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A few decades have passed since Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s political agents adapted their methods to ensure that Russian elections always yield the desired outcome. Despite blatant blasphemy, the pre-Putin United Russia party is expected to gain a majority in Russia’s lower house on Sunday. In the post-Soviet era, however, the tactics had never been so heavy. Putin’s “managed” democracy, which in the past relied on a small degree of subtlety, is becoming unnecessarily oppressive.
The collapse was signaled by the poisoning of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny last year and after he – inconveniently for the authorities – survived and returned to Moscow, his arrest and imprisonment. His network was banned as ‘extremist’by linking it to Isis or al-Qaeda, and turning its supporters out of the election or threatening them with jail. Independent media is called “foreign agents”, Which makes it difficult to survive. Dirty tricks was used against opposition candidates.
The anti-Navalny offensive was motivated in part by its exposure to high-level corruption. It also aimed to reduce the “slim stem“Initiative Navalny tested in local polls and encouraged voters to back the candidate who does not have the Kremlin the best chance of winning.
However, all this follows a few years of poor growth and stagnant living standards, in stark contrast to the early Putin years. Support for United Russia has declined. The president’s ratings remain higher. But the poll shows that many younger Russians are opposed to Putin returning as head of state when his term ends in 2024 – if constitutional changes last year allowed him to do. The Kremlin watches thousands go on the street last year in neighboring Belarus after Alexander Lukashenko – who became president six years before Putin – declared what they considered a false election victory.
There are currently few signs of opposition reaching these levels in Russia. Many elderly voters and those outside the cities remain loyal or see no alternative to Putin. But the collapse further pushes the room for debate, criticism and exchange of ideas that thrive developed economies. Smart entrepreneurs, and many foreign investors, are taking their business elsewhere. The chance breaks out to ever weaken the Russian economy from its dependence on digging up metals and fossil fuels, or from fighting the corruption that plagues the system from within.
Authoritarian systems can sometimes be ‘enlightened’, with the intention of reforming through liberalization or even paving the way for a transition to democracy. Some in the presidential circle in the early 2000s believed that this was his plan. Instead, the essential emptiness of the regime became apparent. The urge to hold on to office is motivated by what some insiders say is a messianic delusion that only Putin stands between Russia and chaos. It also reflects his own fears and those of system insiders about what could become of them all if he was overthrown.
This is especially an accident for the people of Russia. But it is dangerous for global security. Putin recalls how his popularity increased after the annexation of Crimea in 2014; Moscow continues its efforts to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and increases its rule over Belarus in exchange for strengthening Lukashenko. The portrayal of Russia as a ‘beleaguered fortress’ that the West wants to undermine it reflects genuine paranoia of the Kremlin and is useful in gathering patriotic support. European leaders mostly understand this threat; the Biden administration, more focused on China, needs to pay closer attention.