As Russians go to the polls for one of the least free elections in years, how does their nation’s political system (and Putin’s empire) work?
When historian Dr Leonid Petrov was 10, a plume of anthrax spores leaked out of the military research compound near his home in Sverdlovsk, Russia. Much of his childhood under Soviet control was already grim, “like a prison sentence”, Petrov says, but he recalls a particular terror from those weeks under lockdown in 1979, hiding indoors from the deadly pathogen in the air. Eighty-eight people died. “The [authorities] lied and said it was from bad meat. But we knew it was military. We call it the biological Chernobyl now.”
In and out of pandemic lockdowns in Australia, Petrov has been having deja vu, thinking of his homeland more and more. It’s a different place to the one the Communists left when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991. Now, with Russia again in economic trouble, some wonder if the 20-year reign of President Vladimir Putin is itself starting to show cracks.
Russians are at the polls to elect a new parliament (known as the Duma) but in a country where true opposition isn’t allowed and elections are largely for show, the Kremlin is unlikely to have too many uncomfortable surprises. Putin’s main critic, Alexei Navalny, is behind bars after being poisoned last year and the biggest protests Russia has seen in decades have died down in the wake of a brutal state crackdown, although Navalny’s legacy of “smart voting” may yet eat into the ruling party’s majority – and questions of Putin’s own legacy are growing more urgent ahead of his next presidential run in 2024.
So, how does the president’s inner circle of spies and billionaires rule Russia? What’s in store for the latest election? And how long can Russia’s modern-day tsar outlast protests – and plots?
People wait at a St Petersburg bus stop decorated with election posters in September.Credit:AP
Who is Putin and how did he make his ‘vertical of power’?
In 1999, a series of deadly apartment bombings across Russia helped catapult a then-unknown secret police chief into the presidency – and turned Russia back to a tsarist-style autocracy after a decade of post-Soviet reforms. Putin had just been made prime minister by then-president Boris Yeltsin, handpicked as a successor, for his loyalty. The once progressive Yeltsin had become increasingly mired in corruption – he needed a guarantee that he and his family would be safe when he relinquished power and Putin was the man who had once chartered a private plane to help his old mentor (mayor of Saint Petersburg Anton Sobchak) flee the country.
Officially, the bombings were blamed on terrorists in neighbouring Chechnya, “easy scapegoats” says Dr John Besemeres, a Russia expert and former Australian intelligence analyst now at the ANU. A carefully orchestrated media campaign (and brutal Chechen war) followed. Putin, elected to the top job in 2000, became the “Teflon president, the strong man Russia had been crying out for” after weathering bitter economic winds, Petrov says.
But when another apartment bombing was foiled in the act, the culprits discovered at the scene weren’t Chechen after all – they were agents with the FSB, Russia’s spy agency, and Putin’s old stomping ground. Former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko and others claimed the bombings were an FSB plot to launch Putin into the presidency as the defender of Russia. The Kremlin denied it, saying the FSB agents were carrying out a training exercise, a test that sharp-eyed Russians phoning the police had passed. A string of politicians and whistleblowers trying to investigate the bombings, including Litvinenko, were later murdered.
That tells you a lot about how Russia works today, Besemeres says. “Putin was a nobody who needed to seem like a tough guy.”
Russian air force general Alexander Kharchevsky adjusts a helmet on Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s Acting President, before he flew into Chechnya in a fighter jet on March 20, 2000. Credit:ITAR-TASS via AP
The story goes that the former judo champion also had a shy temperament. He hadn’t wanted the top job but Yeltsin and the oligarchs (Russians who got rich snapping up state-owned assets after communism collapsed) convinced Putin that he wouldn’t need to rule the country for long. “They planned to replace him fairly quickly,” Petrov says. “Now I don’t know how honest Putin was in his modesty. When Yelstin rang to congratulate him on winning the election, he never answered the phone.”
“He is the tsar and you cross him at your peril.”
Putin cemented his popularity by launching necessary and effective economic reforms, Petrov says, but he also arrived alongside a lucky surge in the price of oil and gas, a key lever for Russia’s resource-rich economy. And, very quickly, he began radically reorganising the country into what has become known as the “vertical of power”.
Russia’s institutions, from its courts to its television stations, were folded into the Kremlin’s bureaucracy, smothering any glimmer of democracy the country had seen after the Soviet Union collapsed, Petrov says. Russia was no longer a country ruled by oligarchs, all fighting for their own advantage and influence over the president. Russia was ruled by Putin, a single commander in chief.
“Everything goes through him,” Petrov says. “And he very quickly subdued the oligarchs, threatening them with jail, or compromising materials or worse.” Some he chased out of the country as he elevated his own former friends and KBG colleagues to his inner circle. Russia’s wealthiest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was made an example of when he began speaking out about corruption, put on public trial on trumped-up fraud charges.
Even the Orthodox Church, persecuted as the “opiate of the masses” under the Bolsheviks and then the Soviet regime, was brought into the fold, all but endorsing Putin’s presidential run in 2009, and in 2015 backing his “holy” war in Syria, when Russia helped prop up the Assad regime with air strikes and special forces operations. In turn, state endowments to the church have swelled and its leader, Patriarch Kirill, for all his monastic vows of poverty, has been linked to luxury apartments and even a $US30,000 designer watch (which church officials later clumsily tried to edit out of photos).
Putin on state TV for his annual call-in show where he hears and helps solve citizens’ problems.Credit:AP
What are the rules in Putin’s Russia?
Russians call it a “system of understanding”, says Kyle Wilson, a former Australian diplomat to both Moscow and Beijing now based at ANU. “It’s an informal network of relationships, and unwritten rules and, like the mafia, it depends on loyalty.”
The Kremlin often rejects criticism as Western bias and hypocrisy. But, inside Russia, Navalny’s own anti-corruption investigations have unmasked billions of dollars worth of these secret mansions and deals by Putin’s inner circle, including a sprawling Black Sea Palace he claims the oligarchs have quietly built for Putin. In a land where almost no independent media survives, Navalny’s videos cut through because they offered Russians a rare glimpse into how they are being ripped off by their government, Petrov says. But while the videos have clocked up millions of views and helped rally recent protests, Russia expert Dr Stephen Fortescue says Russians remain largely unsurprised by the excess of their leaders. It certainly didn’t start with Putin.
And, though today’s systemic corruption remains a serious drain on the Russian economy, “it’s not a failed third world kleptocracy either”. The economy still functions, running the usual things like welfare and infrastructure projects, even with this shadow economy entangled within.
Only now there are rules to the game, he says. “You don’t get too greedy and go off on your own or go against Putin’s interests. He looks after you and says what you can get.”
“He is the tsar and you cross him at your peril,” Wilson adds. “If you betray him, he will kill you.”
But the man at the top is increasingly preoccupied with empire-building and world politics, Petrov says, with reclaiming the old Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Georgia. “He wants to make Russia a superpower again. He gets bored by the day-to-day running of the country, that’s why it’s not run well.”
And Russia is already enormous, spanning 11 time zones, including remote wilderness. “It’s too big to be ruled effectively by one person,” Wilson says. “Russian leaders have known that for hundreds of years.”
The problem, too, is that few are willing to take responsibility and risk punishment in Putin’s Russia so decisions tend to get pushed higher up the chain into bureaucratic limbo. “It doesn’t stop until someone says, ‘That’s not a matter for the tsar’ – and that’s what they really call Putin, by the way,” Wilson says. “Of course, no one wants to tell the tsar the bad news either, it’s a chronic weakness in the Russian system and it can bite you later if he’s left in the dark on something important.”
Sometimes, people don’t follow Putin’s orders. A number of key infrastructure and technology projects Putin has prioritised down the years have been slowed down by corruption, even officials stealing from coffers. And despite his calls for the prosecution of certain religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses to stop, arrests, jail terms and even torture have continued. Other times people don’t follow Putin’s orders well. Navalny himself has said that corruption weakening the security services (the ones that sprinkled poison on his underwear) may have helped him survive the assassination attempt.
The pandemic has shaken the foundations of the vertical, too. Putin, perhaps unwilling to associate himself with either the chaotic Kremlin response or the tough health restrictions called for, has left management of the crisis largely to local leaders and officials. And that, in turn, has boosted their popularity and shown their strength, just as Putin’s own approval rating has slumped to historic lows (down from a high of 89 per cent during the invasion of Ukraine in 2015 to 59 per cent in April, according to independent polling centre Levada).
Still, just the enduring myth of the all-knowing Putin vertical may be enough to ensure his survival too, buying loyalty, population control and, as Joshua Yaffa writes in The New Yorker, a “kind of psychic or virtual power”.
While Russia’s economy might be small (smaller than Italy’s) and the nation increasingly seen as a pariah state, launching cyber attacks and even assassinations in the West, it does retain serious power on the world stage too. It’s been drawing closer to the new superpower, China, and has a formidable military itself, Wilson says. (The US and Russia still hold 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons between them.) Much of Europe also relies on Russia for energy – the country commands huge reserves of oil, gas and coal – although that power is set to wane with falling demand for fossil fuels. Now, when Putin launches more influence campaigns on the West and sends troops into Ukraine and Georgia, or runs chest-beating military drills in the Black Sea, he hopes to expand his vertical of power even further, Petrov says.
A municipal worker in St Petersburg paints over a mural of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in April.Credit:AP
How do these September elections work then?
Petrov says Russian elections don’t deserve the name “election”. Not only does the Kremlin control most of the country’s media and propaganda networks but it also decides who can run for office. People who pose even a remote threat are barred, and those who do stand in opposition are carefully selected for the job. Fortsecue notes, “They have these permitted parties like the Communist Party and the Liberal Democrats but they vote in line, and [the Kremlin] doesn’t even like them getting many seats. So then they might do some fiddling with the tallies too. But they like to keep up appearances. They’re not China or North Korea. They still leave a little room for the unexpected.”
“It’s a carefully orchestrated ballet,” agrees Wilson. “To Putin it’s clear a kind of cloak of legitimacy is important.”
The September election of a new Duma looks set to be the country’s least free in decades, experts say. And that has a lot to do with Navalny. After the opposition figure’s high-profile poisoning with novichok in 2020, he stunned the world (and Putin, Petrov says) by returning to Russia to continue his democratic campaigning. His subsequent arrest sparked tens of thousands to protest in the bitter Russian winter. But when he was sent to a prison camp, his movement was outlawed, and many other key figures hunted down or forced out of the country. Since then, the political landscape has become even narrower, even by Russian standards. A suite of new laws has disqualified more than 9 million Russians from voting, as activists are branded extremists. Certainly, no one with even a passing association with Navalny will get to cast their ballot.
“Russia’s official opposition is like two hands fighting each other. It’s all just done for the show. They’re faking democracy.”
There have always been tricks at work in Russian elections. This year a standout is the case of two lookalike Kremlin candidates with identical names (and beards) suddenly appearing on the ballot alongside opposition figure Boris Vishnevsky. But Petrov warns that new COVID restrictions to limit crowds are making it even easier for authorities to keep eyes off vote counting. “They’ve spaced the election out over three days, and during those three days they can do many things: inject or get rid of votes, block voters.” Under COVID rules, Russian authorities also limited the usual European observation mission of independent monitors, who have since thrown up their hands and decided not to attend at all.
Two look-alike candidates (who changed their names to Boris Vishnevsky in the lead up to the 2021 election) have appeared next to the real Vishnevsky (right) on the ballot.Credit:AP
But a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Australia notes that COVID safety restrictions are in force in polling booths around the world, including during recent US elections, and now in Australia for expat Russians voting in the Duma elections. (“The Embassy in Canberra and the Consulate-General in Sydney only have managed to open two polling stations,” he says, raising concerns that could itself be suppressing the Russian vote in Australia). Back home, voter turn-out has hovered between “48 and 63 per cent” for Duma elections for the past 15 years, he says, with the Kremlin running campaigns to encourage turnout.
Golos, the independent Russian vote monitor, is still on the ground this year, though it was declared a foreign agent by the Kremlin just a month before this election. On the first day of voting, it had already recorded more than 2000 possible violations at Russian polling stations, with others reported by independent media and even the head of the Communist party.
While Putin’s regime is largely seen as untouchable, there is a reason for all this interference. “The stakes have gotten higher for the Kremlin,” says Besemeres. At the last Duma elections, in 2016, Putin’s United Russia party won a record 343 seats in the Duma, almost 75 per cent. But Navalny has since turned United Russia into the “Party of Crooks and Thieves” and its public support has plunged to 27 per cent nationally. Navalny’s tactic of “smart voting” that encourages Russians to vote against the official Kremlin candidate at all costs, has already seen United Russia lose a third of its seats in the Moscow assembly in 2019, as well as strong results in other regional elections. A leaked internal poll revealed 55 per cent of people in Moscow would support opposition candidates.
From exile overseas, Navalny’s allies are continuing to push smart voting at this election, dropping their suggested candidate picks (many of them from the Communist party) just two days before polls opened on September 17, so they couldn’t be forced off ballots. (On the second day of voting, YouTube blocked access to the video on Russian servers, despite earlier criticising Apple and Google for bowing to Kremlin pressure and removing the Navalny Smart Voting app from their stores.)
Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, centre in red, on a campaign march with other party activists in Moscow in August.Credit:AP
Putin’s popularity, though still strong (at 63 per cent approval in March), has slumped in recent years following controversial decisions to raise the pension age, ram through constitutional changes to let him run for two more six-year terms, and now the Kremlin’s mismanagement of twin economic and pandemic crises. “He still depends a lot on that early image of the man who brought prosperity to Russia,” Besemeres says.
Experts say two of the new micro-parties that have managed to stay on the ballot, the Pensioners Party and the aptly named New People, may just scrape together the 5 per cent of the vote they need to bag a seat. But if United Russia loses its qualified majority (301 votes out of 450), as some experts speculate, it will no longer be able to rush through constitutional changes without the rest of the Duma’s input. While Fortescue notes “those other parties vote in line with changes anyway”, it would be a symbolic loss for the Kremlin. “It’s a bar they’ve set and regimes don’t like to show they’ve lost something.”
Ahead of Putin’s next presidential election, he will want to look strong. But, the trick is to fix the outcome without being too brazen about it, Fortescue says. After all, people are generally more outraged when an election is rigged at the polls, rather than by this early clearing of the field.
Fortescue was in Moscow in 2011 when the Kremlin was particularly obvious about fixing the Duma elections and recalls how people in their tens of thousands took to the streets in fury. Navalny himself was there. “I’ll never forget hearing him speak, he is so impressive, no wonder the Kremlin have taken him out this time.”
“Whatever he is, Putin is no fool.”
In neighbouring Belarus last year, long an election-fixing capital, serious civil unrest was ignited when autocrat Alexander Lukashenko’s vote was excessively padded out over that of opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who had attracted enormous turn-out after he allowed her to stay in the race. In that case, a police crackdown didn’t drive people away and Lukashenko instead turned guns on his people to at last wrestle back control of the country over many months. The Kremlin, fearing rebellion contagion creeping over its own borders, helped him do it.
Experts don’t expect to see such an extreme reaction to Russia’s elections. (“The Kremlin are more clever than that,” Fortescue says.) Still many, including Besemeres, worry that the recent crackdown and imprisonment of Navalny is a sign that Putin is at last done playing at democracy. ”Putin had always allowed some leeway, it didn’t matter if a few intellectuals wrote a few clever things here and there if he thought he could keep it all in check. But it’s worse than it’s ever been.”
The Smart Voting app on a phone screen in Moscow, in September.Credit:AP
Wilson agrees Putin’s rule has become more repressive over his 20 years in power. “We’re seeing theatres, musicians and artists affected now, not just, say, journalists.“But he notes “autocracies tend to become more autocratic over time, like a knot that tightens on itself. If you’re a dictator, you can’t be powerful enough, and Russian history is full of nasty surprises. Even when Putin’s popularity [was riding a high] he set up the national guard, 350,000 strong, headed by his personal bodyguard and answering directly to him. Why would a leader so popular need to do that? Now, the way Putin is approaching these elections suggests he’s insecure again.”
But, unlike China, Putin hasn’t drawn the noose completely tight, Wilson says. Work has been underway to further censor Russian cyberspace of late, and more independent media has been forced out. “So that gap is narrowing,” he says. “But I don’t think Putin wants complete control. Whatever he is, Putin is no fool. He knows people don’t always tell him the bad news.”
A session of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in May 2021.Credit:State Duma, Russia
How long will Putin’s regime last?
When a regime is built around one man, the question of succession becomes fraught. In 2008, when Putin “was still following the law”, Petrov says, the president swapped roles with his protégé Dmitry Medvedev for one term, demoting himself to prime minister. But Petrov believes Putin later regretted handing the more liberal Medvedev the presidency because he saw him as “as too soft, too easily influenced by Western leaders”. It “taught Putin the country is not in safe hands unless it’s ruled by him”.
While Putin “very clearly harbours serious ambition” to expand his empire, Besemeres thinks it unlikely he will go anywhere or appoint a successor. “I think he plans to be president and live forever.”
Still, some have speculated that Putin, who Fortescue calls “an opportunist but not an idiot”, may not really intend to take advantage of his newly extended presidential window to 2036, that he instead changed the constitution so he would not be seen as “a lame duck”. “But I think he will hang on as long as he can because he’s too afraid to give up power,” Fortescue says.
As Wilson adds, “in the Russian system, once you relinquish power, you’re vulnerable. Yeltsin took a risk and Putin was true to his word and kept him safe, out of jail. But Putin can never be sure someone will honour that kind of deal for him. That’s why he’s obsessive about what he eats and drinks.”
These days, hiding from COVID and paranoid his machine may one day turn on him, Putin runs the country from a bunker, Petrov says. “There’s that little white cup he takes with him everywhere. No one knows what’s in it, if it’s water or medicine or vodka.” Right now, though, “it looks like the group which put Putin in power is happy with him staying, because they know without Putin, there’s going to be a very tough power struggle.”
There is fierce division among Putin’s elites, Fortescue says, those who want the country more open to the world to lift its prosperity, and those who want it to become even more authoritarian. “Putin is as clever at playing those sides off as he is at handling the general population,” he says.
A successor could turn out to be more progressive, Besemeres muses, such as the mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, who is well-liked for his improvements to the city. “Someone like that might bring in some reforms, which others take further and, before you know it, we’ve got the start of real democracy.” But there are no obvious candidates yet. And there would have to be quite extreme circumstances to tempt a rival to “raise their head above the parapet” in Putin’s Russia right now, he says.
Navalny himself, “the obvious figure number two in Russia”, is not wildly popular, Petrov says, but even with Putin’s stranglehold on media and resources, he is popular enough to be an ongoing problem. “Now Putin has the dilemma of what to do next with Navalny because he didn’t die as he was meant to, but he was too big to finish off in hospital. Keeping him [in prison] risks turning him into the Nelson Mandela or Gandhi of Russia. If Putin is weakened, the people could rally around him [Navalny].”
Putin’s decision last year to let long-running demonstrations in the Far East run their course without major police intervention paid off, Petrov says. “Russia is divided and people don’t trust each other and what happens in one city may not be supported in the next.”
Still, when the 2021 protests over Navalny’s arrest then reached even bigger numbers, Fortescue admits he thought it might finally be a game-changer. “But it hasn’t panned out like that. That’s not to say Navalny is done, or forgotten in any sense, but the Kremlin has achieved its goal, he’s not a major player in politics right now.”
In Belarus, opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova was jailed for 11 years for conspiracy and participating in an extremist group.Credit:Getty Image
Besemeres agrees people are worn out by the crackdown that followed. “They’re thinking [the Kremlin] have got all the aces in the pack. If they protest they’ll just be treated like Belarus. There’s been a surge of Russians fleeing the country. Still, after the dust has settled, they might say, ‘We want Navalny back.’”
The stagnation of the economy, and enduring poverty in Russia, may also spark more protests. People are sick of money being spent on guns and not bread and paying taxes to a corrupt state, Petrov says. But “Russians are remarkably patient. They would rather stick with their strong man and put up with crazy things than risk someone new”. Petrov expects Putin’s regime will fall one day; its corruption has made it sick, and it is too big, “a frozen mummy” set up to keep the status quo. “That means there’s no life in it, no real opportunity, no vision.” But much will depend on the new generation growing older and bolder.
The last time Petrov visited his homeland was in 2009, on New Year’s Eve, watching the lights dance off the ice in Saint Petersburg. “That’s where Putin is from. It looks like a fairytale. It’s not.”
After two decades, Petrov thinks Putin may have bought into the myths of his own presidency, seeing himself as standing before history, not just his people. The president openly admires many of Russia’s former tsars and dictators, including Stalin, who has now been rewritten as a hero in Russian schoolbooks.
But, for all Putin’s romanticism of history, at the end of the day, Besemeres says his secret service conditioning will win out. “He might see himself as a great man changing Russia but he comes back to the KGB attitude: ‘Get them on their knees’.”
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