Russians in a number of regions go the polls on Sunday to elect governors, mayors and provincial legislatures in what was once seen as a critical test for the opposition. Its leaders had hoped at least some victories would provide a political foothold to harness the public displeasure with Vladimir Putin’s return as president that prompted mass protests in December. That’s not going to happen thanks to a campaign by the authorities to strong-arm, cajole and undermine opposition candidates that has forced them back into the political margin. One of the candidates became a prominent opposition leader by launching a movement to stop the felling of parkland trees outside Moscow to make way for a highway. Now running for mayor of her suburb, Yevgenia Chirikova says she is the victim of a plot to stop her from winning. The 35-year-old businesswoman is running third, behind the incumbent and a heavy metal rocker with Kremlin ties who says he would cut down the forest because it’s “dirty.” He’s accused the United States of bankrolling the opposition, a common claim by officials. While it’s undeniable that the protests reflected a change among many who were frustrated and humiliated by the Kremlin’s authoritarianism, they didn’t mean the country had irrevocably changed. Making bold proclamations to that effect is the opposition’s job. Others would be well-advised to heed an unchanging pattern in Putin’s governance since his rise to power a dozen years ago.
The president has systematically consolidated his power from the very beginning through trial and error. In the first years of his rule, he undertook to neutralize rivals by exiling business oligarchs, shutting down television channels and watering down governors’ vast political powers. The process was taken step-by-step, each move made after judging the reaction to previous incremental advances. Today is no different. After having appeared to embolden his critics during his spring re-election campaign with apparent concessions such as allowing Russians some direct participation in this week’s elections, Putin began cracking down again even before he was sworn in for a third term last May. Police have hounded opposition leaders by searching their homes and threatening lawsuits, courts have put protesters on trial and parliament has enacted legislation to further limit free speech by enabling the authorities to shut down internet sites and forcing civil society groups receiving foreign funding to declare themselves foreign agents.