Russia’s presidential election: should we pay attention?Sixty-four candidates have applied for registration to the March 2018 presidential elections in the Russian Federation. Many names are familiar, such as Liberal Democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky (now 71) and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky (65), but others are new, including the nominee of the official Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin and socialite Ksenia Sobchak, well known as a TV star and the daughter of the late former mayor of St. Petersburg and mentor of current president Vladimir Putin, Anatoly Sobchak.

Most analysts concur that the final results of the election are not in doubt. Vladimir Putin has already served three terms as president, 2000-2004, 2004-2008, and 2012 to the present, with the six-year tenure of the current term attained by changes to the Russian Constitution. In 2008-12 Putin served as Prime Minister with his close ally Dmitry Medvedev taking over as president. The most viable political opponent of Putin, 41-year old Alexei Navalny, has been banned from running because of a criminal conviction that many see as fabricated. Subsequently Navalny has called for a boycott of the election.

On June 18, Russia will host the World Cup, kicking off the campaign with a match against Saudi Arabia. It is likely to be the most-watched sporting event in history and Putin is scheduled to host an array of foreign dignitaries. That he will do so, barring some act of God, is not in doubt.

Still there are at least two areas in which uncertainty lies: the first is the turnout, which is expected to be less than the desired 70%, a result of a perceived foregone conclusion and voter apathy; and the second the choice of Prime Minister. The credibility of Medvedev was reduced sharply after Navalny produced a video highlighting the Prime Minister’s corrupt activities, focusing on his expensive running shoes among other parts of his lavish lifestyle.

There has also been much debate on the motives of Sobchak because of her close family ties to Putin and the fact that she refuses to mention Putin’s name in her critiques of the government. Navalny in particular, perceives her as someone advanced with the collusion of the authorities to make the elections appear more legitimate and to increase voter turnout. On the other hand, she played an active role in the demonstrations around the 2011 parliamentary elections, has called for the return of Crimea to Ukraine, and denounced what she perceives as ‘artificial patriotism’ in present-day Russia. While she supported Putin in his early elections, she did not vote for him in 2012.

Interestingly, while Russia has played a very active role outside its own borders in recent years, especially in Ukraine and Syria, it has of late adopted more moderate stances, facilitating the exchange of prisoners in the Donbas in late December and withdrawing the bulk of its troops from Syria. In the latter country its main role has been to buttress unpopular president Bashar al-Assad and to conduct destructive bombing raids against his opponents.

The West also figures prominently as the archenemy in official propaganda. One can date this antagonism to a number of factors: NATO expansion into Poland (1999) and the Baltic States (2004), the formation of Kosovo, the 2008 war in Georgia, and to the belief that the United States in particular sponsored the color revolutions that brought pro-Western leaderships in Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Ukraine between 1998 and 2005.

Russia sees Western sanctions imposed after events in Ukraine as vindictive and unfair and has some support for this attitude in Europe, where leaders and business communities would like to return to former trading links. It has pursued a policy to subvert what it perceives as a global monopoly of power by the United States and its Allies and to besmirch democracy in all ways possible. Putin is at the very least the leading symbol of this move. The Russian leadership welcomed the advent of Donald Trump as U.S. president because it weakened Western unity and created potential for Russian approaches to hitherto reliable U.S. partners in various parts of the world.

Putin’s decision to annex Crimea in spring 2014 remains a major stumbling block to better relations with the West. Within Russia, it was a popular move and even Sobchak is careful to say that she would return it to Ukraine only after the broadest possible referendum. While his abandonment of rebel quasi governments in eastern Ukraine seems feasible—the area is a further burden on the Russian economy—the relinquishment of Crimea would undermine the president’s support.

Putin’s currently popularity (late 2017) stands at 83%, but as Maxim Trodolyubov pointed out in a recent article for The Guardian, Russians lack a comparator, since the Russian public for the past two decades has never been presented with a serious alternative to Putin. His control over much of Russian finance, media, security forces, and army is a decisive factor, in addition to a formidable propaganda machine that depicts him in various heroic or patriotic modes. Even the economy has recovered from its decline of 2009-15 with GDP growing more than 2% over the past two years.

Putin’s authority over the past term has appeared so complete that it is easy to see him not only as unassailable but also as being responsible for every threat posed by his country to neighbours. Russia further seems more entrenched than ever as an authoritarian, even revanchist state, clinging to old values alongside a conservative Orthodox Church linked closely to the government. It appears bent on regaining its past glory, and follows a leader who has already exceeded his Soviet predecessor Leonid Brezhnev for time in office and without succumbing to the same sort of physical frailties.

There is nothing unique about his longevity in power. In Kazakhstan, for example, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in office almost 28 years; and in Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka came to power nearly 24 years ago. By comparison, Putin’s 18 years that will likely extend to 24 may not seem excessive but one can hardly expect younger Russians to be particularly enthusiastic about a familiar charade and the same face on TV screens and social media.

 

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