To call Russia a democracy in 2021 is generous at best; a sarcastic joke at its worst. Under the iron first of Vladimir Putin, who has been romanticised by some for his image of strength and power, Russia has fallen back into an authoritarian government with arguably only a few differences with its predecessor, the USSR, namely the lack of communism and a new mirage of democracy.
The dire situation in the country was made all too clear recently, when opposition leader and critic of Putin, Alexei Navalny, was arrested and subsequently sentenced to three years and a half in prison, following his return to Russia from Germany. There, he fought a battle against the Novichok agent, with which he had been poisoned back in August 2020. This very same poison was used in 2018 in Salisbury against Sergei Skripal – a former spy – and bystanders. This nerve agent, which can be lethal, has been linked in the past to Russian assassination attempts, although the Kremlin denies any involvement with such attacks.
Navalny’s return and the Russian government’s firm response raise some important questions regarding the country. Is it already under an authoritarian regime, or in the path to becoming one? What does the development of such a government mean for Russia and its allies? In what position is the Russian opposition left at, following the arrest of Navalny?
According to the think tank Freedom House, Russia should nowadays be considered a “Consolidated Authoritarian Regime”, with the country scoring a mere 1.39 out of 7 on its Democracy metric. The reasons given for this result are Russia’s state regulation of the Internet, its continued crackdown on protest movements, and its prosecution of the political opposition.
The fact that Russia is ruled by an authoritarian government result in concerns about restrictions of citizens’ freedoms and civil rights. This is particularly evident within collectives such as the LGBTQ+ community, which continues to suffer high levels of hate crime and prosecution against them, as reported by The Moscow Times. For Russia’s allies, however, not much is likely to change; Russia has been seen by other global powers as authoritarian for years already, and therefore no sudden changes should be expected in their relations with nations such as Belarus, China, Kazakhstan, Syria…
Russia’s opposition is in a particularly weak position, although this is nothing new. Putin has managed to utilize the Russian Constitution in its favour for years, bouncing between the roles of President and Prime Minister as he sees fit. Therefore, the best and only option for the Russian opposition is to continue campaigning and exposing the serious issues within the Government, with or without Navalny, in the hope that the world is watching, and that change will eventually come one day.
From the autocratic Tsarist system, to the communist USSR, and the current modern flavour of authoritarianism under Putin, the Russian people seem to not be able to have a break. For Alexey Navalny, his supporters can only hope that his high profile at an international level protects him; although with one poisoning attempt already committed against him, only time will tell if he manages to once again leave prison unscathed. The next Russian Presidential election is four years away, and it might present Navalny a new window of opportunity to bring democracy back into Russia. That is, if he is able to stay safe.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons