Russian regime is in danger of becoming fossilised

The Duma elections highlight a growing sense that Putin and his associates are struggling to satisfy an electorate hungry for change.

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Edmund Burke warned prophetically in 1790 that the French Revolution would – by destroying the working of the country’s constitutional institutions – leave it with no law but the will of a prevailing force, and that a state without adequate means of managing due change would lack the means of preserving itself1 .

The Russian elections, to be concluded on 19 September, fit an established Putin regime pattern which is designed to reduce the independent authority of the country’s institutions to a fiction in favour of authoritarian rule as it moves towards the presidential elections of 2024 – thereby further diminishing Russia’s chances of managed evolutionary change in the future.

For the Kremlin, the principal aim of the parliamentary elections is to guarantee the return by the voters of a Duma committed to sustaining the ‘updating’ of Russia’s constitution and the resulting changes in the country’s political regime which have flowed from it since January 2020.

The forthcoming Duma will be elected so it will be answerable to President Vladimir Putin, not Russia’s people. It is generally supposed he will stay in power from 2024 to 2030 and maybe for the six years thereafter as well.

The Duma as an empty shell

Once achieved, this result will confirm the radical rise in the centralized political power of Putin’s regime – as imposed since January 2020 – leaving the Duma itself even more of an empty shell than its immediate predecessor. On present form it leaves strategic policymaking in the hands of a man in power since 2000 – not a recipe for fresh thinking.

Those in charge are obsessed by the glorification of a Soviet and Russian past whose realities they cannot face and whose failures they blame on the United States

The regime-scheduled outcome of the Duma elections as a reliably supportive constitutional majority of one sort or another remains probable. New and democratically disreputable measures as to who may seek office or – in nine million or more cases – even be allowed to vote in the elections, control over which parties may compete, and inventive means of distorting how votes may be delivered or counted give the authorities still heavier weapons to determine the pattern of the final count.

Opposition hopes that ‘smart voting’ might work against the Kremlin-favoured United Russia appear this time to have been minimized. The marked and persistent rise in repression triggered by the January protests throughout Russia following Navalny’s arrest on his return to Moscow from Berlin have also had their effect on the public mood.

Opposition down but not out

Organized opposition forces outside the Kremlin-tolerated framework have been crushed as credible and active threats to the ruling Kremlin regime. But that does not mean Putin and his associates can rest assured the appointment this September of an obedient Duma will make the close-to-dictatorial structures introduced in Russia since January 2020 permanently effective.

The election of a parliament on a more democratically-tinged basis, and endowed with a smidgeon of noticeably independent powers, might theoretically have made those structures appear more legitimate, but nothing of the kind either was or could be on offer.

The authorities have been vigorous in threatening, punishing, and silencing both their critics and the media, although less effectively with social media. The effort to silence discussion and to replace it with tired regime-dictated memes will continue with probably increasing determination for the predictable future.

Security forces answerable to the Kremlin have become – and will remain – steadily more essential to the regime’s hold on power, and highly likely to exploit openings for their personal interests and associations with illegitimate organizations in the process. The obedience of Russia’s courts to the country’s executive will remain as required, and the acquiescence of Russia’s regions to Moscow’s dominance remains central to the present regime.

Russia’s rulers will recall what unexpectedly happened in Belarus in August 2020, and falsified elections have provoked widespread and spontaneous protests in Russia before

The extent and intensity of the repressive and dishonest measures used by the authorities against any Russians thought liable to be critical or even liable to differ tells the story of those in power living in fear of what might happen if they lost control. Russia’s rulers will recall what unexpectedly happened in Belarus in August 2020, and falsified elections have provoked widespread and spontaneous protests in Russia before.

However unlikely it may seem, they may just possibly do so again. Their conduct this time has been redolent with contempt for Russia’s citizens. The authorities would no doubt use force to quell any unrest, but at the further expense of their legitimacy, to say nothing of the shrinking credibility of United Russia and the Duma itself.

An uncertain future is looming

These elections seem more like a half-time than the end of a match, and Russia’s longer-term future remains obscure to all the players as well as the spectators.

Putin might be able, in principle, to have others deal with certain issues under his general guidance while he looked to shape the future. But he appears to have no fresh political social or economic programmes in mind which might effectively refurbish his former standing with Russia’s people.

A persuasive and innovative set of proposals promising to revive the country’s economic, and therefore social, fortunes would seem an essential price to pay for Putin’s next few years as Russia’s enforced and fraud-backed leader. Achieving that would require extensive and disruptive change underpinned by informed debate.

The Russia-wide protests between January and April were set off by Navalny’s return to Moscow but inspired by broader public concerns2 , held most notably by citizens aged 40 or under. These have not been answered, nor have they gone away.

The longer they are allowed to fester, the deeper the risk of what could become a conviction that the division in Russia between the present regime and a considerable part of the country can only be resolved by the rejection of those now ruling it.

The facts that Putin and many of his principal colleagues are ageing, that no indications have been given as to how long he or they propose to remain at the top after 2024, or how a presidential successor might be selected and installed, all adds to the uncertainty.

Those in charge are obsessed by the glorification of a Soviet and Russian past whose realities they cannot face and whose failures they blame on the United States. Isolating Russia from the rest of Europe and criminalizing informed discussion of Russia’s possible domestic or foreign choices will not lead to a stable outcome.

  • 1Reflections on the Revolution in France: - “The engagement and pact of society, which generally goes by the name of the constitution [oblig-es] the constituent parts of a state…to hold their public faith with each other…Otherwise compe-tence and power would soon be confounded, and no law be left but the will of a prevailing force.” - and “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”
  • 2A newly published and detailed analysis dated 8 September by Liberal Mission experts is available in Russian on