Russians — and longtime Russia watchers — have grown accustomed to political repression campaigns the government of Vladimir Putin has regularly launched over the past 20 years. But the situation in 2021, in the lead-up to parliamentary elections Sept. 19, appears quite different.
What’s behind the current wave of repression?
The recent crackdown started after the alleged poisoning of Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny by Kremlin security services in August 2020. As Navalny recovered in a German hospital, Russia’s parliament passed tougher rules for pickets and rallies — but also created operational obstacles for nonprofits, the media and foreign Internet platforms. The number of government-linked attacks on Internet freedom also skyrocketed across Russia.
At the same time, the Kremlin shut down the opposition’s ability to run for office. After the mass rallies after Navalny’s return to Russia in January, the Kremlin arrested Navalny’s associates, launched over 90 criminal cases against protest participants and sentenced two-dozen protesters to jail. And new legislation this spring banned individuals associated with “extremist” organizations from running for election. The government then designated Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and regional offices as “extremist.”
The Kremlin began targeting “foreign agents”
By summer, another set of laws made interactions difficult with organizations the Kremlin identified as “foreign agents” or “undesirable.” The government put individual journalists, along with independent media outlets such as Current Time, Meduza, VTimes, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Insider and TV Rain on the foreign agents list — curtailing their access to funding. Proekt, known for publishing articles critical of the Putin regime, found itself on the “undesirable” list and had to cease operations in Russia.
The crackdown broadened further. Team 29, an association of lawyers and journalists that helped defend Navalny’s team and other dissidents, was forced to shut down after authorities blocked its website for allegedly publishing content from an “undesirable” organization. This month, the government declared Golos, an independent vote-monitoring organization, a “foreign agent.”
Yaroslav Kuzminov, rector of the Higher School of Economics, a liberal university he founded in the 1990s, abruptly resigned, prompting rumors that his move was forced. And the government added Bard College, which runs a joint degree program with a Russian college, to the list of foreign “undesirable” organizations.
Moscow is watching Belarus closely
Many observers point to the September 2021 Duma elections as the main reason for Russia’s unprecedented crackdown. To be sure, the declining popularity of Putin’s United Russia party — currently polling at 27 percent countrywide and 15 percent in Moscow — could threaten the government’s ability to sustain a legislative majority.
But the Kremlin has modified electoral laws 19 times in the run-up to the upcoming elections — all of these combined changes leave at least 9 million Russians formally ineligible to run for any elected office. Over the summer, authorities arrested opposition candidates on various charges, a move apparently designed to keep these names off the ballot. Security forces, police and the courts, not electoral commissions, were filtering candidates, which reduced the number of candidates willing to run for office and allowed to participate in the campaign.
During past elections and referendum voting, the Kremlin reportedly falsified anywhere from 12 million to 22 million votes, making it unlikely that concerns about losing the upcoming election are the sole reason for the crackdown. Instead, the massive protests in Belarus may be a motivator — these protests began a year ago after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed he won reelection with 80 percent of the vote.
Historically, the Kremlin has been concerned about Eastern Europe’s mass uprisings, or “color revolutions.” Political scientist Keith Darden, for example, shows how the Russian leadership has tightened controls at home following each wave of political unrest in the region. After allegations of electoral fraud triggered the Belarus protests, the Kremlin strategy may be shifting away from outright vote rigging and instead focusing on banning unwanted competitors ahead of the election.
What the Kremlin fears most
Indeed, the Kremlin’s main targets this year are forces similar to those driving the Belarus protests: the Internet, independent media, oppositional forces operating outside of the official political establishment — as well as educational institutions the government considers “liberal” and pro-Western.
And the Kremlin is paying close attention to Russian young people, again with youth-backed activism in Belarus in mind. A number of studies find millennial and Gen Z Russians growing increasingly disillusioned with their government. Russia’s updated National Security Doctrine named the Internet as a key threat to the country’s security, noting that extremist groups spread disinformation online that can lead to mass unrest, with Russia’s youths particularly vulnerable to this “destructive influence.”
The pandemic gave authorities a public health pretext to ban mass rallies of young Russians opposed to last summer’s constitutional amendments — which essentially pave the way for Putin to remain in power for 12 more years, putting Russia’s regime on par with autocracies that have few limits on executive authority. In a study with Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov, for instance, we found that regimes with fewer constraints limiting how long a supreme leader can remain in power tend to have weaker political institutions and lower levels of political freedom.
These developments, coupled with the continued crackdowns in recent months, seem to have provided Kremlin elites with a sense of invincibility. But if Russia’s current repressive wave is not primarily driven by the leadership’s fear of losing elections, the crackdowns are unlikely to end in September. A more pessimistic view is that Putin’s regime is transforming into an increasingly repressive Belarus-style autocracy, suggesting that independent and nongovernmental groups in Russia may be in line for closer government scrutiny — and rough times ahead.
Maria Snegovaya is a postdoctoral fellow in political science at Virginia Tech, and a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.