Russia’s parliamentary elections last month for the lower house, the Duma, were a show of force by the authorities against the opposition. The Kremlin’s party, United Russia, was expected to win the lion’s share of the seats. But by labeling the opposition “extremists,” designating independent media outlets and their journalists “foreign agents” or “undesirable,” and hampering opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s online activities at every turn—including by forcing the removal of the Smart Voting apps from online stores operated by Apple and Google—the Russian authorities went beyond what was necessary to accomplish their ends.
Election manipulation far less comprehensive than what was done this year has provoked unrest in Russia before. Following Duma elections in December 2011, allegations of fraud delegitimized United Russia’s victory in the eyes of many in Moscow, leading to mass protests in Russia’s capital.
The Russian authorities have learned that a show of excessive force—not just beating their opponents but humiliating them—can sap their will to resist. Demonstrating disdain toward the opposition succeeds; making concessions does not.
How the Kremlin Got Here
More than two decades ago, relatively early in President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Russian authorities were at a low point. Russia in 1998 was no ideal democracy, but it had a level of political competition that is universes removed from today’s realities. And then president Boris Yeltsin was a decidedly less popular leader than Putin is now. This was a key learning moment for the current leadership, including Putin himself and former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who now serves as first deputy head of Putin’s administration and his chief domestic political troubleshooter.
The Kremlin faced one disaster after another. In August 1998, Russia defaulted on its debt, and Yeltsin dismissed Kiriyenko as prime minister. But dismissing Kiriyenko didn’t help the Kremlin politically because he was a mere scapegoat; he had inherited an insurmountable debt burden.
Next, Yeltsin tried to bring back former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as a conciliatory gesture, only to withdraw his nomination, embarrassingly, when the Duma rejected it. Yeltsin’s subsequent nomination of Yevgeny Primakov to the prime minister post was a concession above all to the Communist Party that Yeltsin hated.
Primakov succeeded where Kiriyenko had failed in convincing the Duma to pass an economic rescue package, stabilizing the situation following Russia’s default and currency devaluation. His demonstrative snub of the United States at the start of the air war in Serbia made him look bold and statesmanlike to many Russians. Most threateningly, from the Kremlin’s viewpoint, Primakov was forging ties to powerful regional leaders like Moscow’s then mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the default, Yeltsin’s Communist opponents in the Duma were crafting a package of charges with which to impeach him. The charges were ambitious and vague, ranging from destroying the Soviet Union to committing genocide against the Russian people. The move nevertheless worried Kremlin leaders, considering their unpopularity.
And that’s when Yeltsin and his inner circle decided in secret to go on the offensive. Just before the impeachment vote in May 1999, Yeltsin preemptively fired Primakov. The less risky choice might have been to wait until after the vote, which was expected to fail. But the Kremlin’s show of force took the air out of the opposition. Votes on all five articles of impeachment were defeated more easily than expected, as some Duma members loudly blamed the chamber’s Communists, rather than Yeltsin, for forcing Primakov’s ouster. The Duma overwhelmingly approved the Kremlin’s choice of a new prime minister. The Kremlin’s rout of its opponents was complete.
Putin’s Learning Curve
The events of those days could not help but leave a lasting impression on Putin, Kiriyenko, and others. The Russian authorities had shifted from playing defense and having to bargain on their opponents’ terms to playing offense and setting the terms themselves.
Putin embraced an offense-first approach as part of his early consolidation of power, from the arrest and dispossession of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky to the concentrated bombing of the rebellious Chechen Republic. Putin’s arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 cowed Russia’s business class to such a degree that he got a fawning ovation from them the next time he addressed them.
Putin has sometimes taken a conciliatory approach, like when he named lawyerly, reform-espousing Dmitry Medvedev as his successor from 2008 to 2012. But he has concluded that every act of clemency has backfired, or nearly so.
He seemed to decide that Medvedev’s entire presidency was a mistake, judging by his rollback of most of Medvedev’s presidential initiatives. Medvedev’s perceived flirtation with the West was a particular sore point for Putin and led to his most public dispute with his successor, when Russia’s abstention on a UN vote in March 2011 cleared the way for NATO to carry out airstrikes in Libya. Putin undoubtedly saw the subsequent overthrow and death of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the war in Libya as a lesson of what happens when one—Medvedev in this case—concedes too much to one’s opponents.
But Putin’s gravest miscalculation, from his point of view, was that Medvedev’s presidency raised hopes among Putin’s domestic opponents. The protests in December 2011 following fraud in the Duma elections probably were less about the fraud itself and more about the fact that Putin had gotten Medvedev to yield the presidency back to him three months earlier. The protesters’ hopes for change had been dashed.
Every act of leniency on Putin’s part—including decisions in 2013 to release Navalny and Khodorkovsky from detention, both of which Putin came to regret—has been a reminder of those earlier lessons: do not give your opponents hope. He and his regime have rededicated themselves to this principle, especially since 2018, when Putin’s government raised the pension age and his sky-high approval ratings dropped back closer to their historical baseline.
Kiriyenko once attributed his government’s dismissal in 1998 to “the weakness of the authorities,” saying, “In a severe crisis the authorities must be strong and act with toughness and very consistently.”1 Kiriyenko made sure not to show any weakness in this year’s Duma election.
Putin’s learning curve suggests he will not ease up on the opposition. Navalny, behind bars for the next two years under his current sentence, is under investigation on new charges that could add another decade to his term. It is hard to envision Putin ever letting him remain in Russia a free man.
What Will the Kremlin Do Next?
The opposition is palpably sensing defeat and deflation. Its members are reeling from the persecution they’ve faced, the Smart Voting campaign’s failure to meaningfully affect the outcome, the absence of major protests, and the perception that they were betrayed by those they had expected to be allies. There has been no groundswell of support for Navalny in Russian society, where his supporters remain passionate but relatively few.
It’s possible that Putin and Kiriyenko are conscious of taking the lesson they learned long ago too far. Kiriyenko, for one, probably is wary of cutting off all avenues of opposition, judging by his promotion of the party, known as New People, which was designed to create an illusion of change. He may envision that New People will co-opt some of the country’s liberal opposition, much as the authorities have co-opted the Communist Party leadership while allowing the party to operate as an opposition platform within tight parameters.
At the first sign that a pseudo-opposition is becoming real, however, expect the Kremlin to act according to Kiriyenko’s recipe: “with toughness and very consistently.”2 Communist Party elements that are protesting election manipulations are finding this out, as the Russian authorities subject them to harassment.
The Kremlin will go to any lengths to remind them, and any other would-be opposition figures, of the lesson it taught them more than twenty years ago: when the regime’s foot is on their throat, it will not ease up.
The author is a paid employee of the U.S. Government and conducted this research under a government-funded fellowship at an external institution. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U.S. Government. This does not constitute an official release of U.S. Government information. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views.
1 Tatyana Kamoza, “Yest’ li zhizn’ posle defolta?” [Is There Life After Default?], interview with Sergei Kiriyenko, Novoye vremya [The New Times], January 24, 1999, accessed through Integrum Worldwide, October 6, 2021.