Some things never change, especially in Russia. Long known for its strong-arm control of national elections, Russia appears to be up to its typical shenanigans in the runup to the State Duma elections, slated for September 19, 2021. Ironically, election posters in Russia often state, “Together we choose!”
But it is likely all a facade, a carefully constructed game consisting of rigged electoral systems painted over with a patina of feel-good slogans that are in reality nothing more than a carefully crafted propaganda campaign to placate the masses and foster an illusion of fairness. Russian sociologist Vladislav Inozemtsev puts it bluntly: “Our elections are like a puppet theatre. Many independent candidates have not been allowed to run.”
Of particular concern is Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who after recovering from nerve-agent poisoning no doubt perpetrated by his opponents, was “tried” in a police station in January of this year and then summarily imprisoned, where he still languishes, becoming a modern-day dissident in the tradition of Andrei Sakharov. In 1980, Sakharov was arrested by the then Soviet-era government and exiled to Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, a city that was off-limits to foreigners, creating a prison-like isolation coupled with on-going surveillance by Soviet intelligentsia.
To his credit, Navalny remained steadfast in his opposition to Putin and his cronies, stating via a YouTube video, “Don’t be afraid,”Do not be silent. Resist. Take to the streets. No one but ourselves will protect us, and there are so many of us that if we want to achieve something, we will achieve it.” And Navalny places the emphasis for his fate as well as the future of his fellow Russians who clamor for change directly where it belongs, on the shoulders of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking with The Guardian in August, Navalny pointed out the multi-layered hypocrisy of not only Putin but of Western leaders who seem unable to muster the courage to confront this modern-day czar in an any meaningful manner, saying, “The richest man in the world, who has fleeced his own country, is being invited to discuss how to deal with the problem of himself. Very tricky, very awkward.”
Nor is Navalny alone in his persecution. Russia has managed to use the power of its state apparatus to suppress ally Lyubov Sobo, who according to russialist.org, “withdrew her candidacy for the Duma following Russia’s adoption of a new law banning members of ‘extremist’ organizations.” Sobol was labeled as an “extremist” because she worked as a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Ilya Yashin has suffered a similar fate and stepped down in July as chairman of a local assembly over state pressure he attributes to his support for Navalny, as reported by the Moscow Times.
Earlier this year, former Member of Parliament (MP) Dmitry Gudkov, who had announced running for office as an independent candidate, found his home and the homes of his family members raided by police, leading to his and his aunt’s detention. Speaking with the BBC, Gudkov warned, “My father was sent a message. The message was that if I stay in Russia, my aunt and I will be sent to jail. They were going to use my aunt as a hostage.” Dmitry must have received the message loud and clear, as he left Russia for Bulgaria.
Russia even used its medical system and the pretense of COVID-19 protocols to silence opposition. As reported by Meduza news service, “Murmansk police detained opposition politician Violetta Grudina on the morning of August 2 — immediately after she was released from the medical facility where she was involuntarily hospitalized in mid-July.” Grudina, who had tested negative for COVID-19, was feeling unwell due to her hunger strike against what she perceives is the tyranny of the Russian state apparatus.
When she complained about her health, she was ignored by officials. As Grudiana describes, “Despite my poor vitals, they refused to hospitalize me. The doctors received phone calls constantly, they were constantly summoned into the hallway. It was clear that they were being intimate.”
Seeking to muzzle Grudina, Russian officials created trumped-up charges against her, accusing her of violating quarantine requirements. Grudina states, “For 20 days I was forcibly hospitalised in a Covid ward. They isolated me by court order so that I couldn’t submit my election registration documents. I felt like I was in a TV crime drama. But this is the reality of life for an opposition activist in Putin’s Russia.”
Russia is also doing its level best to prevent outsiders from observing its farce of the September 19 elections. According to Brussells Morning, “The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will not be sending observers to monitor the 2021 Russian legislative elections” because “[T]he Kremlin has limited the organisation to only 50 observers as part of its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and to 10 from its Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), in all, less than 10% of the number OSCE sent to observe the 2016 Duma elections in Russia.”
It’s no wonder that Putin and his comrades are scared. Russian Election Monitor (REM) reports that “Economic stagnation, high household inflation, the ongoing coronavirus crisis and environmental disasters have undermined support for the party that many Russians call ‘the Party of Crooks and Thieves.’” Moreover, Putin has been manipulating the election system for quite some time. As REM points out, “in 2012, Putin ordered a new election law that would elect half the parliament in U.S.-style congressional districts. This change gave the Presidential Administration, which manages Russian elections from the Kremlin, a new toolkit to determine electoral outcomes.”
And, never missing an opportunity to fully exploit foreign conquest, Duma members loyal to Russia’s existing power structure are seeking to pad the results in their favor. As REM states: “New rules allowing Russians in parts of eastern Ukraine – an area held by Russian-backed separatists – to participate in the election will add an additional percent to United Russia’s national vote totals.
Of course, there will be some nominal observations. Azerbaijani MPs will observe the elections from September 16 to September 20, according to News.Az. However, it would be wise to temper any expectations of true impartiality, given the nature of the Russian-Azerbaijani connection, one characterized by an almost sycophantic relationship.
As the policy institute, Chatham House frames it, “The steps that Azerbaijan has taken to pacify Russia in recent years and reassure it of its loyalty have helped strengthen the latter’s soft power. Moscow is trying to fill the vacuum that emerged after many Western institutions left Azerbaijan following the restrictions imposed by the government from 2013 onwards. Its main tools consist of politically engaged movements and pro-Russian media outlets. This soft power is underpinned by two main Soviet legacies in Azerbaijan: the Russian language and the education system.”
While it has been more than 40 years since what was effectively imprisonment for Andrei Sakharov, nothing has really changed in the motherland, which seeks only to serve its own narrow oligarchical structures, headed by Putin. As Sakharov himself put it: “Yet our state is similar to a cancer cell – with its messianism and expansionism, its totalitarian suppression of dissent, the authoritarian structure of power, with a total absence of public control in the most important decisions in domestic and foreign policy, a closed society that does not inform its citizens of anything substantial, closed to the outside world, without freedom of travel or the exchange of information.”
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