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‘From Restraint To Destruction’: Russian Vote Overshadowed By ‘Foreign Agent’ Repressions

“The funny thing is that I have never traveled abroad, and I don’t have a passport,” said Tatyana Rumyantseva, a paramedic, a council member in the Novgorod region town of Okulovka, and a candidate from the liberal Yabloko party for the regional legislature in elections on September 17-19. “I don’t know any foreigners.”

Nonetheless, Russian election authorities have designated her “affiliated with a foreign agent” under an April law that compels such people to devote 15 percent of the area of their campaign materials, such as posters, to a state-mandated announcement of the fact. Rumyantseva earned the designation because she heads the local branch of the Alliance of Doctors, a professional organization that was branded a “foreign agent” by the government earlier this year.

“I take it as a sort of stamp of quality,” she told RFE/RL. “In our country it turns out that if you think for yourself or act against the will of the authorities, you are an ‘enemy of the people.'”

Tatyana Rumyantseva

As Russians head for the polls to vote for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, and in local elections like the one in Rumyantseva’s region, she is one of the few people deemed “foreign agents” or targeted with other designations who have managed to get on the ballot in a vote that Kremlin critics say is the most restricted in Putin’s 22 years as president or prime minister.

In one way, the current campaign is similar to those that preceded it. The use of repression to manipulate elections and try to secure the results the Kremlin seeks is nothing new — and government opponents say the tactics of repression have grown steadily more intense since the mass protests following the disputed 2011 Duma elections and the 2012 election that saw Putin return to the presidency for an unprecedented third term after a stint as prime minister.

But the current campaign is markedly different, says rights activist Grigory Okhotin, a co-founder of the OVD-Info monitoring service, which reports on the activities of law enforcement agencies. “The main change, in my view, has been that previous repressions were aimed at suppressing protests and restraining civic political activity,” he said. “Since January or February, they have moved on to the destruction of active civil society.”

Grigory Okhotin

The beginning of the year marked the return to Russia of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, following treatment in Germany for a nerve-agent poisoning he claims was carried out by Russian security agents at Putin’s behest. Navalny was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on a parole violation charge that he denounces as absurd. Thousands of Russians were detained during nationwide protests calling for his release, and later his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his network of regional offices were shut down as “extremist” organizations.

“They began with the FBK,” Okhotin said. “It had been under pressure since February 2017 with a bunch of administrative detentions and constant searches, seizures of equipment, and so on. But now [the authorities] simply said, ‘Guys, you are outside the law.’ We haven’t seen that before.”

Not Elections, But A Referendum On Putin

The main vehicle for the government’s election-season repression has been a complex of vaguely worded and unpredictably enforced laws on “foreign agents,” “undesirable organizations,” and “extremism.”

“We’ve seen the emergence of a sort of mechanism for criminalizing dissent, civic activism, and freedom of speech,” Moscow-based political analyst Kirill Rogov said of the laws.

The elections come as the ruling United Russia party is polling at historic lows, in part due its support of a massively unpopular pension reform and a package of hundreds of constitutional amendments that, among other things, allow Putin to seek two more six-year stints as president after his current term ends in 2024.

Many analysts believe the Kremlin is focused on the Duma vote largely because it could affect what will happen in 2024 and afterward. “These aren’t elections,” said Oleg Stepanov, a former head of Navalny’s Moscow office who was barred from the elections for his alleged “extremist” activity.

“It’s a referendum,” he said, on Putin and the United Russia-based system that has dominated the country for so long.

In order to keep Putin’s options open and provide as firm a basis of support as possible for whatever decision he makes — to run for reelection, to anoint a successor, to rule from a position other than the presidency — the Kremlin seems determined to preserve United Russia’s constitutional majority of two-thirds in the 450-seat Duma, whatever it takes.

The entire campaign this year has been carried out under the shadow of the “foreign agent” legislation, which has been used to stymie monitoring groups and the media, to disqualify prominent opposition candidates, to drive opposition leaders to flee the country, and to restrict opposition candidates’ access to volunteers and fundraising. And, OVD-Info’s Okhotin says, to instill fear throughout the country — fear that anyone could be deemed a “foreign agent” or “affiliated with a foreign agent” at any moment.

“I see on Facebook and Twitter and so on that people are afraid even to mention the FBK or Smart Voting,” Okhotin said, referring to a Navalny election strategy aimed at consolidating the opposition vote to effectively defeat candidates from the ruling United Russia party that has come under harsh attack from the authorities. “All you have to do is crack down on a few to make everyone else very afraid.”

‘Dialogue With Society Is Pointless’

Economist and political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev agrees that Navalny’s return to Russia marked a watershed after which it became clear that “the Kremlin has concluded that dialogue with society is pointless, and that what is needed are fake parties and the repression of all those who are unwilling to play in games with these fakes.”

A telling example of the nexus of repression and fakery in the current campaign can be found in a Facebook post by opposition politician Ilya Yashin from September 9. Although the fairly well-known Yashin has been barred from running in the elections because of his alleged “involvement with extremist activities,” a candidate named Aleksei Yashin is running for the Duma in Moscow, using only his surname “Yashin” in campaign materials and espousing a platform of positions similar to those long held by Ilya Yashin.

Ilya Yashin addresses supporters during a rally to mark the fifth anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s assassination in Moscow in February 2020.

“United Russia needs this fake Yashin to siphon off part of the protest vote,” Yashin wrote. “They want voters who support me but who aren’t following the news closely to vote for a familiar last name instead of for the candidate supported by Smart Voting.”

The first laws of the “foreign agent” type were passed in 2012, but for the first few years they were mostly used to prosecute people for social-media posts or, famously, for playing Pokemon in a Russian Orthodox church.

‘From Restraint To Destruction’

Now, dozens of NGOs have been declared “foreign agents,” leading many of them to shut down completely. There are more than 40 entries on the list of “foreign agent” media, including all of RFE/RL’s Russian-language outlets and some of the Russian media sphere’s most prominent investigative-journalism outfits, as well as several individuals.

“We are seeing a systematic, targeted policy to combat dissent, exert pressure, and to carry out repressions and political reprisals against critics of the authorities,” said Nikolai Bondarenko, a Communist Party lawmaker in the Saratov region who is seeking a Duma seat despite repeated efforts to disqualify him. “They are doing this out of weakness, not from strength. They are afraid of defeat in the elections.”

“A cornered dog — and the authorities are currently in exactly that position — has no other choice but to bite,” he concluded.

In previous elections, if the Kremlin did not want someone to participate in an election, the Justice Ministry simply declined to register their party, activist Okhotin says. If a media outlet needed to be silenced, a business dispute could be arranged.

Now, however, whole segments of the political and civic landscape are being eliminated for the long term, he says.

“The destruction of FBK, of Open Russia, of Open Russia’s media outlets, of Komanda 29, and so on,” he said, listing some of the most prominent independent organizations that have been shut down this year. “Instead of the administrative detentions of candidates that we saw in 2019, we now have criminal cases and the blocking of would-be candidates through criminal prosecutions. This trend from restraint to destruction is not aimed at ‘the party of Navalny’…but at all of Russia, the entire society — civil, political, and journalistic.”

Death Threats And Other Obstacles

Earlier this year, 12 opposition candidates for the city council in the Novosibirsk suburb of Berdsk were disqualified for “extremist” connections with Navalny’s organizations. Only 19-year-old Darya Artamonova, born in Putin’s first presidential term, was one of the few opposition candidates allowed to run.

Darya Artamonova

Although she has faced death threats and other hurdles during the campaign, she is convinced she is doing the right thing. “I have lived almost 20 years under [Putin] and I see that things are only getting worse,” she told RFE/RL. “We are being pushed into dictatorship — repressions against journalists, against politicians, against civic activists. It is horrible and every day it gets worse.”

“But I’m not afraid to run in the elections,” she added. “Maybe I’m too young to have a developed instinct for self-preservation. I am sure that I am doing the right thing — so I am not afraid.”

RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed this report

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