Giorgi Bilanisvhili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation

One of the “greatest achievements” of Putin’s rule is considered to be the creation of a controllable political environment in the Russian Federation. In such an environment, all processes must be managed by the government within a specific established framework, and, of course, it must facilitate the longevity of the regime. A managed political environment encompasses everything directly or indirectly related to politics, including media control and the entire electoral process.

Part of that controlled political environment is also the Russian Parliament, in which the opposition parties have long been named as a “systemic opposition”. The “systemic opposition” had only three parties prior to the last elections: the “Communist Party of the Russian Federation”, the “Liberal Democratic Party of Russia” and “A Just Russia”. They are “systemic” as only they have consistently managed to get into parliament since the 2007 parliamentary elections.

Two members of this systemic opposition, The Russian Liberal Democratic Party and A Just Russia, should be appropriated to the ranks of the so-called “managed” opposition. The “Communist Party of the Russian Federation”, however, unlike its colleagues, has always maintained a certain degree of independence. It is likely the authorities considered the rating of this party to have waned and, therefore, allowed it to continue as an “acceptable” player in the managed political environment.

The opposition outside parliament is called by Russians a “non-systemic opposition”. Unlike the “systemic opposition”, the government has a negative attitude towards the “non-systemic opposition” as it considers them to be detrimental to the managed political environment.

As for the ruling party “United Russia”, its reputation among the Russian population has been damaged for a while now. It is referred to as a party of “thieves and deceivers”, having a much lower rating than that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, “United Russia” wins convincingly in elections and usually gets a constitutional majority in the parliament, which, of course, is possible only in the setting of the aforementioned managed political environment.

At first glance, it seems that the Russian government has firm control over the ongoing processes, but from time to time, amid growing public discontent and the intensification of opposition forces, the managed political environment has also faced certain difficulties. These difficulties first became apparent when the 2011 parliamentary elections precipitated a rather strong wave of opposition protests in the Russian Federation. Since then, the grip on the managed political environment in Russia has gradually tightened, and coercion has increased on the “non-systemic opposition”, the non-governmental sector, and various media outlets.

The most obvious example of this pressure is the well-known Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Putin’s regime did not initially see him as a serious threat; however, after Navalny received 27% of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, which almost necessitated a second round, the attitude towards him changed dramatically, seeing the Putin regime stepping up pressure on Navalny and his allies. Refused registration as an election candidate, Navlny was no longer allowed to run in the elections. That pressure eventually came to an end, first with Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020, and then his arrest in January 2021.

Navalny’s arrest showed that the government was meticulously preparing for the September 2021 parliamentary elections. Most experts explain this by the fact that Russia has already begun preparations for the 2024 presidential elections, in which V. Putin will still have the right to participate, according to the new constitution of the Russian Federation. Consequently, it has become even more important to strengthen control over the political situation in Russia. At the same time, it should be noted that, according to opinion polls conducted before the elections, the rating of the ruling party “United Russia” fluctuated between 25-30%, which is quite low. Consequently, more efforts were needed to ensure a convincing victory for the ruling party in the parliamentary elections and to gain a constitutional majority in the new parliament.

Therefore, in preparation for the 2021 parliamentary elections, the pressure on opponents gradually intensified. Against this background, organizations affiliated to Navalny had to limit their activities, and some of his comrades decided to leave the Russian Federation altogether. The Russian government did not stop there. By 2021, many organizations, media outlets and journalists had been added to the “list of foreign agents” of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, which aimed to limit their activities.

V. Putin, who usually distances himself from the ruling party and its relatively low rating, performed differently for the 2021 elections, and, although he did not run an active campaign, he personally participated in “United Russia’s” pre-election congress, thus bringing his person and the party closer together. On the eve of the elections, he personally called on voters to participate in the elections, which he had never done before.

The administration of the President of Russia, where the internal political affairs are handled by the First Deputy Head of the Administration Sergei Kiriyenko, this time was even more actively involved in the pre-election process. Dmitry Medvedev, who was transferred from the position of prime minister a few years ago to a symbolic position created specifically for him – Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia, hoped to be number one on the election list of “United Russia” and thus return to active politics. However, the presidential administration blocked this decision because, according to one account, it was believed that Medvedev’s low rating would adversely affect the ruling party’s already low rating. Consequently, it would be difficult for “United Russia” to gain a constitutional majority. Another view, also related to possible risks to the managed political environment in Russia, suggests Medvedev’s return to active politics was prevented so as not to raise his ambitions of becoming Putin’s “successor”.

A separate topic of conversation is the unprecedented scale of voter fraud observed during this parliamentary election. The fact that the number of voters who went to the polls corresponded to the number of votes received by the ruling party draws particular attention. This raised serious suspicions that the number of voters in the polling stations had been artificially increased in order to enable that unprecedented support for “United Russia”. According to expert estimates, as a result of this type of fraud alone, the ruling party received an additional 14 million votes. It is also clear that this was not the only method of fraud used in the 2021 parliamentary election.

In the end, the Russian parliamentary elections showed that V. Putin’s regime needs to resort to even tougher methods of governance in order to prolong its stay in power, and the government has the resources to do so. Therefore, it is expected that this trend will continue in the future, especially if we take into account the upcoming 2024 Russian presidential elections. As experience shows, V. Putin’s regime does not rely on tough measures in domestic politics alone; the same approaches apply to the country’s foreign policy, which suggests that in the foreseeable future, security risks to Russia’s neighbors, including Georgia, will be significant.