No opposition allowed in Putin’s “democratic” Russia

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(MENAFN- Asia Times) On the last day of the three-day Russian parliamentary elections, September 19, companies linked to a friend of President Vladimir Putin took a bus and transported thousands of employees to Moscow.

Their bosses have said they will attend a special “self-development” forum, but may also be called upon to attend a pro-Putin rally after the polls close.

It soon turned out that the Kremlin wouldn’t need a rock-solid display of support. Once it became clear that Putin’s United Russia Party was going to achieve the electoral result that Putin wanted – two-thirds of the seats in the 450-member Legislative Duma – the rally was called off, the independent Moscow Times reported. .

In the weeks that followed, stories circulated of efforts by Putin’s government to secure the outcome long before election day, and even after. State workers in Moscow were invited to vote for United Russia. The independent media have been muzzled. Old-fashioned ballot-stuffing videos appeared even as the ballots were cast.

Authorities in St. Petersburg tragically and comically taped two bogus candidates, each of whom grew beards to make them look like an opposition candidate and changed their names to their own, all to cause confusion among voters.

A politician from the northern city of Murmansk was confined to a hospital for 20 days to prevent her from running on the grounds that she had been infected with the coronavirus. She hadn’t.

Russian physicist Sergei Shpilkin, an election data researcher, estimated that the actual election ratio for United reached around 33% of the vote cast, with a turnout of around 38%. The official results gave United Russia 50% of the vote with a turnout of 52%. That amounted to 14 million fraudulent votes, Shpilkin said.

He based his analysis on obviously bizarre results – for example, figures from polling stations that recorded unusually high turnout and large margins for United Russia.

Members of the local election commission count the ballots at a polling station after the three-day parliamentary and local elections in Kazan, Russia. Photo: AFP / Maksim Bogodvid / Sputnik

Golos, the Russian vote-monitoring group, said it had received 5,000 complaints of intimidation from employers demanding that their workers vote for United Russia. “We have suffered a huge crackdown on all independent political life,” said Roman Udot, an election observer from Golos.

International criticism of the tactic has been limited to routine, innocuous complaints about many of Putin’s repressive policies. The US State Department noted that the Russian government had “failed to meet its international obligations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The British Foreign Office also considered that the election was “in contradiction with international commitments”. The European Union has taken the expression “deep concerns” out of its bag.

The Western resignation probably reflects a recognized reality. After all, Putin has faced harsher criticism, as well as economic sanctions, over his 2014 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea.

This leaves change in the weak hands of Russian pro-democracy activists. In just over a year, Putin has wiped out opposition to his regime. While some foreign commentators believe his Duma victory might motivate him to relax, it is far from clear that Putin has a reason to do so.

On the one hand, the presidential elections are scheduled for 2024. Why let the opposition reappear only to have to close them later?

As Putin may be nearing the sunset of his reign, possibly due to ill health, the next generation of powerful Kremlin actors – especially those in the Secret Service – might think he’s safer. to maintain strict control.

Popular discontent with the government is evident. Putin’s approval ratings in the polls are around 35%. History shows that stop-and-go repression is not Putin’s style.

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny appears on screen via video link from prison during a hearing in court in Petushki city, some 120 kilometers from Moscow, on May 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Dimitar Dilkoff

The current wave of tightening began in August 2020, when someone attempted to kill the main Russian opposition politician, Alexei Navalny. They slipped the nerve agent Novichok, which was developed by the Russian military, into its tea.

In 2018, Novichok was used by a pair of Russian intelligence operatives to attempt to kill a defector in the UK. He survived. Navalny too. He recovers in Germany and then returns to Moscow in January. Putin quickly threw him in jail.

Putin quickly noticed that large protests calling for Navalny’s release were preventing the parliamentary elections from running smoothly. Navalny’s savvy online dissident organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has announced its intention to offer candidates to run against Putin’s party.

In April, a court suspended the foundation’s operations, declaring it an extremist organization, which is the same designation given to the international terrorist group al-Qaeda.

A court then ruled that all symbols and funding of the organization were banned, that the organizers of its activities could be jailed for up to 15 years and that members of the base were liable to six years in prison.

In June, Putin signed a law prohibiting “extremists”, whatever that means, from running for office. Navalny’s associates fled en masse abroad.

Putin also pushed Apple and Google to eliminate so-called pro-Smart Voting apps from their online stores. The apps provided were designed by Navalny’s team to instruct voters on how to vote for strong, non-United Russia candidates and thus curtail the Kremlin party’s victories.

Threats against companies included possible persecution of employees in Russia.

The Duma vote is over, but restrictions on Internet operations are not. Last week, the Russian tech regulator threatened Facebook with fines representing 10% of the company’s annual Russian revenue if it failed to block “extremist” content from its site.

It will be interesting to see how they suppress news of a just released international survey of wealth held abroad by the rich. Putin’s longtime associates are included.

The supporters of Navalny in exile keep a courageous face. They aim to mobilize mass rallies inside Russia, such as those that followed Navalny’s arrest.

But Russians seem reluctant or even disinterested in risky and sustained street protests like the so-called Color Revolutions that toppled Moscow-backed governments in Ukraine in 2004 and 2013.

People attend a Russian Communist Party rally against parliamentary election results in Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow on September 25, 2021. Photo “AFP / Yuri Kadobnov

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which complained about fraud after winning 57 seats, staged a protest of a few hundred in Moscow and that’s it.

Navalny supporters also say they are looking for ways to tackle future election fraud. Clever as they are, the Kremlin has shown that it is capable of staying one step ahead; a Navalny associate told me, “Putin has no trouble hiring the best hackers in Russia and paying them well. There are plenty.”

Given Putin’s long experience in strengthening public opinion and election control, it seems unlikely that assaults on key opponents will end. The Duma’s vote was intended to show that resistance is futile, even as it ages and its popularity may be waning.

“Putin needs personal confirmation of his mandate and of the lack of an alternative to him. The election is another chance for him to convince himself that the people still support him, ”said Tatiana Stanovaya, political consultant.

The elections aim to ratify Putin’s leadership, not to serve as a vehicle for political change. It has become “more and more repressive” to create “the impression of an imaginary majority,” writes Jussi Lassila, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs.

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