Republic.ru, Sept. 17, 2021, https://republic.ru/posts/101666. Complete text:
One popular viewpoint is that most of this year’s events – repressive laws, increased pressure on Internet companies, blockages [of online resources], not to mention the jailing of [opposition leader Aleksei] Navalny [see Vol. 73, No. 4, pp. 3‑6] and the complete decimation of the nonestablishment opposition – are directly related to the Duma elections. The assumption is that the authorities are so afraid of losing that they decided to tighten the screws across the board to ensure the necessary control over the future [convocation of] parliament. In this case, it is logical to assume that after the elections, the tide of repressions will decrease and the overall situation will calm down. However, there is every reason to believe that we will see the exact opposite.
There are several key reasons to suspect that repressions will not only fail to decrease after the elections, but will actually become more sophisticated. The first and main reason has to do with the fact that political repressions are driven not so much by electoral considerations, but by the security clan’s logic of “strengthening national security.” Therefore, it would be a mistake to link [political repressions] solely to electoral cycles. In the current situation, elections are merely one of the factors that drive repressions and raise political stakes. However, the general trend toward tightening the screws is of a completely different nature. Last year saw two key events that created a new political reality and reformatted the [Russian President Vladimir] Putin regime to such an extent that Russia in January 2020 seems a lot closer to Russia circa 2003 than it does to the present.
The first event (or rather process) was the carefully planned and orchestrated constitutional reform, which made the regime much more conservative, less tolerant of dissent, institutionally more manageable (curtailing the separation of powers) and even more superpresidential [see Vol. 72, No. 27‑28, pp. 3‑7]. The reform did not meet any social or political resistance [because] the nonestablishment opposition was demoralized while the population was driven into a political depression (exacerbated by COVID‑19). This resulted in the “victors’ effect”: euphoria from an easy victory and the emotional desire to finish off a feeble opponent. This context created a comfortable backdrop for the second crucial event – Navalny’s poisoning [see Vol. 72, No. 34‑35, pp. 13‑16].
How confrontation became a war.
Unlike the constitutional reform and its effects on the system, Navalny’s poisoning was neither part of a social contract (it could not be, given that it was a secret special operation) nor sufficiently manageable. The result is all too familiar – Navalny survived, Western experts discovered Novichok [in his system] and the geopolitical crisis entered a new round. Things went downhill from there: An investigation [by Bellingcat/The Insider] implicated the FSB [Federal Security Service] in the poisoning [see Vol. 72, No. 51‑52, pp. 7‑10], which for the Russian authorities was tantamount to an attack on the foundations of national security; the sacred backbone of the regime. As for Navalny, he was planning to treacherously return to Russia, driving the Kremlin into the trap of inevitably arresting him. (Yes, you may be surprised to learn that many in the Kremlin felt themselves victims of Navalny’s “vile provocation” in which he left them no choice but to jail him – when he could’ve peacefully settled down in Europe!).
It was at that moment that the confrontation took a quantum leap and became a mortal struggle. In the end, the Anticorruption Foundation’s infrastructure was completely destroyed and the field cleared [of the opposition].1 Gradually, the targeted campaign against “Navalniks” (as they are contemptuously referred to by the proregime camp) turned into a much broader one aimed at suppressing everything deemed “antiregime.” “Antiregime behavior” does not refer to an organization, leaders or any actual coordination; it represents any sort of activity that expresses ideological disagreement with the authorities on key issues.
1(The Anticorruption Foundation was banned after being deemed an extremist organization [see Vol. 73, No. 24‑25, p. 12 – Trans.]; earlier, it had been designated a foreign agent. – Ed.)
Elections or no elections, it’s unlikely that events could have developed differently. All of the Russian authorities’ actions over the past year can be divided into those related to elections and those related to national security. And the work to destroy Navalny’s headquarters, which eventually morphed into a campaign against everything deemed “antiregime,” was related to [national security considerations], which are the purview of the security clan of the elite. These curators don’t live by electoral cycles. This means that the elections will pass, but the overall trend toward suppressing “antiregime manifestations” will remain. It is a long-term trend that has become a key element of the political regime following its renewal in 2020. And this trend will only end with the regime’s demise.
Catalysts of repressions.
The second reason is that the elections may serve as a catalyst for repressions not just before but also after the campaign. This has to do with the fact that [elections] create additional reasons for repressions. For example, it became known only yesterday that the [Russian] Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on “inciting mass riots” during the State Duma election voting. At the same time, pressure is mounting on foreign technology companies: Apple and Google were forced to remove the Navalny app. A source close to Google told The New York Times that the authorities came to company offices [in Russia] and threatened to launch criminal cases against its employees and named specific individuals. In this light, the very fact that foreign companies allowed [users] to install this app, which the authorities easily associate with an “extremist organization,” is enough to constantly keep up the pressure and continue threatening them with prosecution, even after the elections.
The election campaign created an ideal atmosphere for the security clan to expose any “antiregime behavior.” It also created the opportunity to significantly update and expand the list of potential “troublemakers.” What’s more, this concept applies not only to those who openly oppose the authorities, but even those within the establishment opposition who are known for their more radical views and may have been tempted to use the elections to demonstrate them. It is also possible that in the future, we will see new “political” criminal cases, since the Criminal Code now provides ample opportunity to prosecute just about any politician, journalist, expert or even the average citizen.
Finally, the third reason is the fact that the main catalyst of repressions is not elections, but geopolitical factors – i.e., everything that exacerbates tensions with the West and forces the Russian authorities to take an increasingly defensive stance.
It’s important to remember that the entire campaign against “antiregime” elements is rooted in a sense of one’s own vulnerability in the face of external meddling. This drives the strong emotional reaction to any journalistic investigations that strike a blow to the dominant [regime] players (or, more broadly, any criticism in the media of the Putin regime). As far as the Kremlin is concerned, in one form or another, these attacks play into the hands of Western special services, which feed journalists certain information with the aim of slowly undermining the system from within. Clearly, this informational standoff is not going to disappear now that the elections are over, which means the regime will continue to pressure the media, along with expanding the list of “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations.” Moreover, the Kremlin has not yet used its full arsenal [of repression mechanisms]. Today there is a serious threat to those “establishment” media outlets where labels [like “foreign agent”] aren’t even necessary – all [the Kremlin] has to do is force a change of editor in chief.
What’s in store after Sept. 19.
To somewhat brighten this bleak picture, it’s important to understand that the elections did play a role in exacerbating tensions and raising the stakes. They pushed both security officials and bureaucrats to increase control over the political and informational field. After the elections, motivation for repressions is going to decrease, at least as far as those who were responsible for the campaign outcome are concerned. In general, after Sept. 19 we will likely see the usual multidirectional trends where on one hand, part of the elite will try not to make a fuss by escalating tensions or blowing problems out of proportion. However, the security segment of the elite will continue to bulldoze the political field, but not because it sees genuine threats there – rather, because this has become a way for it to justify its existence and a means for promoting its large army of uniformed curators.