The brutal suppression of the protests in support of Alexei Navalny and his earlier arrest have symbolically begun a new chapter in the history of Putin’s Russia. Only the use of force and repression allow the regime to continue its existence. As a result of last year’s events, Vladimir Putin realized that he will not gain the support of the majority of Russians again. This is the end of democracy in Russia, even the sham one, but also the beginning of the end of Putin’s rule.
It is not clear whether Vladimir Putin expected that a severe test for his regime would come so soon. Undoubtedly, he learned his lesson from the bitter experiences of Alexander Lukashenko. That is why, already back in December 2020, the Russian parliament adopted a series of amendments to the law that further restricted the remnants of freedom in Russia and thus facilitated state repression against its citizens. According to Putin, the main threat to his power is no longer external, but domestic. This shift began about a year ago, with the launching of a process of constitutional amendments allowing the president to remain in the Kremlin de facto indefinitely. Adoption of subsequent “muzzling” and repressive laws, increasing the powers and budget of the internal power structures (even at the expense of the regular army), and finally the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny – these were only the preparations for this crucial year. The developments in Belarus confirmed the Kremlin’s beliefs.
At the beginning of the year, the authorities continued to implement strict internal policy and made another step towards a typical authoritarian regime. Alexei Navalny had been imprisoned, and another criminal case against him was initiated. The Ministry of Justice added a number of people to the list of “foreign agents,” in accordance with the new legislation, on the basis of which virtually any citizen or legal entity in Russia could be considered such an agent. New restrictions on public protests were also adopted, while blocking the streets was outlawed. Those found guilty of “slander” on the Internet could face up to two years of imprisonment. Moreover, the authorities have greater freedom to block websites if they decide that they are censoring content from Russian state media. The latter is aimed at punishing social media companies such as Facebook or YouTube.
Russia is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Putin’s self-isolation and the fact that he delegates tasks to the government, governors, parliament, and siloviki [translator’s note: Russia’s armed forces, security services, intelligence agencies, and police] is distinctive. In short, the FSB is responsible for fighting off opposition; the government has to deal with the economy, while the governors have to fight against the pandemic. The president himself is gradually becoming a symbol. He is a guarantor of the status quo but has no time for mundane issues because he focuses on global affairs. In the past year, Putin distanced himself from the current political reality and dealt with issues of the Russian citizens. He remains isolated in a bunker (not exactly known where) and meets face-to-face only with his most trusted associates. This means that he has given more tasks to his people than ever before. However, this also means that he has less power.
Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny (center) takes part in a memorial march for Boris Nemtsov marking the fifth anniversary of his assassination. Moscow, Russia, February 29, 2020. Nemtsov was a liberal politician and prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was assassinated on 27 February 2015 in Moscow.
A crucial year
The Kremlin probably has not been so focused on domestic issues since 2012. The future of the regime depends on surviving the coronavirus pandemic and winning the parliamentary election. Foreign policy has faded into the background, especially since – from the Kremlin’s standpoint – the international environment is changing in the right direction. If the regime survives 2021, Putin has a fair chance to make it at least to the end of his current term, assuming that his health permits him to do so. There are growing indications that the 1999 succession operation may be repeated. The current regime is not able to offer anything to the Russian people. Putin is already perceived as a “falling leader.” Even changing the constitution and making it possible for him to be in office indefinitely did not reset the “clock” of his rule. On the contrary, the whole process turned out to be unfavorable for him. 2021 is the first year of a new phase of power, a time of stagnation and a battle to remain in power by introducing increasingly harsh repressive measures.
Why is 2021 so important? Because then the Russian legislative elections are to be held. They will be the last major electoral test during Putin’s current term. Probably the most difficult trial in many years, as evidenced by the rigged “nationwide” vote on amendments to the constitution last summer. It would be hard to rig the elections because Putin and his party – United Russia – are losing trust and support. The coronavirus pandemic only accelerated this trend that had begun in 2018 when the retirement age and taxes were raised. Consequently, achieving the desired result would be more difficult. It could be expected that the Kremlin wishes to ensure that United Russia has a constitutional majority in the State Duma and hopes to make some changes in the so-called systemic opposition in the process. In these uncertain times, parties such as the Communists or Zhirinovsky’s LDPR are not seen as sufficiently loyal to the Kremlin. This explains the plans aiming at weakening them by allowing a new party (or, perhaps, parties?) to enter the State Duma, which first appeared last year.
A fleeing, isolationist Putin does not make a good impression, especially with his team not handling the pandemic very well. If we also take into consideration that the profits from oil and gas exports have plummeted, then Russia’s economic outlook is not very optimistic. This is yet another year in a row when the real disposable income of Russians has fallen. Moreover, undeniably, the socio-economic situation is the fundamental cause of increasing discontent of the people. Huge street protests, a repeat of the situation in Belarus – this is what the Kremlin dreads.
The last massive wave of protests took place in the winter of 2011–12. Then, people took to the streets to protest against the rigged State Duma elections and the announcement of Putin’s return to the Kremlin. Since most Russians do not support the ruling party, in order to maintain the majority in the State Duma, the regime would have to commit large-scale voter fraud, incomparable to the ones committed throughout Putin’s rule. This must trigger public anger. That is why the Kremlin is already doing everything to make it impossible or at least limit it as much as possible. For this reason, it was decided to assassinate Navalny. He is the only one who has the ability to coordinate the nationwide protests, as evidenced by the last two weekends in January. Even from behind bars, Navalny is more dangerous than the divided and marginalized liberal democratic opposition. Hence the new, stricter law, which, in fact, paves the way for limiting the public activity of people and organizations deemed dangerous by the regime.
Initially, freedom began to be limited, in the eyes of the law, as a result of changes in the bills related, in various ways, to the elections and voting rights. This clearly shows that even then, the regime considered everything related to the 2021 parliamentary elections as the greatest threat. The changes were adopted last spring, just before the vote on amendments to the constitution (July 2020). On the one hand, this was meant to “correct” the results of the pseudo-referendum, but, on the other hand, it was a kind of a testing ground prior to the State Duma elections in 2021. That is also why the procedures for registering candidates have been tightened. The enlargement of the list of offenses, which deprive a convicted person of the right to vote, proved to be a serious limitation. The list was extended by a number of offenses to make it easier to prevent certain people, deemed unwelcomed by the regime, from running in the elections. A number of laws that severely hamper the ability to report an electoral fraud, such as the one concerning multi-day voting or the greater possibility to vote outside the polling station, have also been adopted (the latter was already introduced on a large scale during the vote on constitutional amendments).
While the amendments introduced in spring focused on elections/voting, their second batch – laws enacted in late 2020 – aimed to significantly restrict civic engagement. The biggest changes were the tighter law on “foreign agents,” stricter Internet censorship, and virtually no right to free assembly. In general, the authorities severely restricted the freedom of action and thus put NGOs, independent activists, and journalists at a greater risk.
On December 23, 2020, the lower house of the Russian parliament adopted a number of documents that further restrict democratic processes and freedom of speech in Russia. The most important one was the amendment to the law on “foreign agents,” existing since 2012. It significantly extends the scope of this controversial bill to individuals and organizations as well as introduces new restrictions. This is yet another time the law was toughened. In 2017, for instance, several foreign-funded media outlets were recognized as “foreign agents.” Now, even more draconian regulations have been imposed. Any citizen who “carries out political activities on the territory of the Russian Federation in the interests of the foreign state and/or deliberately collects information on the military and military-technical activities of the Russian Federation” which, once transferred abroad, “might be used against the security of the Russian Federation,” could be considered a “foreign agent.” They face up to five years’ imprisonment if they do not notify the Ministry of Justice that they collect information of military and military-technical nature.
What conditions must be met in order to be recognized as a “foreign agent?” According to the law, people who receive foreign funding for political activity (and other aid, such as the organizational one), unregistered political non-profit organizations with foreign funding, as well as public associations not registered as persons, may be considered as such. In that case, they must apply to be included in the “foreign agents” list, after which they would have to report their activities to the Ministry of Justice regularly. The amendments allow for a much broader “classification” of this kind. Earlier, in order to be labeled that way, one had to receive foreign funding. Now, all it takes is for the state authorities to recognize the activities of these people as carried out in the interests of another nation. How, in turn, does the law define political activity for which one can be considered an agent? For instance, it is enough to participate in rallies and protests, be involved in a political party, engage in elections, conduct socio-political research, or survey citizens.
Recognizing someone as a “foreign agent” will severely restrict the rights of that person. Such an individual will not be allowed to join the civil service or hold a municipal government position. They will also be denied access to state secrets. Furthermore, such people will be obliged to submit a report on conducted activities, and foreign funds spent every six months. Under the new law, foreign media correspondents will also be considered agents. Additionally, stricter regulations will affect NGOs that do not have the status of a legal entity. If labeled “foreign agents,” they will have to submit documents concerning their planned activities and later their implementation to the Ministry of Justice. It is also worth noting that the media will be required to include any information about the “foreign agent” status, should a certain individual or an organization, appearing in its report, have one. What is more, the State Duma passed a bill that allows for up to five years imprisonment for individuals recognized as agents who fail to register as such or report on their activities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shake hands with Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov during their meeting at Moscow’s Kremlin. Moscow, Russia, February 24, 2021.
Another bill, adopted on December 23, 2020, prohibits certain entities from financing public events. These include foreign governments, organizations, citizens, stateless persons, individuals, and associations deemed “foreign agents,” anonymous donors, and Russian organizations registered less than a year before attempting to provide financial support to a public event. In fact, this law makes it impossible for the opposition to engage in any public activity. Under the provisions of the bill on banning foreign funding of rallies and other public events, organizers of mass gatherings will have to indicate a bank account to which the funds will be transferred at the time of submitting the paperwork prior to the event.
Furthermore, on December 23, 2020, the State Duma adopted an act that allows the federal media regulator Roskomnadzor to block websites that “discriminate” against Russian media. This could impact big social networking websites, for instance, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. According to another law passed by the State Duma, people found guilty of making “slanderous” comments on the Internet or in traditional media could face imprisonment. Anyone convicted of online defamation might be sentenced to up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million rubles ($13,300). Those who made “slanderous” accusations of rape or other serious crimes may face up to five years of imprisonment.
The restriction of citizens’ rights is accompanied by giving more powers to the law-and-order services, which proves that the regime relies only on repression and coercion rather than persuading citizens to accept its authority. Putin is aware that the security apparatus is his last resort and, apart from the Chekist solidarity, that is why the Navalny’s case did not affect the Federal Security Service (FSB) at all. On the contrary, it will be given more power and money.
A newly announced presidential draft provides for the ability to set monthly and any other additional payments to FSB employees beyond those already provided for by law. This could be done either by the president or the government. The amount of allocated funds would depend on the complexity, size, and importance of the tasks. Moreover, Putin signed a document according to which some information may remain classified, not only those concerning professional activities of judges, prosecutors, employees of the Investigative Committee, the FSB, and certain military officers, but also their private data. On December 22, 2020, the State Duma adopted amendments to the law “On State Protection of Judges, Officials of Law Enforcement and Controlling Bodies.” On December 30, 2020, the president signed a bill forbidding to disclose information about the operational activities and private lives of employees of the law-and-order services. The document provides for the possibility of not releasing the data of judges, prosecutors, employees of the Investigative Committee, the FSB, and certain military officers, even if there is no immediate threat to their safety. The initiators of amendments to the law state that this measure could be applied in life and health-threatening situations related to the official duties of the employees.
The explanatory statement of a bill informed that, among others, various data concerning private lives of employees of security services and forces were exposed online. According to the lawmakers, this could have a negative impact on their work performance. Moreover, the document introduces changes to the “Law on Operative Investigation Activity,” which prohibits disclosing information included in requests to citizens and organizations. Such information can be made public, yet only after the approval of the representative of the authorities who conducts specific operative investigation activity. The ban will not apply to information disclosed in an open court as well as in official statements of the prosecutor’s office and the court made in the media or on the Internet. In exchange for these and further privileges given to the siloviki, mainly the members of the FSB and the National Guard of Russia (Rosgvardia), Putin expects their full loyalty. Will it work? Later this year, we will find out that protests against the rigging of elections, regional demonstrations, and those caused by the poor socio-economic situation might pile up.
A “new” Russia
The recent changes in the law, as well as the brutal actions taken by the government against Navalny and his supporters, are in line with the Kremlin’s scenario in which the regime continues to exist. Although the amendment to the constitution, introduced in 2020, allows Putin to run for president again in 2024, this is unlikely. The president knows that the longer he clings on to power, the more tragic his end could be.
Consequently, 2021 will be a crucial year to implement a plan for a peaceful transition of power and look for a successor. It should be kept in mind that the search for Boris Yeltsin’s successor began almost as soon as he was reelected in 1996. Besides, the choice of Putin was by no means definite. Other potential candidates, for instance, Yevgeny Primakov, Sergei Kiriyenko, and especially Sergei Stepashin, were put to the test earlier than him. All of them headed the government. Does this mean that Mikhail Mishustin, Prime Minister of Russia since January 2020, could be that successor? Certainly, recent changes in the cabinet (November 2020) and a higher number of ministers – who are loyal even more to the prime minister than to Putin – suggest that Mishustin is securing his own political position. Nevertheless, he is likely to end up just like Viktor Zubkov did before the 2008 election. He became prime minister, but Putin was choosing his successor (for one term) from the two deputy prime ministers: Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. Eventually, he picked the latter. Nevertheless, even now, he is said to be one of the frontrunners to replace the incumbent president. For this reason, he was removed from the office of the prime minister, where it is easier to lose popularity than to gain it (especially in such difficult times), and he was appointed as Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, a rather safe post. However, picking one of the former officers of the intelligence service, currently holding high administrative positions, such as the governor of the Tula region – Alexey Dyumin, is more likely. The age of potential successors also favors such a scenario.
Nevertheless, in order to successfully implement such a plan, information flow must be controlled. To date, the Chekist regime faked democracy in Russia and focused on manipulating information. Now it has dropped the mask. This is not only because the regime run out of ideas on how to manipulate the Russian society further but also due to profound changes in the information environment. As long as the television and the press were the main source of knowledge, it was easier for the Kremlin to impose its narrative.
However, the growth of the Internet and greater access to alternative sources of information makes it much more difficult and expensive for the state to act in this matter. Independent research indicates that many more Russians treat the Internet as the primary source of knowledge about the country and the world rather than television. The same applies to trust in the source of information. The second key factor is how the concept of the opposition has changed. It is known that the candidates of the authorities need some competitors. If the imprisoned Navalny cannot be one of them, what is left is the “systemic” opposition, but even this is doubtful, given the current situation. From the standpoint of the authorities, the criminalization of the “non-systemic” opposition (Navalny, democrats, people in the streets) makes the concept of “systemic” opposition obsolete and redundant. The Kremlin bets everything on its people, and there is no longer any room left for an intermediary. The logic of an authoritarian regime imposes a clear separation: us versus them.