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The Week In Russia: Prisons, Prices, And Putin's 'Brutal Third Act'

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin may have his fieriest foe where he wants him -- in prison. The same cannot be said of several problems dogging the Kremlin months before parliamentary elections, including consumer prices, ruling-party poll numbers, and trust in the Sputnik-V coronavirus vaccine.

Meanwhile, a mounting crackdown is defining Putin's third decade in power, with new Western sanctions underscoring a deepening rift and analysts saying that his primary tool for remaining in power is repression.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Poison And Prison

Aleksei Navalny's return to Russia has already changed the country, and its long-term consequences are unpredictable. But less than two months after he flew to Moscow from Germany following treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin opponent seemed relatively absent from the headlines this week.

That probably suits Putin following a sixth-month period in which the Russian state's conduct toward the Kremlin's most vocal foe raised his profile substantially at home and abroad, sparking large protests across the country in January and leading to new U.S. and EU sanctions against senior officials seen as being involved in his poisoning and imprisonment.

And a series of developments late on Friday, March 12, may have been engineered to promote the impression that Navalny is firmly in the hands of the Russian state: State media reports said he had been moved from a holding center -- which he had been transferred to from a Moscow jail earlier in March -- but they left his relatives and associates in the dark about where he was sent.

But with the election of the lower house of parliament due to be held by September 19, Navalny poses a threat to Putin's grip even from behind bars: His "smart voting" initiative has chipped away at the clout and credibility of United Russia, the Kremlin-controlled political party that is a crucial lever of power for Putin nationwide.

And his increased prominence, as well as the state's sweeping response to the anti-government protests prompted by his arrest, have aggravated discord within some of the "systemic opposition" parties analysts say Putin uses to provide a veneer of plurality without allowing actual democracy -- the Communist Party most of all.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has other things to worry about ahead of the State Duma elections, which will test United Russia and set the stage for 2024, when Putin must decide whether to seek another six-year term -- having handed himself that option by engineering amendments to the constitution last year.

A major concern, judging by a flurry of statements in recent weeks and days, is rising consumer prices. They are certainly a concern for millions of Russians watching prices rise and their purchasing power fall.

A poll conducted in late February by the independent Levada Center found that rising prices were Russians' biggest worry, followed by poverty, corruption, and growing unemployment.

'The Tools Aren't Adequate'

And the government is struggling to keep the price problem under control as the State Duma elections, which must be conducted by September 19, draw closer.

"The tools that have held Putinomics together since 1999 aren't adequate to the task of the current crisis anymore," Nick Birman-Trickett, a London-based expert on economics and politics in Russia and Eurasia, wrote on Twitter on March 11.

He wrote that "two dynamics - fear of inflation amid income stagnation and creeping power of the state within the economy - have now created a situation where price controls have become a vital political necessity to manage this year's elections" and ensure that United Russia maintains a constitutional majority in the 450-seat Duma.

Another obstacle to that goal is the declining popularity of United Russia.

A separate Levada poll showed that support for the party is at its lowest level since before Moscow's forcible takeover of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 gave both Putin and the party a big boost. In the survey, 27 percent of Russians polled said they would vote for United Russia if the Duma elections were held the following Sunday.

Drifting Apart?

The perception of large-scale electoral fraud could do additional damage to the party's reputation and further depress levels of trust among Russians in the ruling apparatus, widening a gap between state and citizens. A third Levada poll found that 75 percent of Russians believe the interests of the authorities and society do not match -- more than at any time since 2007 or earlier.

Pervasive lack of trust in the state is a factor in the sluggish response among citizens to Sputnik V, the Russian COVID-19 vaccine that government approved in August, becoming the first in the world to do so.

So far about 5 million people in Russia have been inoculated -- about five shots per 100 people, compared to 36 in Britain, more than 28 in the United States, and nearly 10 in the European Union, the media outlet Bloomberg reported on March 12.

"Russians are conservative: They don't trust their own state and they don't trust whatever can come out of this state," the BBC quoted Moscow-based analyst Andrei Kortunov as saying in an article published on March 3. The reports cited a Levada poll that found that 30 percent of Russians were willing to take the vaccine -- 8 percent lower than when the shots were first made available.

An elderly woman wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus walks in Moscow's Metro earlier this week.
An elderly woman wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus walks in Moscow's Metro earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Russia's coronavirus toll continues to rise, while most lockdown measures have been lifted as the Kremlin seeks to get the economy going.

The number of excess deaths recorded in Russia since the start of the pandemic reached 394,000 by the end of January, the Moscow Times reported on March 5, citing the state statistics agency. It is one of the highest excess death tolls in the world, the report said, and a 24 percent increase in fatalities compared to the same period the previous year.

'An Autocratic State'

The figures mean that the number of fatalities linked to COVID-19 is far higher than the figure published by the Russian government's coronavirus task force, which reached 91,220 on March 12. But according to The Moscow Times, some researchers contend that the real excess death figure is higher still.

As it is everywhere, the future of the coronavirus crisis in Russia is hard to predict.

But for many observers, the developments surrounding Navalny -- from his poisoning in Siberia in August to the prison term he is now serving -- are both a symptom and a sign of a new phase in the long rule of Putin, who has been president or prime minister of Russia since 1999.

Analysts who predicted a crackdown after the constitution was changed to clear away a limit of two consecutive terms for Putin and Putin alone last July, potentially enabling him to remain president until 2036, appear to have been proved right.

An increasingly strenuous effort to increase Kremlin control over the Internet in Russia -- evidenced by a move to slow Twitter this week -- also seems to fit in.

"In 2021, there are no illusions or euphoria," Andrei Kolesnikov, a Kremlin critic and chief of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program at the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote in a commentary published on March 10, contrasting the atmosphere today with the era of protests in 2011-12. "There is, however, a clear understanding that repression is inevitable, and that the authorities are not prepared to enter into dialogue or to compromise."

"The red line is in the past," Kolesnikov was quoted separately as saying in a March 11 Financial Times article under the headline Putin's Brutal Third Act. "We have already experienced the moment where Putin crossed the line into an autocratic state. It is part of a broader process. And Navalny is just an outcome of that."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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