Russia is not synonymous with President Vladimir Putin, or with his United Russia party, or with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of a private military company carrying out the Kremlin’s wishes in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Rather, Russia is embodied by its 146 million citizens, most of whom just want to live in a civilised world, and in a country where freedom and human rights are respected and upheld by credible independent institutions.
The real voice of Russia often goes unheard, both within the country and abroad. Outside observers might think that the current government has the support of the population. But it isn’t so. The mass protests in Moscow and other cities in 2019 show that while formal power remains in the hands of Putin and his party, Russians are ready to assert their rights and demand democracy.
On the world stage, Putin falsely claims to wage his hybrid wars in our name. Yet there’s never any formal declaration of war. And the Kremlin consistently denies that it is conducting military operations in Ukraine, because it knows that the Russian military’s presence in Donbas and Crimea is illegal.
The Putin regime itself can be understood as a hybrid. Formally, Russia has a constitution that guarantees the rule of law, upholds the separation of powers, establishes an independent judiciary, and vests ultimate authority in the people. But, in reality, the Russian people have no influence over the authorities; all branches of government answer to Putin and his inner circle.
Likewise, while Russia holds formal elections, political representatives at the federal and regional levels are selected by the regime. And at the local level, decisions are made by regional governors, who are ultimately dependent on the central administration. Whenever necessary, the regime resorts to various methods to prevent genuine competition in elections: barring opposition candidates from standing, blocking media coverage of opposition campaigns, and engaging in outright election fraud.
Consider the case of the anti-corruption lawyer Alexei Navalny. In March 2018, Navalny was the effective leader of Russia’s democratic opposition, but he was prevented from running for president, and Putin easily clinched re-election in a field of Kremlin-picked candidates.
But in regional elections later that year, a massive protest vote signalled Russians’ dissatisfaction with the regime. Many of United Russia’s gubernatorial candidates—particularly those who had been pictured shaking Putin’s hand before election day—were trounced, despite having had all of the administrative and propaganda resources of the state on their side. In Vladimir Oblast, the incumbent, Svetlana Orlova of United Russia, lost to Vladimir Sipyagin of the Liberal Democratic Party. When asked by journalists why they had voted as they did, many people answered that they didn’t even know Sipyagin; they just wanted ‘anyone but Orlova’.
In 2019, the authorities ‘corrected’ their previous electoral ‘mistakes’ by simply banning pro-democracy opposition candidates in particularly difficult regions. In some cases, even ‘pocket’ opposition candidates (those from parties with seats in the Duma who run with the Kremlin’s tacit imprimatur) were banned, including in remote regions such as Transbaikal. Nonetheless, in elections to the legislative assembly for Khabarovsk Territory, where pocket candidates were still allowed, the Liberal Democratic Party won out over United Russia.
I myself ran in elections to the Moscow City Duma, in which independent, democratically selected candidates were barred from running on the basis of absurd trumped-up charges, such as allegations of forging petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. In fact, we had significant support from our constituencies, and we appealed these illegal decisions in the courts. But, because the judiciary, too, is under the Kremlin’s heel, justice wasn’t served. Having been denied their choice of elected representatives, Muscovites by the tens of thousands took to the streets.
The authorities reacted to these protests with a wave of repression, detaining several thousand people and filing criminal charges against pro-democracy groups. Night searches were carried out in our houses, and dozens of people were jailed. The independent Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared to be a foreign agent, and our bank accounts were frozen. In late July, Navalny was poisoned with an unknown substance while under a 30-day administrative detention.
Putin was so scared of the Moscow elections that he deployed the full power of the courts, police, prosecutors, the Ministry of Justice, Roskomnadzor (the official censorship body) and other resources to derail the democratic opposition. The reason for this full-court press is obvious: an opposition victory in the capital would have destroyed the myth that Russians actually support Putin and his party, and that the democratic opposition represents just a small share of the population.
Putin has come to rely heavily on this myth, long a staple of state propaganda at home and abroad. Free and fair elections in Moscow would have given the lie to his claim to legitimacy, and the other regions across Russia would have taken note of what was happening in the capital.
The Kremlin could not permit such a dangerous precedent. Putin wants the world to think that he represents the Russian people. But there can be no more compelling evidence that his power rests on a lie than his violent crackdown on Russians who are demanding that their representatives be allowed to put that power to the test in free and fair elections.