As Russia approaches the parliamentary election scheduled for Sept. 19, 2021, the Kremlin is increasingly worried about a repeat of the public humiliation it suffered in last year’s election in the city of Moscow. Many of the ruling United Russia party’s candidates lost to political no-names — spoilers or technical candidates from smaller registered parties — even after real opponents were disqualified from the ballot. Gone are the days when Vladimir Putin’s regime could ensure the dominance of its party through traditional methods such as the coercion of state employees, control over the media or the removal of opposition candidates.

All those methods are still there — but they no longer seem to work. Russians are growing tired of two decades of rule by one man, as Putin’s sagging public approval numbers (now down in the 30s) demonstrate. A recent case in point was the loss by a United Russia mayor to his own office cleaner in September’s local elections. A video showing passersby cursing at or running away from a man in the ruling party’s colors who tried to collect signatures in its support has gone viral — and does not bode well for the Kremlin.

In this context, the directive issued by the Kremlin’s political managers — and reportedly originating from Putin himself — seems astonishingly out of touch with reality. According to a story by Meduza, a respected independent news outlet, top Kremlin officials told United Russia leaders at a recent meeting that Putin wants the party to maintain its two-thirds supermajority in September’s election — meaning it will need to win at least 300 of the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament.

The directive, confirmed by several high-placed sources, marks a significant change in the regime’s strategy. Until recently, the plan was to dilute the protest vote through a multitude of newly created fake parties while ensuring an obedient parliament in whatever combination of the Kremlin-approved parties that make up the current Duma — and that deliver the (literally) unanimous passage of Putin’s initiatives, such as the recent constitutional amendments designed to overturn presidential term limits. This was a model based on the political system of the former East Germany that Putin observed as a KGB officer in the 1980s: Unlike the USSR with its one-party state, the East German parliament technically included representatives from several parties — all of which, naturally, voted the “right” way.

It seems this setup is no longer enough — and the suggested reason is as notable as the directive itself. According to Meduza’s sources in the Kremlin, a strong showing by United Russia (presumably with Putin at the top of its list) is intended mainly for the incoming Biden administration in the United States to demonstrate “a high level of public support” for Putin. “We must show unity in the face of the enemy,” Andrei Yarin, the head of the Kremlin’s political department, has told members of United Russia.

The problem is that this goal is unattainable. With United Russia’s poll numbers hovering around 30 percent, and with many of its candidates destined to lose in single-member districts thanks to a successful tactical voting initiative spearheaded by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, there seems to be no viable path to a supermajority.

Except, of course, through the crudest of methods: ballot-stuffing. As Stalin once remarked, voting itself is “completely unimportant … what is extraordinarily important is … who will count the votes, and how.” Kremlin officials are indicating that the newly instituted three-day voting — with ballots stored overnight at electoral commission offices with no independent oversight — will allow them to “smoothly modify” the results. As one official stated candidly, “a directive from the president is a directive from the president.” Don’t hold out for any surprises in the official election results on the night of Sept. 19.

What is important is what happens next. In recent years, in Russia’s neighborhood — from Serbia to Georgia to Ukraine — large-scale and obvious ballot fraud has led to mass demonstrations that often toppled the regimes that had orchestrated it. In Russia itself, overt rigging in favor of United Russia in the 2011 parliamentary election led to unprecedented protests against Putin’s rule. Back then, the regime had enough residual strength to withstand public pressure. This might not be the case today.

Analysts have been forecasting mass protests in Russia for 2024, the year Putin will probably seek another term in violation of constitutional limits. The Kremlin’s change of plan for the Duma election could bring the clock forward. And the test in September will be not just for the resilience of Russian civil society, but also for the West’s adherence to its principles. At a recent European Parliament hearing, Navalny urged Western leaders to refuse to recognize the results of the Duma vote if opposition candidates are blocked from the ballot. An election intended to showcase Putin’s public support for Joe Biden’s benefit might turn out to be the first major foreign policy test for the next U.S. leader.

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