Politics Explained

Why Russia’s frosty relationship with the west shows no sign of thawing

While it appears that opposition parties have made some ground in the Russian election, Putin remains the key threat to western security, writes Sean O’Grady

Monday 20 September 2021 21:30
<p>Naval cadets vote on the first day of the three-day parliamentary election in the far eastern city of Vladivostok</p>

Naval cadets vote on the first day of the three-day parliamentary election in the far eastern city of Vladivostok

It is a deep and telling irony that the Russian Communist Party should complain about the elections to the Russian Duma not being free and fair. Russia seems almost to have come full circle since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the hold that the communists once had in the state has been inherited, after a brief chaotic interregnum under Boris Yeltsin, by Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party, increasingly a personality cult. Russia has returned to type, arguably – paranoid, near-absolutist, revanchist, expansionist, nationalistic, imperial, and a place where human rights, in reality, don’t exist. Internally and externally, spying, espionage and assignation are a normal method of stagecraft. We know that Putin is close to being a modern-day dictator, a tsar in all but name, and the latest round of elections show he has no intention of releasing his grip on power.

Yet the spirit of democracy has a way of enduring even in the harshest of conditions. Although Alexei Navalny, the nearest thing Russia has to a leader of the opposition, has been beaten and imprisoned, he and his Russia of the Future movement seem to have had some limited success in their tactical voting campaign, urging voters who oppose Putin to lend their support to whatever group had the best chance of beating United Russia – including the communists and some far-right nationalists, even though they usually back Putin in any case. In western terms it has resulted in a small swing against United Russia, compared to the last parliamentary elections in 2016. That, given the widespread allegations of rigging contests and stuffing ballot boxes, suggest that the Russian people are not as solidly behind their leader as his propaganda likes to make out, though he is undoubtedly popular and adored by some. There has been a small shift in political realities, and it may be that President Putin will now find it more difficult to amend Russia’s rickety constitution, though given the fact that he has effectively already awarded himself tenure of the Kremlin until 2034, it seems a rather academic point.

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