MOSCOW -- After a year that saw a historic crackdown on the opposition and with President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party floundering in the polls, observers in Central Asia are watching as authorities are doing what they can to drum up interest in parliamentary elections taking place Friday-Sunday (September 17-19).
Signs around Moscow are touting "a million prizes" -- cash handouts, apartments, cars and gift certificates -- for voters who cast electronic ballots in the election, which looks set to hand United Russia another majority despite its unpopularity.
With top Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny in jail and other opponents sidelined, critics say the vote is little more than a rubber-stamping of Putin's allies.
Campaigning has been lacklustre, with debates consigned to late-night television slots and many voters in Moscow showing little enthusiasm.
"We have no real choice; we all know it, and we all see it," said Grigory Matveyev, a 29-year-old theatre lighting technician.
"I've been many times [to vote], but it's nothing but a farce."
The vote will see lawmakers elected to the 450-member lower house State Duma, where United Russia holds 334 seats, and to several local legislatures.
The loyalist "A Just Russia" party as well as the Communists and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) -- token opposition parties that tend not to criticise Putin -- hold nearly all the other seats.
'This is not an election'
Russians' living standards have dropped steadily over the last decade and were hit again by a pandemic-induced economic downturn -- a slump that has made the plight of Central Asian migrants in Russia even worse.
In June the Kremlin required a new "loyalty" agreement, the latest among a series of increasingly demanding restrictions on migrants.
Another parliamentary victory for Putin's United Russia is likely to lead to even more hard times for Central Asians seeking work in Russia, observers say.
Disposable incomes in Russia are down 10% since 2013, and prices are on the rise, with inflation hitting 6.7% in August.
Dogged by allegations of corruption -- Navalny has dubbed it the "Party of Crooks and Thieves" -- United Russia has become a favourite target of frustrations.
Recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30% of Russians planning to vote for the party, down from 40-45% in the weeks ahead of the last parliamentary election in 2016.
But United Russia is widely expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the Duma, enough to change the constitution as it did last year with reforms allowing Putin to extend his rule to 2036. If he lives that long, he will turn 84 that year.
For Leonid Volkov, a key aide to Navalny, the reason is simple: "This is not an election."
"They excluded anyone from the race; they made it impossible for other candidates to participate... it is not a competitive election, by design," Volkov, who lives in exile, told AFP.
Silencing political 'extremists'
The year leading up to the vote has been one of the most repressive of Putin's two-decade rule.
After being poisoned in August 2020 with the nerve agent Novichok, Navalny returned from treatment in Germany in January and was promptly arrested, then jailed for more than two years.
On the first anniversary of the near-fatal poisoning last month, Britain and the United States sanctioned several Russian officials and entities.
In June, his network of organisations was banned as "extremist", many of his allies were arrested and several aides fled the country.
The designation of Navalny's regional offices and of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) as "extremist" struck many Central Asian observers as politically motivated.
The court's ruling was "completely absurd", Arat Narmanbetov, a retired National Security Committee (KNB) officer in Almaty, said at the time.
After an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Navalny with Novichok, the Kremlin is now pursuing his organisations that fight corruption in the country, he said.
By designating the FBK as "extremist", Russia's prosecutor-general has equated it with the "Islamic State" (IS), which Narmanbetov described as "true extremists, inveterate head choppers".
The Moscow court's decision was politically motivated, said Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an Uzbek political analyst in France, also in June.
"An FBK information campaign, which Navalny led, drastically undermined Russians' trust in Vladimir Putin," he said, noting in particular a YouTube report on Putin's alleged "bribery palace" on the Black Sea coast.
Authorities have also stepped up pressure on independent media.
Leading independent media outlets including the Meduza news website and the Dozhd TV channel have been designated "foreign agents", while investigative outlet Proekt was declared an "undesirable organisation".
'Smart Voting' tactic
The crackdown came after pro-Putin parties suffered losses in local elections because of a "Smart Voting" plan put forward by Navalny after his allies were barred from standing in numerous races.
The tactic calls for voters to support the one candidate likeliest to defeat the ruling party and saw Kremlin-linked candidates lose seats in the Moscow assembly in 2019.
Navalny's team is calling for voters to do the same this year, but many alternative candidates have been barred from running, and the website set up to promote the campaign has been blocked.
"The Kremlin fights against Smart Voting like hell because they have measured the possible impact... and they are very aware that it could be huge," Volkov said.
Putin -- whose popularity remains high with approval ratings of 60–65% -- has looked to boost United Russia's chances, ordering cash handouts of 10,000 RUB ($137) to retirees and 15,000 RUB ($205) to police and soldiers ahead of the vote.
The payments come as Russian authorities have struggled to curb soaring inflation, with Putin ordering his government several times since late 2020 to take measures to bring prices under control.