Putin Bags a Fraudulent Trophy, Wants More

On the final day of the three-day Russian legislative elections on September 19, companies linked to a crony of President Vladimir Putin bussed and flew thousands of employees to Moscow.

Their bosses said they would be attending a “self-development” event, but they should also be on hand for a pro-Putin political rally after the polls closed.

In the weeks since, stories have flowed about just how hard Putin’s government worked to insure the outcome long before voting day, and even after. State workers in Moscow were told to vote for United Russia. Independent media was muzzled. Videos of old-fashioned ballot stuffing appeared online.

Authorities in St. Petersburg tragic-comically registered two fake candidates, each of whom grew beards to make them look like an opposition candidate and changed their names to his, all to confuse voters.  Authorities in the northern city of Murmanss confined a woman politician ito a hospital for 20 days to keep her from running, on the grounds she had been infected with coronavirus. She hadn’t.

Russian physicist Sergei Shpilkin, a researcher into election data, estimates that actual electoral report for United reached around 33 percent of votes cast, with turnout at about 38 percent. Official results gave United Russia 50 per cent of votes with a 52 percent turnout. That amounted to 14 million fraudulent votes, Shpilkin asserted.

He based his analysis on evidently weird results– for instance numbers from polling stations that recorded an unusually high turnout and big margins for United Russia.

Golos, the Russian vote-monitoring group, said it received 5,000 complaints of bullying by employers demanding they vote for United Russia. “We have experienced a huge crackdown on any independent political life,” said Roman Udot, a Golos election monitor.

Foreign governments limited criticism  to common anodyne complaints about many repressive Putin policies. The US State Department noted that the Russian government had failed “to honor its international obligations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The British Foreign Ministry also felt the election was “at odds with the international commitments.” The European Union pulled the expression “deep concerns” out of its tut-tut bag.

Western resignation probably reflects recognized reality. After all, Putin has sluffed off tougher criticism, as well as economic sanctions, over his 2014 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea

That leaves change in the weakened hands of Russian pro-democracy activists. Within the space of just over a year, Putin has obliterated opposition to his regime. While some foreign commentators muse that his Duma win might motivate him to ease off, it’s far from clear that Putin has any reason to. For one thing, presidential elections are scheduled in 2024. Why let opposition reemerge only to have to shut them down later?

With Putin possibly approaching the sunset of his reign, maybe via bad health, the next generation of Kremlin power players—notably those in the secret services—might feel that it’s safest to maintain tight control.

Popular dissatisfaction with the government is evident. Putin’s approval ratings in polls are in the 35 per cent range.

Also stop-and-go repression is not Putin’s style.

The current wave of tightening got started in August, 2020, when someone tried to kill Russia’s leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny. They slipped the nerve agent Novichok, which  Russia’s military developed, into his tea. In 2018, A pair of Russian intelligence agents used Novichok  to try to kill a defector in the United Kingdom. He survived. So did Navalny.

He convalesced in Germany then returned to Moscow in January. Putin promptly threw him in jail.

Putin soon found big demonstrations calling for Navalny’s release got in the way of a smooth runup to the legislative elections. Navalny’s savvy online dissident organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, announced plans to offer candidates to run against Putin’s party.

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

A court then ruled that all symbols and financing of the organization be banned, that organizers of its activities could be imprisoned for up to 15 years and rank-and-file members were made vulnerable to six years imprisonment. In June, Putin signed a law banning “extremists,” whatever that meant, from running for office. Navalny associates fled abroad in droves.

Putin also strong armed both Apple and Google to eliminate so-called pro- Smart Voting apps from their online stores. Navalny’s team designed the apps provided  to instruct voters how to cast ballots for strong, non-United Russia candidates and thereby reduce the Kremlin party’s victories.

Threats to the companies included possible persecution of employees in Russia.

The Duma vote is over, but not restrictions on Internet operations. Last week, Russia’s technology regulator threatened Facebook with fines of 10 percent of the company’s annual Russian revenue if it failed to block “extremist” (that word again!) material from its site. It will be interesting to see how they suppress news from a just-released international investigation about riches held off-shore by the wealthy. Long-time Putin associates are included.

Navalny backers in exile are keeping up a brave face. They aim mobilize mass rallies inside Russia, like the ones that followed Navalny’s arrest. But Russians seem unwilling or even disinterested in risky sustained street protests like the so-called Color Revolutions that brought down Moscow-backed governments in Ukraine in 2004 and 2013. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which complained of fraud after winning 57 seats, organized a protest crowd of a few hundred in Moscow, and that’s been it.

Navalny backers also say they are researching ways to combat future voting fraud. As skillfull as they are, the Kremlin has shown it is capable of staying steps ahead; a Navalny associate told me: “Putin has no trouble hiring Russia’s best hackers and pay them well. There are plenty of them.”

Given Putin’s track long record of tightening control over public opinion and elections, it seems unlikely that the assaults on leading opponents will end. The Duma vote was meant to show resistance is futile, even as he ages and his popularity possibly declines.

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

Elections are meant to be ratify Putin’s leadership, not serve as vehicles for political change. He has become “increasingly repressive” to create “the impression of an imaginary majority,” wrote Jussi Lassila, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs.




Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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