Welcome to The Week In Russia.
I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk.
Every Friday, I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. Subscribe here.
Russians go to the polls -- and Putin goes into self-isolation. Amid a clampdown that has further narrowed the field and limited the right to representation, voters cast ballots in parliamentary and local elections, while the president retreats after an extensive outbreak of COVID-19 in his administration.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
An Act Of Defiance
A small protest on Red Square this week served as a poignant punctuation mark at the close of a bewildering chapter in Russian politics.
On the cobblestones near Lenin's tomb, under gray skies, four activists unfurled a banner reading: 'Freedom for Navalny! Prison for Putin!"
They were quickly arrested and at least one of them was beaten, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors protests and the police response. A journalist who shot the demonstration on video was also detained and his equipment confiscated.
The simple act of defiance came amid a sweeping clampdown on dissent that has snowballed for months ahead of elections that, as tightly controlled as the Kremlin appears determined to make them, will leave a mark on Russia and help shape its future.
The banner that was swiftly grabbed by three officers on the square at Russia's heart bore two names at the center of the lopsided confrontation between the Kremlin and its opponents: Vladimir Putin, who has been president or prime minister for 22 years and could potentially remain in the top office until 2036, thanks to a constitutional amendment he pushed through last year, and Aleksei Navalny, who has been Putin's most prominent foe for the past decade.
Navalny was barred from challenging Putin in the last presidential election, in 2018. The wide-ranging crackdown on the opposition, civil society, independent journalists, and ordinary Russians who have fallen afoul of the Kremlin seemed to expand and accelerate upon Navalny's return to Russia in January from Germany, where he was treated for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The onslaught seems to have altered the atmosphere in Russia, potentially for years to come. There is no sign that a letup will follow the September 17-19 voting in elections for the State Duma, which is the lower house of parliament, and as well as for the leaders of nine regions around Russia and dozens of provincial and municipal legislatures.
And in the week ahead of the elections, there were several developments that suggested that, for now at least, nothing seems about to change.
Kremlin efforts to control the results of parliamentary elections are certainly nothing new: Over his years in power, Putin's government has used an array of strategies and tactics at all stages of the process -- from keeping challengers off the ballots to election-night antics that alter the vote counts, critics say.
Deny And Coerce
Since the mid-2000s, the state's mechanism for manipulating the results of elections has stood on "four pillars," according to Stanislav Andreichuk, a leader of Golos, an independent vote-monitoring group that has been instrumental in reporting alleged fraud in past votes and is under increasing pressure from the government.
"The first two are the government's control of candidate registration and of media coverage. The third pillar is voter coercion, while the fourth is vote-rigging on election day itself," Andreichuk wrote in a September 13 article. "The balance of these variables [has] differed between election cycles depending on the political situation at hand."
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036