Recent events surrounding Moscow’s municipal election campaign should serve as a warning to all who value free and fair polls. Early on, the regime excluded all opposition candidates in a bid to ensure victory for United Russia, the ruling party. That crude intervention provoked mass protests on a scale not seen since 2011-12, when Putin won a third presidential term by what were widely regarded as fraudulent means.
Vladimir Putin’s regime has done all in its power to skew and distort the results of Sunday’s nationwide regional elections in Russia. This is no surprise. The Kremlin has become notorious in recent years for its efforts, both brazen and underhand, to subvert democracy at home and abroad. With general elections approaching in Britain and the US, a close eye needs to be kept on Russia’s president.
Large-scale arrests, shocking incidents of police brutality and a concerted attempt to intimidate and silence opposition leaders, notably the courageous anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny ensued. Ironically, the Kremlin complained about foreign meddling. Yet the demonstrators were undeterred, reflecting what Russian analysts say is broader, deep-seated discontent with Putin and a regime that many regard as incompetent, venal and uncaring.
Putin’s personal standing hit its lowest point in 13 years in May, according to a state-run poll that found only 32% of Russians trusted him. The pollsters were later forced to revise their findings. But independent surveys also suggest Putin’s popularity is in decline. Reasons include public anger over wages, stagnant living standards, unfair pension reforms, corruption and the Syrian war.
The regime’s trust deficit will not be improved by today’s mass larceny. Illustrating its readiness to cheat, United Russia is not fielding any named party candidates on the ballot paper for Moscow’s Duma elections. Instead, its candidates are surreptitiously presenting themselves as independents in a bid to fool voters.
It seems certain the regime will declare a nationwide victory after the votes are counted. Less certain is whether the opposition’s “summer of discontent” can be sustained as winter draws in and the Kremlin seeks payback for recent affronts to its power, as happened after the 2012 unrest. Into its fourth term, Putin’s illegitimate reign seems set to continue, for now.
That’s bad news for Russians. It’s also bad news for the western democracies, whose elections have been repeatedly subjected to covert, Kremlin-approved “influence operations” using disinformation spread by social media, hacking and cyber attacks. The Mueller report into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election produced proof of malign intent. European countries, including France, Germany and Sweden, and this year’s European parliament polls, have all suffered similar meddling, as did Britain’s Brexit referendum.
Concern is growing in the US that Donald Trump, whose 2016 campaign was a direct beneficiary of Russian interference, is not doing enough to deter the threat of a repeat next year. It is not far-fetched to suggest this inaction is linked to White House hopes that Trump could again profit from illicit help from his friends in the north. Christopher Wray, the FBI’s director, warned in July that Moscow was determined to try its hand at manipulating the 2020 results.
According to a new report by the independent Center for American Progress, “every indicator suggests that Russia will continue to be actively engaged in disrupting US democratic processes throughout the 2020 election cycle”. Russia, it says, “is consistently shifting and updating its interference tactics, making it even harder to protect future elections” – while other countries, such as China, are following suit.
The report examines the methods used by European governments to fend off Russian meddling, including French cybersecurity seminars for political parties and Germany’s “hack-back” strategy. Is Britain doing enough to protect the coming general election from manipulation by malevolent foreign powers? It’s an urgent question, requiring an urgent answer.