2021: From Domestic Repression to Foreign Policy Ultimatums

The main political event in Russia in 2021 was the elections to the State Duma, or the lower house of parliament. On the one hand, the elections brought closure to the long period of preparation for them; on the other hand, they signified the onset of a new period in the development of Russia’s political system

The Year of Elections and the Dismantling of Democracy

The main political event in Russia in 2021 was the elections to the State Duma, or the lower house of parliament. On the one hand, the elections brought closure to the long period of preparation for them; on the other hand, they signified the onset of a new period in the development of Russia’s political system.

The Kremlin’s preparation for the Duma elections began approximately a year before the start of the campaign, in the summer of 2020. Evidently, according to the original plan, all the potentially strong opposition candidates were supposed to face criminal charges before the start of the Duma campaign, which would prevent them from taking part in the elections. Death was in store for Alexey Navalny, which would have both put an end to his political organizations in Russia and reduced his influence and that of his supporters to a minimum during the campaign.

Despite the fact that the attempted assassination of Navalny turned into an international scandal and most likely harmed the authorities, repression of opposition members continued unabated.  By the beginning of the actual election campaign, it became obvious that strong candidates could not participate, especially those connected to the team of Navalny, who survived the attack.  “Smart voting,” that is, technical voting for any promising candidate capable of defeating one supported by the government, turned out to be the only possible tactic for influencing the outcome of the elections.

But in the final analysis, even “smart voting” had more of an effect on mobilization and morale than a practical result. The readiness of the Kremlin to turn electoral procedures into a fiction with the help of the much-ballyhooed “electronic voting” can be considered both the main result of the Duma elections and the plan for all future campaigns. In fact, Putin’s Russia has returned to a modernized Soviet model of elections, in which the results are manually determined by the executive branch, and citizens are deprived of any opportunity to influence the course and outcomes of any elections. Evidently, the techniques tested in the Duma elections will be applied more and more broadly and this must be considered when analyzing the preparation and course of any election campaigns in the foreseeable future.

The Year of Repression

The year 2021 was a year of truly mass repression against opposition activists.  Although the crackdown affected only a small number of people in proportion to the entire population of Russia, the ranks of political activists were substantially thinned. The mass emigration of political activists from Russia can also be considered a direct consequence of persecution which compounded its effect.  In many regions of the country, no centers of opposition activity remain, because people have suffered criminal or administrative punishment or have left Russia, fearing persecution. Others have ceased to be involved in political activity, dreading problems. In fact, refraining from political activism does not help to avoid problems – either for preventive purposes, or to fulfill a quota, the police and intelligence services methodically persecute all those who one way or another have been exposed working in Navalny’s campaign headquarters or involved in other activity. The authorities’ approach to the persecution of opposition members in 2021 has changed: they have embarked on a course of complete annihilation of the possibilities for any opposition activity in Russia and the purging of the country of opposition.

Looking ahead, it appears permanent repression will continue for the entire time that Putin remains in power and a new peak should be expected closer to the presidential elections, whenever they take place – in 2024 or earlier. Unfortunately, there is no point in expecting any mitigation of the system or a pause in repression in 2022-2023.

Simultaneously, pressure has increased on non-state media, human rights, and civic organizations. Clearly, the authorities consider any civic activity not sanctioned from above as suspicious, or potentially oppositional, and independent media are considered entirely akin to a press service for opposition members, and even funded from the West.

The Year of Navalny

In the political sense, 2021 in Russia became the year of Alexey Navalny, although the government did everything to prevent this. Nevertheless, it was the return of Navalny to Russia on 17 January 2021 that defined the most important trends, as cited above. Navalny’s return provoked both mass protests and a reaction to them by the authorities. The concept which Navalny proposed of “smart voting” turned the entire Duma campaign into a series of attempts by the authorities to minimize its effect. The very fact of Navalny’s incarceration turned into an international political problem, and the forced emigration of his team enabled the activization of work with Western elites and their consolidation in an understanding of the nature of the Putin regime.

Nevertheless, in spite of Putin’s efforts, Navalny became his chief opponent, not only in the eyes of his supporters in Russia but in the global perception.  Regrettably, such a state of affairs did not guarantee Navalny some sort of privileged conditions in detention, but rather the opposite – it forced us to seriously fear for his future. The story of the attempt to poison him demonstrated the lengths Putin is prepared to go when it comes to people in his way.

Unfortunately, Navalny’s imprisonment creates wide opportunities for his murder and there are no reasons to suppose that the inevitable wave of outrage, new sanctions, and other costs will prevent Putin from taking such a step if he himself finds it necessary.

The Year of the Pandemic

The most important domestic challenge for Putin was the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Aside from the problems common to all governments of the world, the Putin regime is suffering particularly hard from this situation. First, the pandemic keeps demonstrating the mendacity of the thesis of the incredible popularity of Putin himself or his regime among the population; despite all the calls for vaccination, the citizens of Russia actively resist it, and the authorities’ anti-pandemic measures do not find understanding among a significant portion of society.

Secondly, the economic situation of Russian citizens even before the pandemic was not so great, but by the end of 2021, it had obviously deteriorated. The rise in mortality put an end to all the slogans which Putin has touted for many years about the overcoming of Russia’s demographic problems. All of this works against the popularity of the government among the population and against Putin’s popularity above all.

Thirdly and finally, the pandemic, or rather the measures to combat it, have put Putin’s core electorate on the verge of a split. By propagandizing conspiracy theories, skepticism regarding modern science and technology, and distrust of everything “Western,” the Putin regime has relied on the conservative-minded part of society and has obtained unconditional support from it despite all the economic problems. But under the conditions of the pandemic, in fact the conservative part of Russian society has led the resistance to vaccinations, the use of QR codes, and other measures to fight COVID-19. By the end of 2021, the government was facing a serious dilemma: either to begin harshly persecuting people with such views, thus widening the split of its core electorate and provoking some to cross over to opposition of Putin, or to meet them half-way and drop some necessary measures, and thereby face new waves of the pandemic in the near future.

We can confidently state that the continuation of the pandemic into 2022 will aggravate this situation even more severely; on the one hand, fatigue from the restrictive measures and skepticism about them will grow even on the part of those ready to vaccinate and follow hygiene rules; on the other hand, the continuation of the pandemic, despite measures already taken will become a very important argument for opponents of vaccination and restrictions.

2022 – the Year of Aggression?

The appearance at year’s end of essentially an ultimatum from Putin to the West clearly indicates what next year will be like.

Inside Russia, repression will continue, with the forcing of the remnants of opposition activists out of the country and the destruction of independent media and journalists. Quite possibly we can expect the blocking of Western social networks and media platforms, the expulsion of the international media from Russia and an increase in isolation. Rational arguments against such measures can hardly be considered weighty in a situation when the preservation of Putin’s personal power remains the only goal for the existence of the state in Russia. Moreover, it seems Putin sincerely believes that all his critics and opponents inside Russia are agents of the West. Therefore, he sees the harsh measures against the opposition as lawful retribution against their purported masters, and pressure on Western leaders as a means of getting rid of those unhappy inside Russia.

The deterioration of the socio-economic situation in Russia makes foreign policy aggression extremely likely. Putin must do something that explains the economic problems to the population and justifies the necessity of further enduring hardship. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of options – it is aggression against Ukraine or a takeover of Belarus.  And if in the case of Ukraine, Putin is taking a risk, because the outcome of any war is difficult to predict in advance, then the takeover of Belarus with the consent and facilitation of Lukashenko will seem a quite realistic scenario.

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