatisfied Communists and their supporters attempted to hold street protests, something entirely unacceptable to the Kremlin.
Thus, Russia’s legislative election results have underscored at least three areas for the authorities to focus their repressive tactics—persecuting the Navalny team and its most active supporters in Russia while also creating difficulties for their work carried out from abroad, continuing harassment of the independent media and NGOs, including targeting the platforms they use to operate, and pressuring mainstream parties, especially the CPRF.
But beyond the latest elections, there is a good reason for continued political repression in Russia—the 2024 presidential elections. The groundwork already began last year, when constitutional amendments made it possible for Putin to hold onto power. Putin’s entire regime hinges on a credible, indisputable electoral victory. This is in contrast to the State Duma, which is unlikely to hold much influence in Russian politics today, regardless of how its elections turned out. The events in Belarus have made it clear that even after 30 years of dictatorship, people are still willing to head out into the streets and engage in widespread protests, forcing the international community to refuse to recognize elections. Such a development would be a nightmare for Putin, which is why by the time presidential elections roll around, we can expect growing repression campaigns against anyone who poses a threat or a potential threat to the Kremlin, for any reason. Continued attacks against the CPRF look all but certain. One way or another, before Russians head out to vote, the Party will have to be neutralized, whether as a political force of its own, or a potential tool for the marginalized opposition.
The CPRF’s main danger to the authorities is not as an opposition party willing to call people out to the streets. Rather, through the authorities’ own actions, it has become the only political, legal, systemic, and parliamentary alternative. In other words, the CPRF candidate will be Putin’s main opponent in 2024, and in addition to the CPRF’s usual base, it will also receive all or most of Russia’s protest votes. Considering Putin’s plummeting popularity and Russians’ growing fatigue with their perennial leader, this is a real problem.
Of course, the Kremlin has a myriad of ways to “correct” the election results and ensure Putin’s victory. After all, the Duma elections ended with United Russia declared the victor and the authorities ignoring any questions and protests from the opposition. But Putin is not United Russia, and he does not want his own victory to be tainted with scandals and accusations, or for Western politicians to even consider refusing to recognize the election results.
The only way to ensure the appearance of an irrefutable victory is by preventing any candidates capable of taking a significant number of votes from running in the first place. For the reasons listed above, Putin does not want a CPRF candidate to run—that will mean having to steal votes, which will open the door to scandals and overshadow his victory. By 2024, Putin will have to drive the CPRF to the point of ceasing to exist at all, or refusing to nominate a presidential candidate.
Eliminating the CPRF would not be a difficult endeavor, and in fact, work in that direction is already underway with repressions against Party activists and deputies. The authorities have already honed their skills in this technique with Navalny’s team—first, they begin persecuting individual Party members by filing administrative or criminal charges against them, and later ban the entire organization for being “extremist”. Though the Kremlin might have previously feared that these kinds of events might spark millions of protesters to take to the streets, September’s Communist rallies surely allayed those worries—in its current state, the CPRF is in no condition to attract as many supporters to protests as Navalny’s team.
However, doing away with the CPRF is too radical a step, and besides, there are other methods for dealing with the electoral threat, namely by pressuring CPRF activists and deputies and threatening to eliminate the Party in order to coerce the CPRF into making the decisions Putin needs—expelling the most active Kremlin critics from the Party and denying them mandates, reaffirming loyalty to Putin by supporting some unpopular government social measures, and finally, refusing to nominate a presidential candidate. Alternatively, the authorities might intimidate the CPRF into merging with another mainstream party (for years, there have been discussions of uniting with A Just Russia—For Truth), thereby denying it the ability to stand in elections as its own political entity, as it falls under complete control by the Kremlin and refuses to run a candidate at all.
As we can see, no matter what shape it takes, pressure on the CPRF will require repressions against Party activists and members, in order to ensure that by the time the presidential campaign begins, there is no one left in any Russian government body or any legally-operating political organization, who would be willing to run against Vladimir Putin and call for voters to oppose him and his preordained electoral victory.
But in addition to all of those rational reasons, there is one more motivation for continued repressions in Russia, which may be even more important. In his 20 years of rule, Putin has built up an extensive web of political repressions at every level of Russian society, both in Moscow and the regions. Thousands of members of law enforcement, the FSB, prosecutors, and the Investigative Committee conduct surveillance on real, potential, and even imaginary enemies of the regime. Each day, these people go to work and need to be busy with something. It is difficult to imagine any scenario in which they would all report to their superiors that there is no one left to fight off, and thus find themselves jobless.
The very presence of such an apparatus is the main driver of repression in any undemocratic regime. Its employees have an interest in ensuring that their superiors do not put an end to that repression. Quite on the contrary, they want to see it expand. Thus, a vicious cycle begins—the country’s top brass insists on increasing repressions, because it receives information from various law enforcement agencies that confirm its worst fears, while the law enforcement agencies expand their control and even fabricate more information in order to convince their leadership to continue and increase that repression.
It is clear that in the coming years, political repression will rise in Russia. It is unlikely to be widespread to the point of affecting millions of citizens, but political activists run the risk of persecution, regardless of their actual political views. Increasing numbers of random citizens will also find themselves persecuted, due to the simple fact that in many regions, any real political opposition has already been obliterated.
If international pressure does not force Putin to put an end to his attack on civil liberties in Russia, the West can expect an increased flow of Russian emigrants, both those who fear reprisals from the regime, and those who have already fallen victim to it.