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Pressure on Putin


Russia’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for 19 September, are causing concern in the Kremlin. Although polls in the Russian Federation are typically neither free nor fair, Vladimir Putin is accustomed to using their results to assert his legitimacy as president. The Putin-backed United Russia party easily secured a supermajority at the last parliamentary election in 2016, facing no major public protests or viable political opponents – albeit on a turnout of just 48 per cent. But much has changed for the worse since then, threatening to push turnout even lower and endanger Putin’s mandate.

Over the last 18 months, Russia has recorded more than 140,000 Covid-19 deaths. Anxious about his plummeting popularity, Putin lifted the partial lockdown more than a year ago, while fiddling mortality figures to create a false sense of security. This summer, as state television lauded the president’s pandemic response and the rollout of Russian-made vaccine Sputnik-V, the country experienced its most deadly wave of the virus. Putin’s lies have been exposed by Russia’s few remaining independent media outlets. Hospitals have been overwhelmed, undermining his carefully constructed image as the paternalist tsar.

In the midst of the pandemic, Putin has prioritized politics over public health, jailing prominent opposition activist Alexei Navalny as well as hundreds of lesser-known journalists, activists and protesters. Ironically, nationalist-leaning Navalny is not very popular at home, where he is often regarded as a proxy for Russia’s enemies abroad. But though he is not admired, Navalny is famous in Russia. For anti-Putin protesters across the country, his fate symbolizes the abandonment of any pretence at democracy or the rule of law by the Kremlin.

In September 2019, Navalny used his fame to successfully organize tactical voting against Putin’s preferred candidates in Moscow city council elections, costing United Russia a third of its seats. A repeat of this campaign at the national level this year could deny Putin a compliant parliamentary majority, as United Russia was recently polling at just 27-per-cent support, 20 per cent lower than at the same stage before the 2016 election. By jailing Navalny and banning his movement, Putin hopes to undermine their efforts to derail United Russia.

The imprisonment of Navalny aside, Putin’s core voters, many of them elderly, are still angry over the pension-age rises that sparked mass protests in 2018. Since then, the Kremlin has faced a barrage of demonstrations over a range of environmental and social issues, including the arrest of Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal, an ultranationalist whose surprise victory over the United Russia candidate shocked the Kremlin in 2018.

In response to the public outcry, Putin has unleashed an unprecedented wave of repression against opposition activists, as well as introducing new legislation that further criminalizes dissent. Last year he also introduced constitutional changes which open the door for him to remain in power until 2036.

Although United Russia is likely to win the upcoming parliamentary election, a reduced majority will deepen battle lines and harden resolve on all sides as people look ahead to 2024’s presidential race.

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