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Commentary: Any Vote Is A Vote For Putinism

Garry Kasparov is a Russian politician, a former world chess champion, and head of the Human Rights Foundation international NGO.
Garry Kasparov is a Russian politician, a former world chess champion, and head of the Human Rights Foundation international NGO.

There are less than two weeks remaining before Russia holds its so-called legislative elections. But we can already draw conclusions about what is going on. We can see that it is not only pointless, but even harmful, for the opposition to participate in the "voting" if its goal is to oppose the regime of President Vladimir Putin.

It has long been commonplace to say the process that is called "elections" in Russia does not play any role in determining matters of political power. Rather it is an imitative mechanism intended to give the appearance of legitimacy to the regime.

Nonetheless, again and again, politicians claiming to be in opposition try to participate, either not understanding or pretending not to understand that by doing so they are playing into the Kremlin's hands, willingly or not. They are helping it draw Russian citizens into a political process with predetermined results. And by doing so, they become parasites on the understandable human desire of society to believe in the possibility of nonviolent change.

The problem, however, is that Russia long ago passed the point of no return after which change without upheaval (that is, through the ballot) is impossible. In addition, the longer the regime's agony continues, the more profound the upheavals will be for Russia.

By arguing that it is important to participate in the elections, these "oppositionists" are cultivating false hopes in society, which then become an obstacle to any change in principle.

The arguments used to justify participating in these electoral games entirely ignore current political reality and, in particular, the changes that have occurred in the last few years.

It must be recognized that the Putin regime has nearly completed the transformation from a so-called hybrid regime to full-fledged totalitarianism. I know this statement might be received skeptically, since the term "totalitarianism" is normally associated with mass repressions. However, in practice, the distinguishing characteristic of a totalitarian regime is the intention of the authorities to control both the actions and the thoughts of their citizens.

In order to see that totalitarianism is already a harsh reality in Russia, all you have to do is look at the statistics on the criminal prosecutions for "thought crimes," such as posting or "liking" things on social media. Or consider the intensity of the brainwashing being done by the propaganda machine.

Using elections as a means of political struggle in a totalitarian regime is -- by definition -- impossible.

Even in those cases when the system does not create a reason to filter out a genuine oppositionist from the beginning, more radical methods can be applied later. Just remember the examples of legislators Gennady Gudkov, Ilya Ponomaryov, and Lyov Shlosberg, who were deprived of their mandates, or the tragic fate of Yaroslavl Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov, who was sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison on bribery charges supporters say were politically motivated. These cases show clearly the utter senselessness of talking about "changing the system from within."

The Legalization Of Theft

We must understand the international significance of these elections. For the first time in modern Russian history, federal elections will be carried out on annexed territory: Crimea and the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which were annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin is trying to use these elections as a tool to legitimize this annexation.

There is a simple logic at work here: Recognizing the elections as legitimate means recognizing their legitimacy across all territories where they are held. And recognizing their legitimacy in Crimea and Sevastopol means recognizing these territories as part of the Russian Federation.

That is why it is extremely important for the international community to refuse to recognize the results of these elections. Participating in the election procedures is the same as participating in the legalization of this theft. Getting a few opposition deputies into the Duma (which can only happen with the blessing of the authorities) would only make this situation worse, since it would enable the Kremlin to use these powerless "opposition" deputies internationally as a pseudo-democratic facade behind which hides the totalitarian essence of the regime.

The Russian authorities -- using repression and manipulation -- have liquidated virtually all internal threats, so practically the only remaining means of changing the situation is pressure from the outside. International sanctions introduced against Russia as a whole as well as against many individuals and organizations playing key roles in the Putinist system are now extremely important. We must remember that the anti-Putin sanctions were not introduced or extended by themselves, but are the result of serious, systematic work with officials and public opinion in the West. And this work must be done over the colossal opposition of numerous pro-Putin lobbyists.

Politics Abroad

The Kremlin understands that the decisive struggle upon which the survival of the regime depends is being conducted in the West. Putin and his inner circle have studied the lessons of history. One of the main ones is that when dictatorial regimes suffer a major international defeat (not necessarily military), it almost always leads to the collapse of the regime itself.

That is why the Kremlin has thrown all its material and political resources into the struggle to lift the existing sanctions and to block any new, harsher ones. Putin appointed Ella Pamfilova (formerly a cabinet minister under President Boris Yeltsin and a liberal member of the Duma) to head the Central Election Commission not in order to affect the results of the elections but to augment the political arsenal of Putin's agents in the West.

The imitation of democratic processes in Russia aims to increase the respectability of the regime abroad. Those Russians who have no idea about this international confrontation and who go into the elections with the argument that "we have to at least do something" are giving a priceless gift to the Kremlin and its agents in the West.

At this moment, it is difficult to give a precise formula for bringing about the liquidation of the Putinist regime in the foreseeable future. But for a start it is essential, at the very least, to refrain from any actions that strengthen that regime.

Garry Kasparov is a Russian politician, a former world chess champion, and head of the Human Rights Foundation international NGO. The views expressed in this commentary, which he wrote for RFE/RL's Russian Service, do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL. Translated from the Russian by Robert Coalson