According to the Estonian intelligence services, the level of internal repression in Russia is now so high was to warrant direct comparison with the Soviet Union. Repressive measures have spiked in inverse relation to Putin’s popularity. This is no longer the “managed democracy” that characterized Putin’s early years. It is rapidly becoming something much darker.
In 2021, repressive measures used to pressure critics of the government in Russia reached levels unprecedented in the past 20 years. The authorities aim to completely subdue the opposition and suppress the remaining free media. These goals, the methods used to achieve them, and the social processes taking place under increasing pressure present ever-clearer parallels with the Soviet period.
At the same time, the unprecedented scale of repression shows the regime cannot and dare not deal with its political opponents and critics in any other way but increased pressure and outright bans. Although administrative measures to discourage or punish opposition activists and journalists harrying the central government have coincided with most of Vladimir Putin’s tenure, the levels reached in 2021 merit a rather direct comparison with the methods once used in the Soviet Union.
Russia’s central government has almost completely stopped disguising the real motives behind pressuring its political opponents. Classifying key organizations linked to Alexei Navalny as extremist organizations mark a new milestone—while various fabricated accusations had been used to obstruct these organizations before, declaring them extremist in the spring of 2021 was done with no effort to disguise the political motivation behind this. Already at the start of the legal proceedings, the authorities stated that these organizations were “engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and socio-political situation under the guise of liberal slogans,” with an alleged long-term aim of dismantling the constitutional order.
The verdict was drafted under the direct supervision of the Presidential Administration of Russia; the politicized and farcical trial once again warranted clear parallels with the Soviet period. The Presidential Administration also played a key role in initiating and passing a bill banning individuals affiliated with organizations designated as extremists from running in elections.
The legislative proceedings appear to have taken place at an accelerated pace so that the law could enter into force before the autumn election was announced. In another sign of urgency, the methods used to pressure the opposition were ramped up along the way, reflecting a relatively rapid change in the ruling elite’s risk assessment—the previously planned activities were no longer considered sufficient, and new measures were introduced on the fly, with barely enough time to put them into practice effectively.
The Russian ruling elite’s ever fiercer attacks against the opposition and the remaining free media showed that it cannot and dare not deal with its political opponents and critics by any other method but increasing repression and outright bans.
Almost all opposition players and government critics with public visibility found themselves under significantly increased pressure from the authorities in 2021. The entire arsenal of administrative measures was put into service, including fabricated administrative and criminal charges, and designating the targets as foreign agents or undesirable organizations. This tendency to completely subdue the opposition again harks back to the Soviet era. In 2021, nearly every slightly visible opposition figure and critic of the regime was repressed more forcefully than before.
Putin’s regime was particularly active in muzzling the press, intending to suppress any independent media completely. Administrative methods continue to be used to force independent media outlets to cease activities. At the same time, the regime also seeks to limit information published in independent outlets from finding its way to other media, primarily by wielding the cudgel of foreign agent designation. The state media’s editorial policy is already on a par with communist practices—the topics covered, and the positions taken, are decided entirely by the Presidential Administration. The events of 2021 showed the Putin regime would ideally like to achieve a Soviet-type status quo in the near future—a complete absence of alternative media.
The foreign agent designation has been in use in Russia since 2012, when a law allowing politically active NGOs receiving foreign funding to be labeled took effect. A separate legal framework for designating media outlets as foreign agents took effect more recently, in 2017. The conditions that must be met in order to be branded a foreign agent have repeatedly been changed—and in recent years, simplified—while the restrictions and obligations that come with being designated as a foreign agent have consistently become more burdensome.
This includes labeling any print or online publication issued by a foreign agent and even extending that obligation to any media outlet citing a foreign agent. For online publications that have been branded foreign agents, the designation has significantly reduced their advertising revenue as well as their network of sources. Regulations in force today also allow for the designation to be used for natural persons.
Since 2018, the number of organizations officially stigmatized by the authorities has started to increase again as a reaction to increasing criticism. This trend has persisted and worsened over the years. While in 2020, the number of organizations labeled as foreign agents increased relatively smoothly, in 2021, the number soared along with the increase in force and pressure mechanisms implemented to quell freedom of thought and civil society. Media outlets were primarily labeled as foreign agents: independent media channels Dozhd and Meduza were included on the list, among others.
In our assessment, the Russian ruling elite’s ever fiercer attacks against the opposition and the remaining free media showed that it cannot and dare not deal with its political opponents and critics by any other method but increasing repression and outright bans. Although the sharp spike in repressive measures can be associated with the 2021 State Duma election—growing dissatisfaction and the increased activity of government critics created the need to suppress the opposition quickly, in time for the election—the new levels of repression, unprecedented in Putin’s years in power, appear to be here to stay.
MAKING ENDS MEET IN RUSSIA
A modest standard of living for the majority of the population continues to be part of reality under Putin’s regime. Russia’s socio-economic situation is characterized by great variability–the levels of income and household spending can differ significantly from region to region. The average monthly salary in the federal subjects (oblasts, krais, republics, and federal cities) varies from €350 (US$397) to €1,200 (US$1,361). However, wage levels cannot be directly linked to subsistence, as spending can also vary greatly from one region to the next,
About half of Russia’s average gross monthly income of €630 per capita remains after spending on everyday needs, which means a four-member household can make ends meet when at least two household members are employed, and two are dependents. This statistical average is derived from the income levels of two groups of regions that occupy two extremes: on the one hand, the city of Moscow and high-income mining regions, and on the other hand, peripheral regions with low wages but relatively high living costs with a total population of about 90 million (or 62 percent of the population).
The income of nearly 10 percent of the population in Russia is higher than the national average gross income (630 euros, or US$714), but their living expenses are also higher than the average. This means that after spending on everyday needs, people will be left to use less money than average. Such a socioeconomic situation most often reflects the inhabitants of the city of St. Petersburg and the Moscow Oblast. In total, it describes the socio-economic situation of 15 million people in Russia.
Formally, the election fits the mold of the Russian ruling elite’s well-worn practice of imitating the democratic process, but in reality, political legitimacy has significantly diminished. This is another trend indicating a growing similarity between the current political regime’s modus operandi and that of the Soviet regime.
At the same time, nearly 10 percent of the Russian population has an income less than the national average gross income (630 euros, or US$714), but their living expenses are also lower than the average. This means that after spending on everyday needs, people will be left to use more money than average. There are 15 million people in Russia in this socio-economic situation, for example, in the Republics of Tyva and Ingushetia.
Nearly 18 percent of the Russian population have an income higher than the country’s average gross income (630 euros, or US$714) and have lower than average living expenses. This means that after paying fixed costs, people will be left to use more money than average. In such a socio-economic situation, the largest population is in the city of Moscow and in the mining regions, in the whole of Russia a total of 26 million people.
The income of most residents of Russia is lower than the national average gross income (630 euros, or US$714), and their living expenses are higher than average. This means that after spending on everyday needs, people will be left to use less money than average. In total, it reflects the socio-economic situation of 90 million people in Russia.
THE MOST UNDEMOCRATIC ELECTION OF THE PUTIN ERA
As expected, manipulations were used in order to secure the desired result for the ruling elite in the 2021 State Duma ‘election’. Though formally still imitating the democratic process, including free elections, the credibility of the regime has diminished further. United RussiaPutin’s political party. would certainly not be able to succeed at a comparable level if faced with real political competition without administrative support or a biased, controlled state media.
The State Duma election in September 2021 was a mere formality because any political opposition independent of Russia’s central government had been completely barred from the election. In terms of restriction of free speech and repression of the opposition, the 2021 State Duma election can be considered the most undemocratic in Vladimir Putin’s years in power. Formally, the election fits the mold of the Russian ruling elite’s well-worn practice of imitating the democratic process, but in reality, political legitimacy has significantly diminished.
This is another trend indicating a growing similarity between the current political regime’s modus operandi and that of the Soviet regime. To manipulate election results and to completely neutralize political competition, essentially the same methods were used as in previous years. Still, several elements were applied much more aggressively than ever before. The main methods used were:
- Administrative tools to suppress the political opposition’s organized activities. These were utilized more intensively in 2021 than before.
- Barring unwanted candidates from participating in the election using formal pretexts. This has long been one of the ruling elite’s most effective tools to ensure election results. The first serious setback in the use of this tool only occurred during the Moscow City Duma election in 2019.
- Biased media coverage of political parties and the muzzling of media outlets broadcasting views unsuitable for the power elite—another tool used much more forcefully in 2021.
- Direct support from the state apparatus to United Russia.
- “Administrative mobilization” or pressuring state employees to vote as required.
- Obstruction of independent election observation.
- Falsifying election results.
Before 2018, the approval ratings of United Russia mostly stayed above 40 percent, and the only time the ratings declined below that level was in 2011-12. It was the culmination of a long-term decline in the popularity of the party, which started in 2009. Late 2011 and early 2012 saw one of the first, more serious, slumps in Putin’s power system. The peak of that crisis was the extensive demonstrations motivated by the falsification of the results of December 2011 Duma elections.
In the first half of 2012, the ruling elite managed to improve the image of United Russia rather swiftly. Due to the presidential elections scheduled for March 2012, the first half of 2012 witnessed vigorous activity to maximize the popularity of the ruling elite, which led to positive results for United Russia. However, the success was short-lived, and by autumn 2013, the approval ratings of United Russia were once again around 40 percent.
In our assessment, manipulation played a decisive role in achieving an election result suitable for the ruling elite. United Russia would certainly not be able to succeed at a comparable level if faced with real political competition without administrative support or a biased, controlled state media.
The latest and also one of the longest-lasting peaks in the popularity of United Russia was brought about by the annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, euphoria faded by early 2016 when the popularity of the party decreased below 50 percent in January and continued to decline further. The timing was inconvenient. In autumn (September) 2016, elections to the State Duma took place, prior to which the approval ratings had once again decreased to 40 percent.
Over the next few years, approval ratings of the party improved. Another steep decline in the approval ratings of United Russia, which the party has not yet recovered from, resulted from the 2018 pension reform, which raised the retirement age. The popularity of the party was measured with a survey, which asked potential voters to point out which political party they would vote for if the elections took place the following Sunday.
The official results of the State Duma election were as expected—with the help of manipulation, a constitutional majority was ensured for the ruling political party, United Russia. The lower number of seats in the Duma compared with the 2016 election is explained by the ruling elite’s heightened caution due to the recent presidential election experience in Belarus. Given United Russia’s modest ratings, they shied away from announcing the same result as in the previous Duma election.
The latest peak in Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings was at the time of the 2018 presidential elections when the impact of Crimean events was still evident and his popularity had been nurtured with active propaganda and maneuvers of political technology.
However, the 2018 pension reform resulted in a sharp decline in popularity. Putin’s approval ratings have not recovered since, and in 2021, there was another rapid decline. Due to lower ratings, it is no surprise that the ruling elite of Russia regards the use of force as the main instrument for maintaining power.
While Vladimir Putin’s personal approval ratings have consistently been higher than those of Russian governmental institutions, they have also started to dip downward in the last few years. The chart above depicts this trend. As opinion polls are used by those in power to gauge the societal mood, it’s undoubtedly true that growing repression in society is a reflection of the negative numbers: if other methods do not work, a heavy-handed response is deemed necessary to hold onto power.
Putin’s waning support also shows that assertions of Putin’s perpetual reign or support that is autonomous of anything happening within Russia do not ring true.
In our assessment, manipulation played a decisive role in achieving an election result suitable for the ruling elite. United Russia would certainly not be able to succeed at a comparable level if faced with real political competition without administrative support or a biased, controlled state media. The ruling elite’s efforts to restrict free speech and repress the opposition in 2021 are as convincing a proof of this as can be.
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