Russian President Vladimir Putin is working to eliminate what little political opposition remains to his rule in Russia ahead of the country’s presidential election in 2024.
Putin, who is seeking a fifth term as president in what is almost assured victory in the March election, has moved to clear any obstacles in his path.
Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) last week rejected the presidential candidacy of Yekaterina Duntsova, a former TV journalist, over paperwork errors. Duntsova’s campaign, which is described as pro-peace and pro-democracy, has rejected the commission’s ruling and is appealing the decision through the courts.
“The CEC’s refusal is directed against the representation of millions of citizens who advocate for a peaceful and democratic future of Russia,” Duntsova’s campaign wrote on Telegram. “With this political decision, we are deprived of the opportunity to have our own representative and express views that differ from the official aggressive discourse.”
Meanwhile, imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s most famous critics, emerged on Sunday in a penal colony in Russia’s high-north, weeks after his lawyers said they had lost contact with him.
Navalny, whose written messages from prison are posted on social media by his lawyers and team, projected an optimistic tone after being relocated to the Arctic prison. He thanked his supporters for raising concern globally and promised to keep up his opposition.
“I am your new Santa Claus… But I am a special-regime Santa Claus, so only those who have behaved very badly get presents,” he wrote on the platform X, adding a winking emoji.
The March election, which will come roughly two years after Moscow launched its brutal war in Ukraine, is poised to further cement Putin’s legacy as the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator who oversaw a regime where millions of people were killed.
Putin first served as president in 2000, assuming the position after the surprise resignation of reformist Boris Yeltsin, who signaled his support for Putin and helped pave the way to his electoral victory.
He was reelected in 2004 and then appointed prime minister four years later. Putin ran for his third presidential term in 2012 — a victory that garnered mass public backlash over accusations of fraud and vote rigging.
After securing a fourth term in 2018, Putin oversaw constitutional changes that allowed for him to run for two additional six-year terms — setting up his current reelection bid and another one possibly in 2030.
“I think it’s an insult to the idea of elections and democracy to call what’s happening in Russia an election,” said Bill Browder, a target of the Kremlin for his work supporting Russian anti-corruption activists, in an interview with the U.K.-based Times Radio last week.
Browder is a key architect of the Magnitsky Act, federal law that empowered the U.S. to sanction Russian officials involved in significant corruption and human rights abuses, and that has expanded to target bad actors across the globe.
“What Putin has done in Russia is basically create a dictatorship, any person who wants to run against him ends up either in exile, in jail or dead,” he said.
Browder is an advocate for the release of his close friend and Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was sentenced in April to 25 years in prison on charges of treason and spreading false information about the Russian military following his criticisms against Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Lawmakers in Washington are pushing the Biden administration to designate Kara-Murza, a U.S. permanent resident, as “wrongfully detained” on politically-motivated charges and make securing his release a priority, alongside the release of businessman Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.
“Putin controls all information and he makes it very clear to everybody that any type of dissent leads to a catastrophe for you and your family,” Browder told Times Radio.
The Russian leader has drawn a hardline against any criticism against his handling of the war in Ukraine, with the public death of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in a fiery plane crash in August a stark example that even the war’s supporters must tout a careful line.
Prigozhin, who in June launched a shocking yet short-lived coup against Russia’s military leaders, had sought to gain more resources and legitimacy for his band of fighters. Moscow was widely expected to respond to the armed rebellion, but the timeline was a mystery, with some former U.S. intelligence officials speculating Putin’s aim was to expose any collaborators.
“You can see what Putin’s plan was—to keep the dead man walking so they could continue to find out what happened,” Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA station chief, told The Wall Street Journal.
Some American officials viewed Russia’s war in Ukraine as creating an opportunity for Russian citizens to vocally challenge Putin’s grip on power.
Early on in Moscow’s full-scale war, U.S. officials said Russians would take to the streets against Putin in opposition to their soldiers coming home in body bags.
Such large-scale protests have failed to materialize, given Russia’s tight control on freedom of assembly, strict security and harsh punishments.
Putin has also pushed to protect against public discontent by insulating Russia’s economy from international sanctions stemming from the war. Russia has switched up supply routes to go through friendly countries and relied heavily on oil and gas revenues that have yet to be completely penalized.
The Russian-based Levada Center, which tracks Russian public opinion, found that consumer sentiment in Russia improved in October.
“This may partly be due to the strengthening of the ruble and government measures to curb prices. The absence of significant negative news contributes to the improvement of consumer sentiment,” Stepan Goncharov, a senior research fellow, wrote in an analysis.
Putin’s favorability was at 83 percent in December, according to Levada’s tracking.
Still, Levada’s most recent tracking of Russian opinion toward the war in Ukraine has demonstrated apathy, with a September poll showing 52 percent of respondents said they don’t follow the war too closely, or don’t follow it at all.
According to the survey, 59 percent were concerned that a total mobilization will occur in Russia. Among women respondents, that fear is higher, at 75 percent.
Some women are mobilizing efforts to pressure the Russian government to release civilian conscripts, a push that has the potential to grow into a larger criticism of Moscow’s war.
“Putin first lied to us that civilians would never have to fight,” a Russian woman named Natalia, who was active in a grassroots campaign pushing for a full demobilization, told The Guardian. “You start thinking: is he also lying about why we are in Ukraine?”
Kara-Murza, the jailed Russian opposition figure, in a message from prison delivered in Washington to the National Democratic Institute earlier this month, asked for the democratic world to keep faith with Russians who oppose Putin’s rule.
“There are people in Russia who have chosen to stand up to war, oppression, and injustice, even at the cost of personal freedom,” he wrote.
“I have no doubt that, in the end, our vision of Russia will prevail. I say this because I’m a historian by background, and we know that, even though it may not bend as fast as we would like, the arch of history does bend towards liberty.”
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.