20 years under Putin: a timeline

On June 9, at the Atlantic Council headquarters, the Institute of Modern Russia, the Atlantic Council, and Free Russia held a panel discussion on the prospects for Russia’s 2016 parliamentary election. Vladimir Kara-Murza, Pavel Khodorkovsky, John Herbst, Miriam Lanskoy, and Steven Lee Myers discussed the vote, the opposition’s plans, and the international community’s role in ensuring free and fair elections.


Participants in the discussion (left to right): Steven Lee Myers, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Pavel Khodorkovsky, Miriam Lanskoy, and John Herbst. Photo: IMR.


On September 18, 2016, Russia will hold a parliamentary election—its seventh since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since March 2000, not a single nationwide vote in Russia has been assessed by international observers as “free and fair.” The last Duma elections in 2011 were marred by allegations of widespread fraud and prompted the largest street protests under Vladimir Putin’s rule.

What should be expected from the upcoming vote? A panel of experts on Russia gathered at the Atlantic Council headquarters to discuss a wide range of issues related to this question. The panel consisted of Vladimir Kara-Murza, National Coordinator of the Open Russia movement and deputy leader of the People’s Freedom Party; Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the Institute of Modern Russia; Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy; and Ambassador John Herbst, director of Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. Steven Lee Myers, a New York Times correspondent and author of a The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, moderated the discussion.

Steve Myers started off the discussion by pointing out that for many journalists and Russia observers in the West, the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary election is more or less predetermined—the political system is rigged, and the opposition has little chance of winning—yet at the same time, every election held under Putin’s rule has provided information about the ways his system operates; therefore it is important that the West pay attention to this election, as it may learn more about the context of Russian politics.

In his remarks, Vladimir Kara-Murza noted that the election was set for September 18, which is three months earlier than usual. This was done so that “the campaign season would coincide with the vacation season” and thus cause a low turnout, which would “favor the regime.” In light of the campaign, the Kremlin has moved to introduce a number of new draconian laws, one of them being the ban on parties and candidates being endorsed by people who, for various reasons, are not allowed to run themselves. “This whole federal law was passed [to target only] two people—Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexey Navalny,” Kara-Murza said. He also reminded the panel that Russian officials had already made it clear that the observers from the Council of Europe will not be welcome at the elections, in direct contradiction to the country’s membership in this organization. Kara-Murza observed that the situation has deteriorated since the 2011 election, which “was not a high benchmark” in the first place.

He went on to say that under the circumstances, the Russian opposition had been discussing whether to simply boycott this a priori fraudulent election, but despite the cons, has decided that it’s still worth running for three key reasons: first, to take every opportunity to challenge the regime; second, to give a political voice to numerous Russians who want their country to be free and democratic and to provide an alternative vision; and third, to help a new generation of Russian democratic activists gain political experience by participating in the election process as candidates.

Therefore, the goal of the Open Russia movement that Kara-Murza represents as National Coordinator is to support 24 candidates in single-mandate districts across Russia. Anticipating the obvious question—“Why even bother training these young people?”—Kara-Murza told the story of a Soviet pianist named Rudolph Kerer, who was exiled in Kazakhstan without a musical instrument. Because he didn’t want to forget how to play piano, he made himself a wooden plank and played this plank for 13 years before he was able to strike an actual chord. Drawing on this analogy, Kara-Murza concluded that people in the Russian opposition know that one day Putin’s regime will end, and when that time comes, they will be ready.

Speaking next, Miriam Lanskoy wondered why Putin, who enjoys an 86-percent approval rating, is so insecure that he needs to continue clamping down on the opposition. Over the last few years, the Kremlin has undertaken a number of steps to expand its repressive apparatus. Further amendments were made to legislation to expand the definition of “political activity,” and brand more NGOs as “foreign agents,” among other things. Since social media proved crucial to the 2011–2012 protests, the government has launched new initiatives to take control over this part of the Internet. There have also been physical attacks on opposition members, including Mikhail Kasyanov and Alexey Navalny. And in April, on the eve of the election campaign, Putin made the disturbing move to establish a National Guard of Russia, a 400,000-member force that directly responds to Putin’s personal friend Valery Zolotov.

Though Lanskoy called the replacement of former head of the Central Election Committee Vladimir Churov with the more liberal-minded Ella Panfilova “a cosmetic move” signifying that the Kremlin is so confident that it controls every aspect of the electoral process that it feels it can afford to make a small concession, she nonetheless concludes that the Kremlin is terrified of a repeat of the 2011–2012 protests. Today, as the economy deteriorates, people’s discontent is growing. And the biggest vulnerability of the regime is kleptocracy: quoting Levada Center polls, Lanskoy noted that 50 percent of Russians think the president is responsible for corruption and economic mismanagement of the country. She concluded that even if people’s frustration hasn’t yet found a political form, it likely will by 2018.


You can watch the discussion below:


Pavel Khodorkovsky focused on the topic of election observation by international observers, and Russia’s obligations in this context. Earlier this year, Alexey Pushkov, head of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), announced that PACE observers will not be allowed to monitor polling stations during the upcoming elections. (This came as retaliation for PACE’s suspension of the voting rights of the Russian delegation following the annexation of Crimea.) Other Russian officials have made similar statements, making it clear that there will be no PACE observers in Russia this time. Since international observers’ role is to ensure conditions under which people can freely express their opinions and choose the legislature, this unwillingness to invite such observers is a telling sign of the Kremlin’s intentions. 

Khodorkovsky noted that Russia’s membership in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was not affected by the Crimea controversy, and one might therefore expect OSCE observers to be invited. But, though the deadline for issuing an official invitation is June 18, at the time of this writing, Russia had not yet done so. Khodorkovsky argued that since the Russian opposition decided not to boycott the elections, the government should follow suit and not boycott international observation. Whether this happens or not will be known soon enough.

In his turn, John Herbst offered a few thoughts on Russia from Washington’s perspective. First, he addressed the question raised by other panelists: why does Putin need all of these restrictions if his approval rating is so high? According to Herbst, a politician who is polling at over 75 percent is not going to worry about holding a free and fair election. Still, it seems that Putin has reasons to worry, since another poll suggests that the majority of Russians think their country is heading in the wrong direction. Second, Herbst addressed a more basic question: why have elections at all? Especially given the Russian government’s claims that their country is a “distinctive civilization, a Eurasian civilization, different from the corrupt West”? Herbst argued that despite these claims, Vladimir Putin “doesn’t know, ultimately, any other way to legitimize himself to his own population or internationally, and that is why we have all of these problems, all these restrictions… that would prevent an accurate reading of the Russian population from being presented.”

Finally, Herbst returned to the key question raised by Kara-Murza: why are the members of the Russian opposition willing to participate in this kind of election? The reason, Herbst said, is that elections do provide legitimacy, despite the Kremlin’s propaganda: “The parties participate so they can be seen as participating, so they develop experience, and so that after the results come in, on the basis of the best information available regarding the true results, you might have further developments in Russia.”

While the debate on how to deal with Russia continues in the West, Kara-Murza offered a simple solution earlier this June in his testimony at the hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (“Russian Violations of Borders, Treaties, and Human Rights”). When people in the West ask how they can help Russia, the answer should be: “stay true to your values.” Speaking on behalf of the opposition and the Open Russia movement, Kara-Murza said, “We are not asking for support—it is our task to fight for democracy and the rule of law in our country. The only thing we ask from Western leaders is that they stop supporting Mr. Putin by treating him as a respectable partner and by allowing his cronies to use Western countries as havens for their looted wealth.”

The Institute of Modern Russia will continue its engagement with leading European policymakers in June 2016 to highlight the challenges facing independent and opposition candidates at September’s Duma elections. On June 20, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Vadim Prokhorov, a member of the Expert Council of the Russian Central Electoral Commission, will participate in a PACE event in Strasbourg, France. The event is hosted by the EPP/CD Group, the largest caucus in PACE, which brings together national parliamentarians from the Council of Europe’s 47 member states to discuss issues of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

The following day, June 21, Kara-Murza and Prokhorov will be guests of the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, at a briefing to analyze the legal, financial, administrative, and practical barriers to the free and fair participation of independent and opposition candidates in the election. The event will bring together members of the European Parliament, officials, NGO staff, journalists, and diplomats to pinpoint IMR’s concerns about the electoral process and to discuss ways in which the European Union can bring pressure to bear on Russia in the run-up to and during the election.