- Kasyanov says Kremlin driving `hate campaign' against critics
- Activists fear mass fraud in September parliamentary vote
The Kremlin is putting “unprecedented” pressure on opposition activists as President Vladimir Putin prepares for his toughest electoral test amid Russia’s longest recession in two decades, according to his former prime minister.
“The authorities understand that 2016 will be decisive because the economic and political situation is acute,” Mikhail Kasyanov, who was premier from 2000 to 2004 and is now one of Putin’s harshest critics, said in an interview in Moscow. “They are tightening the screws, and if they don’t allow the opposition to engage in politics and compete in elections, all this will soon lead to a revolution.”
Kasyanov said pro-Kremlin activists are hounding him and supporters of his opposition Parnas coalition across the country ahead of parliamentary elections in September. He’s also facing death threats, including an Instagram video posted last month by the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, that showed him in the crosshairs of a scope sight. Kadyrov later added a picture of himself with a sniper rifle.
Russians will go to the polls as they endure a second year of recession after the collapse in oil prices, with incomes falling the most since Putin came to power 16 years ago. Parnas needs to win more than 5 percent of the vote to qualify for a share of 225 seats in the State Duma awarded under party lists. Kasyanov said administrative pressures at a local level make it an uphill fight to try to win any of the 225 individual constituencies that will make up the other half of seats in the parliament.
“The pressure, both physical and psychological, is growing every day,” as the authorities work to ensure the pro-Putin United Russia party retains its majority in the Duma, Kasyanov said. “The campaign of hatred against us is everywhere.”
The vote is the biggest test of the authorities before 2018 presidential elections, when Putin can seek a fourth term. While his personal ratings remain above 80 percent, the government and regional authorities are becoming targets of popular discontent. A January survey by the Levada polling company showed that only 45 percent of Russians believe the country is on the right track, the lowest in two years.
Independent election monitors say a series of draconian laws passed since the start of the year will make it all but impossible to deploy observers to expose ballot-stuffing. Anger at alleged ballot-rigging in 2011 parliamentary elections sparked the largest street protests of Putin’s rule.
“There is a massive attack taking place on civil monitoring of elections,” said Roman Udot, co-chairman of Golos, a Moscow-based vote-observation body. “The authorities seem to be panicking.”
The new measures require observers to accredit for specific polling stations three days before the vote, ruling out random monitoring to check for fraud. The authorities “will be able to work out three days before the elections where they can stuff” the ballots, Kasyanov said.
Yabloko, Russia’s main pro-democracy party together with Parnas, accused the government of tightening the rules to try to head off unrest similar to the 2011 protests. The Communists, the second-largest party in the lower house of parliament, are also critical.
“This has cast doubts over the ability to ensure key electoral standards, which risks far worse -- the voters’ trust in parliament and other elected bodies,” Sergei Obukhov, a senior Communist party official, said by e-mail.
The Central Election Commission said the changes were required to prevent attempts to cast doubt on the validity of the vote. Putin last month ordered the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB, to counter what he said were efforts by unnamed foreign forces to influence the parliamentary elections.
Putin signed a law on Wednesday that classifies motorcades and tent cities as political demonstrations that must receive official approval at least 10 days in advance. In December, truck drivers protested against a new tax for heavy vehicles using federal highways by converging on Moscow and snarling a key route.
United Russia is supported by 65 percent of decided voters who intend to cast their ballot in September, while the Communists are on 16 percent, according to a Levada poll published last month, which also found that 45 percent of respondents were unsure if they would vote. Parnas had less than 1 percent support. Among all those surveyed in the Jan. 22-25 poll of 1,600 people, only 39 percent backed United Russia, down from 44 percent a year earlier.
Government supporters have branded the opposition a “fifth column,” while Kadyrov called Putin’s opponents “enemies of the people” earlier this year. The atmosphere worsened after opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin in February last year. The main suspect, Zaur Dadayev, was deputy head of an elite police unit loyal to Kadyrov, who’s denied any involvement in the killing.
Days after Kadyrov posted his Instagram video, a group of men shouted threats and threw a cake at Kasyanov in a Moscow restaurant. Police declined to treat the attack as a criminal offense while Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, called it “hooliganism” that had nothing to do with the Chechen leader.
“All these threats are part of the logic in the run-up to the elections,” Kasyanov said. “The authorities want to frighten me and our supporters so we stop our political activity, but we won’t reverse course.”