“It doesn’t matter what your experience is,” said former opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov. “If you just don’t steal and talk to people, you’ll be on top of every member of United Russia.”
For years, the Putin regime has maintained his party’s dominance over the legislature through traditional authoritarian methods: media control, administrative coercion, ballot stuffing, and most importantly, the disqualification of opposition candidates. It is not difficult to win when your opponents are not on the ballot. Yet the public̵
This happened for the first time on a large scale during the 2018 gubernatorial elections in several Russian regions and most impressively last year in Moscow, where Kremlin-backed candidates lost almost half of their seats on the city council thanks in large part to the tactical vote by Putin’s leading opponent, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. In this year’s local elections, candidates backed by Navalny achieved impressive victories in Siberian cities.
Dozens of opposition lawmakers in municipal councils and even regional legislatures are a nuisance the Kremlin can face, but even a single vote of dissent in the national parliament would challenge a system that survives for lack of an alternative. Just ask Ilya Ponomarev, the only Russian MP who voted against the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and was prosecuted and expelled in response. As next September’s parliamentary elections approach, the regime is halting all steps to ensure that last year’s humiliation in Moscow does not happen again nationwide.
This week, Putin’s party unveiled new legislative proposals allowing authorities to identify any opposition candidate as a “foreign agent.” The designation, which in Russian is synonymous with “foreign spy”, will be included in all signature petitions, campaign literature and the newsletter. To be labeled as a “foreign agent”, the applicant must simply be affiliated with a non-governmental organization (NGO) or media organization designated by the Russian government as a “foreign agent”, or have accepted “any form of organizational or methodological support from foreign sources. “Participation in a seminar organized, for example, by an international non – governmental organization, would qualify.
Any candidate backed by Navalny will be automatically affected, as his NGO, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, has already been identified by the government as a “foreign agent” (due to a fake money transfer from Spain, almost certainly organized by the Russian authorities themselves). ) “Why don’t they just describe anyone who criticizes the government and uses arguments aligned with Western liberalism as a ‘foreign agent’?” “, Writes political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya. “In fact, this is a ban on the liberal opposition in Russia.”
The practical effect of the measure is unclear – in fact, it could affect its authors. As Navalny claimed, the label “foreign agent” on the ballot would make it easier for Russian voters to choose a candidate against Putin. Clearly, the Kremlin is so concerned that it has recently unveiled another initiative that actually revives the notion of “rotten neighborhoods” that existed in England before the 1832 electoral reform. These were small depopulated villages that, under obsolete constituencies continue to have parliamentary representation that is easily manipulated by landowners.
Recent constitutional changes in Russia have allowed the authorities to create artificial quasi-regions with poorly defined “federal territory” status and their own representatives in parliament. The first such “territory” was formed near the Black Sea resort of Sochi in southern Russia, and according to Parliamentary Legislative Committee Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov, it could get its own constituency with its own MP, all for a population of 12,500. By comparison, the average constituency in Russia has about half a million voters. So even if the opposition wins in the big cities next year, its vote will be blurred by pro-Kremlin lawmakers sent by several thousand votes to “rotten neighborhoods.” The traditional manipulation (already used by the Kremlin in 2016) pales in comparison.
“The regime is fighting the manifestations, not the cause [of rising discontent]”, Says Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is running for parliament in central Moscow (and which will certainly be labeled as a” foreign agent “). “We know how the Soviet Union ended – because it had no opposition, no legal political sphere, no independent media or democratic institutions,” echoed parliamentary candidate Kiril Goncharov in 2021 from the liberal Yabloko party.
The growing public fatigue of a corrupt and violent regime will not go away due to new bans, restrictions or vote rigging. If society is unable to express its opposition through the ballot box, it will find another way.