United Russia party, Russia’s ruling party, saw a decline in popularity in the Moscow city assembly recent elections. The Kremlin lost a third of its seats, a stark contrast from the 28 seats United Russia won in 2014 and the other 10 seats won through Kremlin-backed independent candidates. This election year only 25 of the assembly’s 45 seats were won by Putin’s party while opposing parties, such as the Communist Party, benefited from the drops in support. The party’s loss of popularity signifies a shift—albeit a slight one—from the authoritarian political control of Putin and his party. A much needed shift considering election fraud, oppression of political dissent, and a number of human rights violations plague his presidency.
Russia’s 2018 presidential election, for example, saw Putin win by a landslide, mainly as a result of “preferential media treatment, numerous abuses of incumbency, and procedural irregularities during the vote count,” as well as the disqualification of his greatest opponent, Aleksey Navalny, due to a dubious criminal conviction, according to Freedom House, a watchdog organization that focuses on freedom and democracy. The recent elections were unable to escape the same fate. A number of independent candidates were prevented from running by officials in Moscow, which sparked the biggest protests the nation has seen in nearly a decade with around 50,000 turning out at the rally. Golos, an election-monitoring organization, reported 1,708 instances of voter fraud across Russia, with 564 of them being in Moscow. Some examples included stacks of prepared ballots, voters using multiple voting slips, and in one instance Russian soldiers told Reuters that “they had been coerced into voting and told to provide photographic evidence that they had cast their ballot to their superiors.”
As for the protesters rallying against the exclusion of certain independent candidates, the Kremlin used its typical heavy-handed tactics and detained over 600 people. In a July protest, 1,400 people were taken into custody as the police used a “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate” use of force according to the UN, EU, and other human rights groups, beating some demonstrators with batons. Putin’s most recent repression of political dissent is a small example of the continued corruption experienced under his presidency that has resulted in an undemocratic Russia littered with human rights abuses and sociopolitical restrictions.
The Kremlin’s election interference and violation of civil rights is a result of Putin’s authoritarian rules and policies and a Russia that’s too suppressed to confidently dissent. The University of Helsinki explains how Putin’s rise came to be after the Russian economy “grew at an annual rate of 7%” during his first years as prime minister. As his power grew, so did his ability to structure and control not only the political parties of Russia, including his own ruling party, United Russia, but also the nation’s mainstream media. It’s no wonder no legitimate opposition can come to form under his rule. The more power him and his party gain that easier it is to silence challengers through imprisonment and even murder. The University of Helsinki mentions how even NGOs have suffered under Putin’s reign as their work and funding continues to be restricted as the Kremlin-controlled media becomes increasingly hostile. The ability for Russians to protest the brutality and oppression they face at their leaders’ hands is incredibly difficult when the threat of violence and death looms over their heads. Additionally, with the media pushing the ideologies of the political elite and critical thinking and liberalism falling victim to academic suppression, the propaganda of the Kremlin continues to smother anti-Putin sentiment.
The presence of an unexpected ally, President Trump, has also helped strengthen Putin’s power on a national and international scale. Trump has repeatedly absolved Putin and his administration from blame for the Crimea crisis, blaming instead President Obama. In spite of statements criticizing Russia’s support for Maduro, its role in the Syrian conflict, and its illegal occupation of Crimea, Trump still wants to readmit Russia into the G-7, reintegrating the country into a group of powerful industrialized nations and once again legitimizing his role as a powerful leader. This support is incredibly dangerous and damaging to local and international efforts at de-legitimizing Putin’s rule as it makes his track record of human rights violations seem like arbitrary mistakes and not a systemic abuse of power, which specifically targets vulnerable populations.
Nonetheless, the loss of assembly council seats in Moscow and the distancing of candidates from the United Russia party is a sign of the Kremlin’s weakening influence. In Moscow, not one of the United Russia candidates ran under the party, instead choosing to stand as independents funded by organizations linked to the controversial group. With parliamentary elections scheduled for 2021, the increasing criticisms towards election intervention and media suppression, a stagnating economy, the decision to raise retirement ages and taxes, a decline in standard of living, and the overall controversy that surrounds Putin and his party it is possible that United Russia will face another blow in the next election round. Perhaps if Russia’s political opposition parties, which are known to be fragmented, unified in time for the next elections, then the United Russia party would experience another, more serious, blow to its political presence.
A unified opposition would have a better chance at knocking down the United Russia party from its seats. The public’s dissatisfaction over Russia under the Kremlin’s control, the corruption of past and current elections alike, and the activists that encouraged voting to stop United Russia candidates from winning did help cause the loss of a third of the party’s seats. While the party was more successful in elections outside of the capital, Eleanor Bindman at Manchester Metropolitan University does suggest that the performance of activist and political opposition alike showed they were “capable of working together,” giving them “the opportunity to prove themselves at the local level.” With two years of planning for the 2021 parliamentary elections, dissenters could create plans and mobilize a stronger opposition with a greater chance at costing United Russia more seats. Spreading dissent through social media, or any other facets that are easier to maneuver to combat the state-controlled media, for example, may help prevent United Russia from regaining any popularity for upcoming elections. The emphasis needs to be placed on diminishing the party’s presence in order to limit the authoritarian control Putin has. This will be especially beneficial as this presidential term is Putin’s last. By ensuring that United Russia has less of a political stronghold, then the Russian people can prevent the 2024 presidency from falling back into Putin’s control—either directly or by proxy—through duplicitous and unconstitutional means.
There also needs to be a united international front against the Kremlin’s blatant disregard for human rights and freedom in addition to these local alliances. Trump wanting to reinstate Russia into the G7, for example, despite the nation being suspended following the annexation of Crimea is a complete dismissal of the country’s corruption. Diminishing Putin’s power on an international scale is much more difficult when the U.S. president perceives him as an ally and often praises and vouches for the Russian president in spite of his many controversies. While most Western countries criticize the Kremlin for its brutal track record, it is hard to delegitimize Putin’s authority when it has the support of such a powerful figure. There has to be an international consensus towards actively criticizing the Putin administration, placing sanctions, and/or funding human rights groups and political opponents within the country to continue actively combating the authoritarian regime. There is no guarantee that United Russia and Putin’s can easily be lessened in time for the parliamentary election nor the 2024 presidential election, but it is important for activists on the national and international front alike to work together to prevent further corruption.
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