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The Extemper’s Briefing: Putin, Navalny, and the Complicated Mess That is Russian Politics

As Vladimir Putin once again arrests one of his main opponents and silences his followers, let’s take a look at the complex political situation in Russia and what’s really going on at the Kremlin.

Key Vocabulary:

Vote tabulation: The process by which votes are counted and processed in an electoral system

Kremlin: The central building in Moscow where the Russian government functions. Oftentimes, this word is used to reference Russia’s leader and government, the same way people use “The White House” to refer to the U.S. leader and government.

Context

“If the Soviet Union let another political party come into existence, they would still be a one-party state because everybody would join the other party” 

This savage roast from former president Ronald Reagan was later vindicated by the results of the first set of Democratic elections held in the USSR in the year 1989, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet communist party was dealt a humiliating blow by its citizens as about 90% of elected offices went to the Russian opposition party. These results are emblematic of a common pattern we’ve seen in Russia and many other illiberal nations with authoritarian tendencies: when the people have the option to vote for opposition parties in a free election, they tend to do just that. This makes dictators and strongmen naturally opposed to fair elections. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in Russia, the modern day successor to the U.S.S.R. For the past twenty years. Vladimir Putin has governed the country with an iron fist. He was first elected in 2001 and has ruled the country ever since. He’s even manipulated Russia’s laws in order to allow himself to rule for twenty years. In 2020, almost the entire Russian government resigned (almost certainly upon his orders) in order to allow Putin to appoint more loyalists to his government and reduce opposition. This would enable a constitutional change that allows Putin to remain in power for as long as he pleases. 

The State of Russian Democracy

This development from January 2020 is emblematic of an unfortunate truth about Russian “democracy”: it’s not actually a democracy. The system is designed to keep Putin in power and crack down on dissidence. It’s hardly uncommon for people to be arrested for opposing their government. Those who criticize the Kremlin, from Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to student blogger Yhegor Zhukov, often wind up in jail. Professor Regina Smith, a scholar who focuses on the Kremlin, notes that their elections are almost always rigged in some way or another. She uses a four step method to demonstrate how Russian politicians win an “election” after silencing dissent.

1- Dominate the media to show citizens thinly-veiled propaganda

2- Assert control over local governments and ensure they boost turnout in the politician’s favor. 

3- Use a vote tabulation process that allows for ballot stuffing and falsified vote counts

4- Immediately declare victory and express delight about how the election went, while using the press to slam anyone who claims fraud.

The Current Situation

It’s no surprise that there are plenty of Russians who stand stalwartly opposed to Putin’s corrupt presidency. Chief amongst them is lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny, who’s spent his career running against and trying to bring down Vladamir Putin. In 2014, he was charged by Russian prosecutors with fraud, a charge so politically motivated and unsupported that the European Court of Human Rights voided the conviction and forced Putin to compensate Navalny. This last August, Nalvany fell ill on a plane trip and was sent to Germany for medical care. Doctors there state that they found evidence of a nerve agent called Novichok that reportedly only the state has access to. Navalny and most of the international community blamed Russia’s government, while Putin has strongly denied any wrongdoing. Once he did return to Russia, he was arrested for 3.5 years on the same charges the European courts deemed unacceptable 6 years ago. 

His supporters haven’t been treated well by the government either. After Navalny’s unfair trial, thousands of his supporters took to the streets in Moscow, many of them chanting his name and demanding his release. The results were brutal. More than 11,000 of them were arrested, often violently, by Russian police despite the fact that they were overwhelmingly peaceful. This ruthless display by the Russian government has deeply damaged the legitimacy of Vladmir Putin’s regime in the eyes of both foreign and domestic onlookers. While Putin boasted approval ratings in the 60s in January, that number is expected to plummet. Only 29% of his citizens trust him as of February 6th.

The truth is many are terrified of Putin. They’re scared of what his government can do to them if they speak out or oppose him in any way. Russia has without doubt come a long way from Soviet era oppression and subjugation, but sadly Putin and his regime seem to have no problem using tactics that bear an uncanny resemblance to the corruption and silencing of dissent that tarnished the Soviet Union’s worldly reputation. 

Practice Questions

What actions, if any, should the international community take to push Russia towards fair Democracy?

Is there any hope left for a liberalized Russia?

How (if possible) can Russia’s opposition build itself into an effective political force?

Sources/Further Reading

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