The Russian government has silenced opposition voices, approved cash payouts to potential voters, and made it nearly impossible to monitor the polls as it prepares for parliamentary elections next month that the opposition has warned will be marred by fraud.
United Russia, the ruling party that has supported Vladimir Putin through nearly his entire presidency, is expected to maintain a majority of the seats in the next Duma, despite state polling that shows that just 26% of Russians are ready to vote for the party– its lowest rating since 2008.
Critics of the Kremlin have said that the government has little choice but to offer one-time cash gifts to make up for the lack of enthusiasm and deliver the kind of victory that the ruling party has grown used to. Meanwhile, the Communist party of the Russian Federation, an opposition party that often votes with United Russia, has seen rising support in polls as a likely recipient of the protest vote.
Putin remains far more popular than United Russia and has declined to join the party, probably to avoid dragging down his ratings. However, he appeared at the party’s conference last week and promised the equivalent of £150 payouts to members of the military and £100 to pensioners before the elections, while calling for similar proposals for families with children. While the offers are not directly linked to voting, they are seen as an easy, if expensive, way to drum up support.
“The thinly veiled bribery of voters, all sorts of manipulations, mobilising administrative [resources] and persecution the critics of the regime – these are the election tactics of Putin and his party in 2021,” wrote Fyodor Krashennikov, an opposition political commentator who recently left for Europe because he said he felt pressure from the government. “All that Vladimir Putin can offer voters is fear, coercion, and a little money.”
Meanwhile, rules have been tweaked to make it more difficult to monitor the vote. The elections will be held over three days from September 17-19, rather than just one, making it harder for poll monitors to compare the number of total voters to the votes claimed by United Russia. The public has been blocked from viewing camera feeds from local polling stations, as opposed to past years. And Golos, the NGO that helped reveal fraud in 2011 and other past elections, has been declared a “foreign agent”.
A worker paints over graffiti of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg. The inscription reads: “The hero of the new times”. Photograph: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images
“This is a serious signal about falsifications being prepared,” said Grigory Melkonyants, one of the organisation’s leaders.
Ella Pamfilova, a former human rights advocate who has become the head of Russia’s elections commission, said that access to cameras at polling stations had been blocked to pre-empt cyber-attacks. The explanation was met with skepticism by journalists and opponents of the Kremlin.
“Colleagues, what kind of comparisons are these?” she said when asked about past access to the cameras. “These are different eras, there were no cyber-attacks and cyberwarfare then like there are now.”
Prominent opponents of Putin have been put behind bars or pushed out of the country. Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who previously ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, has been in jail since January on old fraud charges seen as politically motivated. His nationwide political organisation and his investigative unit, which has alleged corruption tied to both Putin and former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, have been liquidated as extremist. Many of its members have fled to avoid arrest.
Other charismatic opposition leaders have also been blocked from the polls or told they can’t run because of “extremist” ties. Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition leader who had previously served in the State Duma, said it would have been “impossible” for him to run. He left Russia in June, saying he would face criminal charges if he remained.
“Everyone has been pushed out,” said Anastasia Bryukhanova, an opposition candidate in a northern Moscow district that is likely to see a strong protest vote for her and several other liberal candidates. She said she was lucky to get on the ballot, thanks to both strong fundraising and a lower profile than some opposition leaders seeking election to the legislature.
“I’m well-known in Moscow. But in this election, these kind of decisions are made in the Kremlin. And I doubt they’ve heard of a girl named Anastasia Bryukhanova there.”