Was Navalny's Poisoning Business as Usual—Or a Turning Point for Russia? | Opinion

The poisoning of Alexey Navalny seems to confirm any concerned observer's worst suspicions: Vladimir Putin's regime is transforming into a new, more repressive type of dictatorship than before. This transformation is manifest in an intensified wave of repression against opposition politicians and opinion leaders, unprecedented even by modern Russia's own standards, as well as in recently introduced legislation that amounts to worst electoral changes in Russia's recent history. These developments followed the passage of Constitutional amendments in July 2020, which further eliminated formal constraints on Putin's authority and granted him a permission to stay in power for twelve more years. Russia's regime increasingly looks like the de-institutionalized and repressive autocracies of post-Soviet Asia.

Not all autocracies are equal. Some are more institutionalized, others are less. Some implement mass-level repressions, while others rely on isolated selective attacks against dissenters. These differences matter. While the Soviet system may have looked unchangeable and monolithic to an outside observer, the life of Soviet citizens under the successive periods of Stalin's totalitarianism, Khrushchev's "thaw" and Brezhnev's "stagnation" varied radically.

Similarly, over the last twenty years the regime Vladimir Putin built in Russia has passed through several significant transformations. One important milestone was jailing of an oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, which reflected the then-ongoing subordination of oligarchs and seizure of their assets under control of new political elites. Another milestone came in the wake of Putin's return to power in 2012, when his regime shifted from its previous reliance on Russia's middle class (which, in a series of protests, rebelled against Putin's return) to lower classes and adopted more reactionary agenda. This conservative turn was followed by Putin's intervention in Ukraine, his annexation of Crimea and a sharp deterioration in relations with the West.

The constitutional amendments approved on July 1st, 2020 by a popular vote seem to mark yet another important milestone in the evolution of Putin's regime. The amendments, of which the most important one zeroed in Putin's previous presidential terms and allowed him to stay in power for twelve more years, were adopted following the strangest voting procedure in Russia's recent history. The voting was extended to take place over the course of a week (instead of one day) and voters were permitted to cast their ballots outside of polling stations and pretty much anywhere - at-home, open-air sites or their workplaces. This completely eliminated any possibility of independent observers to monitor the voting. As result, Russia's electoral statistician Sergey Shpilkin has identified up to 24 million of possibly falsified votes cast in support of the amendments, making this voting the dirtiest in twenty years of observations.

Formal rules matter somewhat even for autocracies. In a study with Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov we have found that regimes that allow leaders to stay in power longer also have more inferior institutional indicators. The fewer constraints on a supreme leader there are—the worse off the is situation is on political freedoms in a given country. Until recently, Putin's regime at least pretended to respect some constraints on Putin's authority. The new amendments, which allow Putin to stay in power twelve more years (potentially placing him among the longest-ruling non-royal leaders alive) and the procedure under which they were adopted relocate Russia's regime to a group of autocracies with few to no limits to executive authority, comparable only to dictatorship existing in post-Soviet Asia and equatorial Africa. This means that political freedoms in Russia will likely shrink further as well.

In addition, the gross violation of the legal and institutional rules (unprecedented even for Putin regime's own record) with which the constitutional amendments were adopted faced little if any public resistance in Russia. The coronavirus pandemic, which distracted the world's attention and allowed the authorities to ban mass rallies using public health as a pretext also facilitated this overturn. That—along with the de facto permission for Putin to continue in power until 2036—seems to have provided Kremlin elites with a psychological sense of invincibility. If they could get away with that, they could get away with anything.

Today, several months later, Russia appears to be in midst of the strongest wave of repressions in its recent history. The most vivid example is the apparent poisoning of Russia's opposition leader Navalny on August 20—according to German doctors, with Novichok, a substance accessible mainly to a limited circle of Kremlin-linked actors (such as GRU or FSB.) While Navalny has been attacked and injured in the past, putting Novichok in his tea is a huge escalation that could only be intended to kill or incapacitate him. But the attack on Navalny is just one with a series of brutal assaults against other opposition leaders and opinion-makers in Russia. On August 30, a well-known opposition blogger, Yegor Zhukov was severely beaten up in Moscow. The following day, Navalny's colleague at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Georgy Alburov, was also attacked in Russia's Tatarstan region. A criminal investigation launched in July against Russia's opposition activist and a Moscow municipal assembly member, Yuliya Galyamina, can leave her with up to five years in prison—for organizing a peaceful protest. Simultaneously, Russia's Higher School of Economics, the country's leading university and one of the last bastions of free thinking, has launched a series of large-scale dismissals of faculty members known for their vocal opposition-leaning views. Repression against dissenters is nothing new in Russia but it hasn't reached such scale and density in years, maybe even in decades.

In addition, the set of changes to electoral rules passed in May and July 2020 have resulted in the worst electoral regulation in Russia in the last quarter a century. They include multiple new restrictions against independent candidates who wish to run in elections or to become election observers. For example, the amendments, which entered into force on May 23, 2020, banned from running in the elections Russian citizens convicted under several dozen new articles of the Criminal Code, including those convicted for repeated violations of the procedure for holding a protest rally. The electoral changes have also allowed for electronic voting in all future elections, which is introduced on an untested internet platform eliminating any possibility of independent monitoring of the voting procedure. The Central Election Commission has also been granted full discretion in allowing future elections to take place over the course of multiple days instead of one.

Putin's Russia seems to be transitioning into a more repressive type of autocracy that no longer shies away from mass scale repression and intimidation. While all of the above trends have been present in the past, they seem to have dramatically accelerated following the adoption of the constitutional amendments in July. Newly adopted constitutional changes place Russia's regime into a group of de-institutionalized autocracies—with hardly any limits on executive authority and the man who wields it.

Maria Snegovaya is a PPE Postdoctoral Fellow at Virginia Tech University and a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.