Washington (Brussels Morning) Russia is heading to the polls in September 2021 to vote for the 450-seat Federal Duma and, of course, the President. Elections will take place over the course of three days, due to the Pandemic. Fifteen political parties are running, but no one expects any surprises. Elections in Russia have rarely produced surprises. But is this process engaging at all? Well, as it happens, apathy may be President Putin’s biggest problem.
To understand what is at stake, we talk to Jill Dougherty, CNN’s Moscow Bureau Chief and Correspondent for nearly three decades. She also served as White House correspondent, State Department correspondent, Asia Pacific correspondent, and served as U.S. Affairs Editor for CNN International.
Tedo Japaridze (TJ): It appears that Russian ultra-nationalism has advanced from the fringes of society in the early 2000s to become mainstream. Can you draw a parallel between the Russian experience of political radicalisation and the rise of the far right across Europe: from Sweden and Germany to Greece and Spain?
Far-right groups develop and strengthen for many reasons. Let’s begin with the apparent fact that a significant minority in many countries traditionally are on the political right. This can include a wide range of views: economic conservatives, social conservatives, religious conservatives, ultra-nationalists, white supremacists, fascists, and others. Some of these movements develop organically, for example, Russians who support the restoration of imperial Russia and czarist rule. Others are inspired by developments and trends in other countries, for example, white supremacist organisations that are linked with similar groups in Europe and the United States.
During the Soviet period, ideologies that went beyond the bounds of Marxism-Leninism were suppressed, especially groups that advocated ethnic nationalism. The USSR, while allowing some controlled expression of ethnic identity, such as language and dress, was wary of any political fostering of ethnic identity. Soviet citizens were, first and foremost, “Soviet” and, secondarily, members of ethnic groups who had “voluntarily” joined the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet constitution technically allowed ethnic republics to secede, in reality, it was impossible; independence movements were a threat to the integrity of the Soviet state.
When it came to ethnic Russians, however, matters were more complex. Russia – its language, culture and history – was considered primus inter pares, even if that was not officially the policy. Today, some of the same forces of ethno-nationalism are playing out in Russia as well as in Europe. Russian ultra-nationalists overtly espouse the superiority of Russian culture and skinheads have attacked ethnic and racial minorities in Russian cities, especially Moscow.
Ambiguity in Russia’s anti-extremist laws also makes it more difficult to define just who is an “extremist,” providing the government with the opportunity to prosecute any minorities it sees as a danger. Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, have been arrested and sentenced to prison for “extremism.”
But if the Putin administration does modulate its treatment of extremist groups at home, when it comes to Europe, it acts quite overtly, utilising direct funding and propaganda support for European ultra-nationalist and far right individuals and organisations. Russia has provided loans for French ultra-right politician Marine Le Pen, given political support to Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party, and waged a propaganda blitz warning of the danger to Europe from Muslim migrants. Moscow’s promotion of “traditional family values” and verbal attacks on the liberal values of “Gayropa” has won praise from far right groups in Europe that oppose political rights for homosexuals, such as gay marriage.
Such an approach has a double pay-off for the Kremlin: weakening societal cohesion in Europe and scoring points for President Vladimir Putin as the “protector” of traditional values.
TJ: As we are heading for elections in Russia this September, could these make a difference?
In today’s Russia, the biggest threat to the Kremlin is not that massive numbers of Russian will turn up at the polls demanding change, it is indifference. Vladimir Putin has now been in power for more than 20 years and elections, both presidential and parliamentary, are tightly-controlled affairs, a kind of “kabuki theater” of politics. Any viable opposition is either in prison, e.g. Alexei Navalny; dead, e.g. Boris Nemtsov; or in exile, e.g. Dmitry Gidkov.
So Vladimir Putin’s biggest challenge in the Parliamentary elections this fall is to ensure that enough Russians turn up at the poll to ensure that the “party of power,” United Russia, maintain control of the Duma and that the elections have at least the appearance of legitimacy.
But voter apathy is a significant problem. As Andrei Kolesnikov and Boris Makarenko note in an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center, the 2016 election “had the lowest voter turnout in the history of parliamentary elections in modern Russia: 47.88% (prior to that, voter turnout was over 60% in four previous elections and over 55% in another two). The authorities reportedly expect voter turnout to be even lower this time: 45%.”
President Putin already has a politically neutered legislature and he doesn’t want to lose that, especially, as is widely expected, he prepares to run again for the presidency in 2024.
A quiet and orderly parliamentary election, with no surprises and a predictable outcome in the Putin administration’s favour, is what the Kremlin is aiming for and will do everything to ensure happens. A civically engaged and politically active citizenry voting for real, competitive candidates would be its worst nightmare.
TJ: This year we saw Russian participation in Eurovision by a woman of migrant and Muslim heritage, challenging traditional gender norms. Does this Russia have a political voice?
The Eurovision song contest is a big deal in Russia and around the world and I was personally very surprised when I saw that Tajikistan-born 30-year-old singer-songwriter Manizha singing her song “Russian Woman” on YouTube. There she was, dressed in a kind of take-off on a traditional Russian woman’s dress, mixing traditional Russian singing with a jumpy rap, throwing in a few English words for good measure, then throwing off her “babushka” cloak to reveal a red jump suit with the title “Russian Woman” transliterated with Slavic letters. It was a lot to take in but the lyrics stopped me from thinking this was just a “camp” send up.
Hey, Russian woman, ha ha
Don’t be afraid, girl hey, hey
You’re strong enough, uh
You’re strong enough (о-о-о)
Don’t be afraid (don’t be afraid)
Don’t be afraid (don’t be afraid)
A broken family won’t break me…
There she was, singing about domestic abuse, and people who say women should all be skinny, and critics who say a woman shouldn’t be 30 and have no children.
But, as odd as that seems, and as hard as the Kremlin and official Russia tried to downplay her popularity, Manizha is emblematic of the change that’s under way in Russia. She made her name and fame on Instagram, where so many young Russians get their entertainment – and information. She won her nomination as Russia’s Eurovision representative in a televised vote.
As one might expect, there was a tsunami of abuse and criticism from some conservatives but she’s still singing and her fans are still following her. I take that as a good sign for Russia and for young Russians.
TJ: People often fantasise about the collapse of the Putin regime. Knowing Russia for as long as you do, would you say he will be defeated or succeeded?
It’s always hard to predict the future and especially now when – on the surface – President Putin appears to be in control, society is quiescent, the media have been tamed and there is little viable opposition. Beneath the surface, however, Russia is changing. Young people are on the internet, following Instagram and TikTok, just like young people everywhere. They’re avoiding TV, and state media’s snarling but boring propaganda. And their parents may not be protesting, but many of them are not happy either. The Kremlin bungled its response to COVID and efforts to get Russians vaccinated are failing due to a lack of trust in the government.
Where this all leads is not clear. President Putin, at least legally, could be in power until 2036, when he is 83. But in Russia, historically, things can change when you least expect it.
TJ: Kind of a trivial question from a Georgian and we’ve discussed this issue so many times: how does a country like Georgia need to deal with Russia, without conceding Georgia’s strategic agenda and western orientation?
Georgia, just like any country dealing on an international level with Russia, needs to first define its own strategic interests. It begins, of course, with security. Determining what its greatest threats are, and ensuring that it has the best defence it can have to defend those interests. Of course, Russia is much larger and more militarily powerful than Georgia. But today’s battles aren’t always military. Economic strength is crucial and that includes the willingness to reform systems that need reforming. Smart diplomacy with Russia is important as well; Russia will always be Georgia’s neighbour and Georgia must use every tool it has to keep the relationship balanced and defend its interests. Public diplomacy with other countries is important as well; modern battles can be fought with values and ideas and Georgia has an ancient and beautiful culture that can win it friends around the world.
Most importantly, Georgia’s independence, freedom and democracy must “pay off” for the average citizen. What use is it to be numbered among “democratic countries” if the citizens of a country don’t live better lives than they did under communist control?
TJ: Finally, as an American covering Russia, how much of what you see of America today reminds you of your experiences in Russia?
The hardest thing for me, as an American who has spent a number of years in Russia, is to see in today’s America the growing lack of faith in the ability of citizens to change things in their society. In the old Soviet Union, people had very little ability to affect the government, to demand that the government provide what they felt they needed or wanted. The Communist Party was all-powerful. There was no civil society. That is changing in modern Russia and, on the grassroots level, Russians are beginning to join together to improve their lives, working with other people in volunteer organisations and other forms of civil society.
Today, in the United States, some Americans look at government as the enemy. They want to get rid of government, apparently not understanding that they actually have power in their own hands to change things. The key, of course, is to ensure that the institutions of American society remain strong. Over the past few years, they have been under attack, undermined by the president himself. It will take enormous energy to repair not only those institutions, but Americans’ faith in those institutions.
In 1863, the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln urged his fellow citizens on with a vision of what he hoped would be the America to emerge from that fratricidal war: “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That vision is still there, even as we emerge today from a dark and disheartening period in our history.