MOSCOW -- Few doubt that the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin is worried about the September 17-19 elections to the State Duma, Russia's lower chamber of parliament.
With the ruling United Russia party's support hovering below 30 percent nationally and around 15 percent in Moscow and with Putin's personal popularity rating also in decline, securing a constitutional two-thirds majority in the new legislature could be a tall order.
"They face a difficult task," said Maria Snegovaya, a political analyst with Georgetown University, "despite any possible falsifications -- because you simply can't falsify everything."
But observers say the ongoing crackdown across Russia seems far more sweeping than merely controlling the elections would demand. It has targeted historians and other academics. It has targeted artists and theaters. It has targeted lawyers and investigative journalists whose work has little direct relation to the upcoming vote.
"I wouldn't say this repressive cycle is going to end after the elections," Snegovaya added. "The reason for it is not merely in the elections, even though the Kremlin fears it will not get the necessary results. It is in the nature of the regime itself -- it is transforming into a much more repressive dictatorship."
The elections, though, have appeared to be at the center of the government's attention. For months, officials across the country have worked to sideline virtually all of the most promising independent and opposition would-be candidates, particularly targeting those who won local-council seats in elections over the last three years.
In addition, the authorities have revised the country's election laws at least 19 times since the last elections, according to the Golos election-monitoring NGO.
"This is a mind-blowing figure," Snegovaya told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "We have never seen anything like it before, even taking into account that our previous elections could hardly be called free and honest. But that wasn't enough for the Kremlin. They introduced three days of voting, which increases the opportunities for falsification. They brought in electronic voting, which is completely opaque. And now they have been removing any candidates who have even minimal popularity."
In The Authorities' Crosshairs
Nonetheless, many of the government's efforts seem to have little or no connection to the upcoming vote. For instance, the security agencies seem to have focused much of their attention on organizations and individuals that have worked to expose the historical crimes and present-day excesses of those agencies themselves. Karelian historian Yury Dmitriyev, who has specialized in documenting Stalin-era mass graves in his region, has been in the authorities' crosshairs for years.
The St. Petersburg-based legal-defense organization Komanda 29 shut itself down last month after what its lawyers called "a planned assault on many fronts" by security agencies, in part because of the group's work at trying to open up Federal Security Service (FSB) archives and to prevent prosecutors from abusing espionage and secrecy laws for political ends.
The government last week shut down the websites of the Dosye (Dossier) investigative-journalism project and Gulagu.net, which reports on allegations of torture and abuse in prisons and pretrial detention facilities.
"It is about a report on the illegal activity of the FSB," said Maksim Dbar, spokesman for former oil tycoon, now exiled Putin opponent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. "This is a large document of several hundred pages…. The illegal activities of the security services are the focus of our attention. I'm talking about the FSB, the GRU [military intelligence service], and the SVR [foreign intelligence service]. We have a lot of material on these topics."
The regime is being reborn in a harsher form, and the masks have been thrown aside."Maria Snegovaya
Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin, who left Russia under pressure from the authorities in 2015 and continues to run the project from abroad, told RFE/RL that the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) has targeted his project for many years, particularly since he left Russia.
"The longer that I was in relative safety and worked with less interference from the Russian authorities, the more information was sent my way," he said. "Not only from relatives of prisoners and former and current inmates, but we started getting information from active employees of FSIN, the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, and prosecutors' offices. A lot of people who are working inside the system but don't agree with its repressive policies. Particularly in the last year we were overwhelmed by an enormous flood of information, even getting access to video archives of several regional FSIN offices."
Snegovaya said Putin’s government no longer feels it is necessary to maintain a veneer of democracy to get along with the West.
"The international community is not in a position to respond appropriately to the Russian government over its behavior," she said. "Even after the monstrous poisoning of [opposition politician Aleksei] Navalny, there was no appropriate response. There weren't even significantly severe sanctions. The regime is being reborn in a harsher form, and the masks have been thrown aside."
'Not Holding Back Anymore'
At the same time, she added, many inside the government -- possibly including even Putin himself -- genuinely believe that an undeclared "hybrid" war is being waged between Russia and the West and that a fifth column of "foreign agents" is threatening their security through theaters, the schools, the media, and so on.
Russia is ruled by "a specific type of people who have preserved the Soviet idea that the West is a threat to them and that it is trying by any means possible to harm them," she asserted.
One of the key figures in Putin's inner circle who fits this description is Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev, a former KGB officer who "Putin trusts as much as he trusts anyone," said Moscow-based political analyst Valery Solovei.
"Patrushev formulates a strategy and presents that strategy to the president, who confirms it," he told RFE/RL. "And the essence of that strategy is extremely simple – it is clear that the main thing is not to allow any threats to the regime."
The Kremlin, Snegovaya said, is certainly looking beyond the September elections to the Duma to the end of Putin's current term in 2024.
"By all accounts, when the constitution was amended in 2020, it was decided that Putin will remain in power for life," Snegovaya told RFE/RL. "From that, conclusions were drawn. Events in Belarus and the need to win the [Duma] elections at all costs have also played a role."
"It has been decided not to hold anything back anymore, as they had done in the past," she concluded.