The Kremlin, the Moskva river with the Greater Stone Bridge and the State Duma building in Moscow at night.

"The future Duma could take a softer direction"

Vladimir Putin's party "United Russia" is set to remain the dominating political force in the Russian parliamentary elections on Sunday. And yet, there could be new critical voices within the future State Duma. This is what the journalist Konstantin Benyumov expects from the election in his country.

Konstantin Benyumov is Chief Editor for Meduza English. Meduza, a Russian-language internet newspaper based in Riga, Latvia, was founded in October 2014 by Galina Timchenko, former chief editor of Russian internet paper Shortly before, she had been unexpectedly removed from her post by the website's owner, the oligarch and friend of President Putin, Alexander Mamut. Nearly 70 colleagues of then collectively resigned from their posts; among the 20 who followed Timchenko to Riga to work for Meduza, was also Konstantin Benyumov.

Benyumov has been an alumnus of the Young Leaders for Europe network since 2015; the network is part of a joint project by Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Heinz Nixdorf Stiftung. He was interviewed by Gabriele Schöler, the Bertelsmann Stiftung's expert for Eastern Europe.

On 18 September, parliamentary elections will take place in Russia. Any surprises to expect?

Konstantin Benyumov: Probably not. The ruling United Russia party has been showing a decline in ratings in some independent polls, which is unusual, but there have already been sufficient indications that it will resort to trusted techniques to make sure the poll results do not become election results.

On the other hand, there's been a lot of talk that the party would be transformed for the next parliamentary cycle, perhaps toning down its current rhetoric a little bit. Some members of Russia's 'non-parliamentary' opposition, such as Maria Baronova, a coordinator for Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia, have been allowed to take part in the elections as well. I do not expect opposition figures to get too much influence, but it could be an indication of a new, softer direction for the future Duma.

The last elections in December 2011 were followed by thousands of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg demonstrating against the result and the ruling party "United Russia", which supports President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Since then, we have seen Russia annexing Crimea and supporting the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russian economy plummeting under the impact of a recession due more to falling oil prices but also to western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions over Crimea. Yet support for Putin has never been higher if we believe recent surveys. Why is that so despite all hardships?

Unfortunately, there are no real ways to evaluate Vladimir Putin's current ratings. There are very few independent polling institutes still functioning in Russia.

However, it's safe to say that the government has been widely successful in rallying popular support. The annexation of Crimea has proved immensely popular with various groups, from nationalists to communists, including those who were fierce opponents of Putin in the past.

Economic sanctions, and Russia's response to them, while certainly felt by the population, have not weakened this support. Moreover, the authorities have had an easier time explaining economic failures since the sanctions, effectively blaming the West for them, even though oil prices have played a far more crucial role in the current economic crisis in Russia.

There are many active and vocal critics of Putin's rule in Russia, or at least of the course it has taken since 2014, but the predominant sentiment today is that of support.

Konstantin Benyumov (Photo: Evgenia Nikolaeva)

The renowned and, for the western audience, most reliable polling institute, the Levada-Center, has just been declared a "foreign agent" under the so-called foreign agents law that requires Russian non-profit organizations receiving foreign donations and engaging in "political activity" to register and declare themselves as foreign agents. This will make Levada continue its work more or less impossible. Has this been acknowledged and accepted by the Russian public at all, and if yes, how?

This is a very sad development, indeed. Levada-Center is only one of many organizations which are seeing their work destroyed or made increasingly difficult by the 'foreign agents' law. There have been so many, in fact, that I can't help but feel that the society has become oblivious to the process — even charity organizations are being routinely labeled foreign agents, and the definition of 'political activity' is dangerously broad.

It's also interesting that the decision came days after the recent poll that showed the decline of United Russia's ratings, even though this is probably purely coincidental. Levada-Center has said it would try to have its foreign agent status lifted, but there's no way of knowing right now if they manage to succeed.

Given that, though reluctantly, President Putin has succumbed to western urges at the G20 summit to take up new talks about fulfilling the Minsk agreement between Russia and Ukraine in the short run, do you see any glimpse of light at the currently rather dark end of the tunnel of relations between Russia and Ukraine, in particular, and Russia and the West, in more general terms?

Personally I think that Russia's relations with the West might prove easier to repair than those with Ukraine. But in any case, the Minsk agreement should be the first step.