Despite a little eleventh-hour drama, Boris Nadezhdin’s bid to become the only genuine opposition candidate in March’s Russian elections has been blocked. What’s interesting is not that he was barred, but what this whole process says about the evolution of “late Putinism.”
Once, after all, it was marked both by a — limited but real — degree of genuine pluralism, especially at a local level, and also dramaturgia, a theatrical facsimile of genuine democratic politics. The elections were stage-managed, of course, and the so-called “systemic opposition” knew that their job was to put on a show rather than actually challenge the regime. Nonetheless, the showrunners appreciated the importance of spectacle, both to attract the punters and to convince them that this was real.
Nadezhdin is defiant and is appealing to the country’s supreme court
To this end, in the 2018 presidential elections, socialite TV personality Ksenia Sobchak ran as a notional liberal candidate, even though even she admitted that “in a system created by Putin, it is only possible for Putin to win.” She subsequently let slip that she had discussed her campaign with Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy head of the presidential administration and in effect Putin’s political manager, contributing to the widespread assumption that she had really been put on the ballot as a spoiler. The underwhelming 2 percent of the vote she got was advanced by the Kremlin as “proof” that the Russian people were happy with the status quo.
Hence the reason why so many were skeptical when a lesser-known opposition politician, Boris Nadezhdin, put himself forward for the presidency this time, assuming he was another “Kremlin project” there to legitimize the poll, boost the turnout (a key objective of Kiriyenko’s team) avoid making too many waves, and duly go down to ignominious defeat. After all, while Nadezhdin has a lengthy pedigree as a liberal politician, he had never been in the top rank, which may explain why he is not in exile, prison or a coffin. Nadezhdin had also shown the knack of being able to tread a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable opposition. He let himself be the political piñata in shouty political talk shows where he was the token liberal. He criticized the war, but in pragmatic rather than moral terms. He committed himself to change at the top of the system, but refrained from criticizing Putin personally.
He probably had had some conversations with Kiriyenko or his people, just to feel out whether his candidacy would be blocked at the first stage, but it has become clear that he was no “Kremlin project.” Once in the early campaign to get registered on the ballot, he became increasingly outspoken and organized. Crucially, it became about much more than Nadezhdin himself. People who had little idea who he was, let alone what his political program might be, flocked to the offices set up around the country to collect the 100,000 signatures an independent candidate like him needed to get on the ballot.
This highlights the chief nightmare of the regime: the “coalition of the fed-up.” Russians have all sorts of reasons to be disenchanted with the status quo. Corruption, worsening standards of public services, heating interruptions in the middle of winter, a non-unjustified sense that Moscow prospers on the backs of the regions, inter-ethnic tensions, and perhaps most immediate of all, fear of new mobilizations for the war. However, they are also atomized, without any leaders or movements able to articulate their concerns and bring different constituencies together. It was precisely when opposition leader Alexei Navalny began creating a national movement to do just this, that he became dangerous and had to be neutralized.
What Navalny set out to do, Nadezhdin’s candidacy looked as if it might achieve by accident. Suddenly, a Kremlin that had at first looked amused and indulgent towards him, perhaps contemplating letting him run only demonstratively to bury him in the election, saw the risks. In that context, it seems inevitable that he was going to be blocked by the Central Electoral Commission (TsIK) rather than being allowed to be on the final ballot — and thus acquire a national platform.
On Monday, TsIK announced that 15 percent of the 100,000 signatures submitted would be ruled out on various grounds. Nadezhdin was eventually allowed an extra day for his team to respond, but today the TsIK said that 9,147 signatures were still invalid, well over the 5 percent permissible error rate, so that it was disqualifying him.
Late Putinism increasingly resembles Brezhnev’s Soviet Union
Nadezhdin is defiant and is appealing to the country’s supreme court. The court is as much in the Kremlin’s hands as the TsIK, though, so unless Kiriyenko, like a TV series showrunner desperate to perk up ratings, is planning some particularly audacious twist in the tail, then his campaign is over. Quite what happens to Nadezhdin may well depend on whether he follows through with his threat to stage protests in cities across Russia.
Once, Russian politics was precisely staged like a soap opera for maximum dramaturgia, but these were in times when Putin felt more comfortable with risk. The very insecurities of the Kremlin are evident in the way the slate is now composed purely of house-trained pygmies there to try and make Putin look good and say nothing of substance.
Elections in late Putinism are, just as in Soviet times, rituals of civic duty, not about the people choosing their leader, but expressing their submission instead. Once, new terms like “hybrid authoritarianism” were coined for Putin’s system, but there’s precious little “hybridity” now, as late Putinism increasingly comes to resemble Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, albeit with a personality cult replacing the party.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.