To stay in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been struggling for 20 years to prevent the emergence of systemic opposition by controlling the activities of political units that could turn out to be particularly dangerous. However, after amendments to the Constitution had been made last summer, Russia has faced a systemic crisis, manifested by large-scale protest movements, and it became clear that the security services and the president’s staff were not enough to back up the criminal dictatorship.
In early 2021, the Kremlin rolled out a campaign of active cleansing of opposition, accompanied by a ban on the non-profit Anti-Corruption Foundation, imprisonment of Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny, labeling the fight against corruption as “extremist activities,” overall restriction of access to information flows, etc. No less illustrative examples are the closure of the Open Russia organisation, and the inclusion of opposition media outlets such as Meduza, Dozhd, PASMI, and VTimes into a cohort of foreign agents.
The climax of the political space cleanup was Roskomnadzor’s appeal to Google and Apple to stop technical support for Navalny’s Smart Voting application and remove the phrase “smart voting” from search tips. The app aimed to mobilise anti-government voters to help them cast their vote against the ruling party, i.e. the United Russia. Thus, the authorities tried to prevent the disclosure of reliable information about the course and results of the elections.
To guarantee the victory of the United Russia candidates, even the involvement of residents of the illegally occupied Donbas and Crimea came into play, testifying to the critical situation of the largest Russian party. Whereas 44% of the population supported it back in 2016, now its rating is about 27%, according to the Levada Centre data. Moreover, a third of voters do not want to go to the polling stations, which can be considered a passive protest.
Instructions for bureaucracy and ultimate expression of (il)legitimate regime
Pursuant to the Constitution, the legislature in Russia is a bicameral parliament – the Federal Assembly which consists of the Federation Council (upper house) and the State Duma (lower). The Duma has the legislative initiative, passes bills, ratifies and denounces international treaties, and resolves issues of war and peace. State Duma elections should be seen as a complex phenomenon with many variables, the core of which, of course, is the bureaucratic machine. Given that officials in Russia work according to instructions by default, the legislation passed by the Duma actually outlines the coordinate system under which the Russian Federation functions as a state body. It is now important for the Kremlin to nominate “reliable, loyal, and correct” candidates to the lower house, since it is within this convocation that many changes will take place, including the possible transit of power.
Before the previous convocation was dissolved, the State Duma had passed a number of legislative acts, endowing law enforcement officers and judges with unprecedented powers, significantly increasing their financial rewards (at the expense of other social layers), providing military circles and law enforcement agencies with new means of suppressing the dissent by introducing a system of total digital control and supplementing them with modifications as for foreign agents. Such steps were needed by the authorities, who got accustomed to a socio-political picture of “us and them.”
The search for an external enemy diverts attention from numerous internal problems. The adoption of the new national security strategy only confirmed the fact that in the perception of threats by the Russian Federation, opposition cells, foreign agents, and various “harmful” organisations are playing into the hands of the ruling regime. This is because personal autocracy in modern conditions feels an urgent need to create the illusion of legitimacy. Otherwise, such a regime will not be recognised by the international community, which, in turn, would significantly up Russia’s stakes in many dimensions. This has become particularly relevant in the context of recent assessments of the regime by the European Parliament and the Venice Commission.
Moreover, even though 41 (!) political parties are registered on the website of the Ministry of Justice (so the alternative still exists), a traditional mono-majority of the United Russia rules in the State Duma. Furthermore, all ministers belong to the same political force. Three more factions (the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, A Just Russia — For Truth, the Liberal Democratic Party of the Russian Federation) do not play a huge role because they generally hold only 24% of seats, so we can safely speak about not only Russia’s inclination to one-party parliament but about the rooting of this phenomenon in the socio-political architecture.
Opposition political forces such as the Russia of the Future led by Alexei Navalny are not even allowed to run in the elections. One-party rule has become a symptom of a political regime that, while declaratively defined as a “sovereign democracy,” is actually authoritarian. Pluralism in Russia remains only an imitation. This inevitably affects foreign policy, especially the choice of partners and labeling individual actors in international relations as enemies, linked with homogeneity (it is always easier for the authoritarian regimes to cooperate based on a higher level of trust between the parties) and the search for ephemeral “foreign agents.”
Ministry of post-truth and purpose of propaganda
There are virtually no independent media outlets in the Russian Federation. All content produced by the media is scrutinised for comparing the information with the policies of the ruling party, the highest echelons of power. It is almost impossible to obtain unbiased information from Russian sources. The scientific and expert community is formed around a certain core of values, deviation from which can put an end to a career. Such values should be understood as the priority of the national interests of the state and the predominance of state security over the safety of an individual.
In the field of foreign policy, the scientific and expert community promotes several narratives that often intersect: the distinctive path of the Russian Federation, its unique role in Eastern Europe and Asia, and the justified asymmetry in relations with the post-Soviet bloc. NATO securitisation is designed to strengthen the current regime, so stories in this context are also quite popular. Therefore, in general, expert circles actively articulate meanings and ideas that are harmoniously intertwined in the ideological line of the Russian world view, outlining the range of completeness of public opinion. The construction of such an information environment allows an electoral autocracy like Russia to resort to democratic instruments (elections) while maintaining control over them, especially this year when the situation has become critical.
The pre-election climate of “sovereign democracy” in Russia, with a strong cult of personality, which was enshrined in the so-called “zeroing” of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, is not surprisingly intense in terms of numerous manipulations amid declining support for the ruling party. This time, the authorities cannot openly ignore the loss of popularity, given the precedent in Belarus and the intensification of protests earlier this year.
Despite fighting the opposition and fueling an uninterrupted flow of junk information, this time the authorities had to take extreme measures to maintain their position, the key of which was to attract about 600,000 voters in the occupied territories on whom Russian citizenship was imposed. Thus, the participation of the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” in the process of electing the State Duma members is not only an instrument of Russian propaganda but also a symptom of the weakness of the internal regime. It is not enough for the Russian authorities to eliminate potentially dangerous candidates, provoke electoral absenteeism, and ensure the already traditional mechanism of falsification.
In the context of recent events, including in Belarus, it is becoming clear that “fake” elections are not enough; they still need to be “sold” to society. Even if citizens know about the falsifications, the end result must be perceived as not far from the truth. Deja vu with 80% in Russia, of course, would lead to similar consequences as in Belarus, so the problem of legitimisation became even more acute for United Russia. In fact, the involvement of the residents of the illegally occupied territories also indicates that a pool of 600,000 potential voters (according to Russian sociological centres data) is vital to the Russian leadership, especially given the fact that voting of the residents of Donbas and Crimea took place in electronic format, expanding the space for all kinds of falsifications.
And to make these fake results look quite natural, Russian political discourse is already beginning to abound with numerous statements about the support for United Russia among the residents of the occupied territories, for whom the ruling party seems to be the only political force that can guarantee them further help. Given the lack of opportunity to obtain a reliable sociological base from the occupied territories, it is almost impossible to verify the true value orientation of the population.
As for the interest of the Russian Federation in the inclusion of representatives of “DPR” and “LPR” in the political orbit, this aspect should be considered through the prism of real grounds for the integration of the occupied regions into the federation. In this context, it should be understood that the key goal of the Russian Federation in the confrontation with Ukraine is the return of Donbas on Russian terms as a Trojan horse. It will be almost impossible to fulfil this goal under the conditions of full integration of the occupied territories into Russia.
Therefore, involving representatives in the election process and reaching various agreements with them, such as with the so-called “Union of Volunteers of Donbas” are just situational steps aimed primarily at the possibility of holding elections on the principle of “no matter how they vote, it matters how they count.” In fact, Russia is involving the population of the occupied territories in its socio-political life, turning this pool of voters into another tool for legitimising its regime, but only with a negative outcome for the population in the long run.
In addition, given the fact that passportisation takes place on a voluntary-compulsory basis, and the occupied territories are an integral part of Ukraine, the local voting will be legally considered as having been organised on a foreign platform. Therefore, the results of such elections raise reasonable doubts and cannot be considered legitimate, let alone recognised by the international community which supports Ukraine’s efforts in finding ways to resolve the conflict.
Thus, the sharp decline in the ruling party’s ratings in Russia forced the Kremlin leadership to resort to a number of radical measures, including not only “helicopter money,” mobilisation of electoral sultanates of the North Caucasus region, a dirty information campaign, and traditional falsification, but also the involvement of the residents of the occupied territories in voting. Given the gross violation of international law and national law of Ukraine in an attempt to draw residents of the occupied territories in political races within Russia, such a composition of the State Duma, of course, can not be called legitimate. The corresponding statement was recently made public by the European Parliament. Even despite numerous attempts by the Russian information autocracy to create artificial content to justify the legitimacy of such a process of forming a bureaucratic elite, the Kremlin’s actions raise huge doubts in the world’s democracies.
Anastasiia Vozovych, strategic culture expert at ADASTRA think tank