It was elaborately staged precisely to try and look unstaged. After a medals ceremony at the Kremlin for Heroes of the Fatherland day, Vladimir Putin joined an oh-so-unchoreographed gaggle of participants. One, Lieutenant Colonel Artem Zhoga, appealed for him to stand for reelection. Although Putin admitted he had had second thoughts, he accepted “that there is no other way” and would indeed be running. This is, it is fair to say, not much of a surprise. Nor will it be a surprise if Putin wins in March. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be upsets along the way.
Rig an election too much and too obviously and this defeats the object, and risks triggering popular protests
There was some sense that Putin may have been toying with stepping down in 2021, even though in a system like Russia’s, where law takes second place to politics, that is always a leap of faith, as it means putting your future and maybe even freedom in the hands of your successor. Ask Kazakhstan’s long-time autocrat, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who thought he had this sorted by hand-picking his successor and giving himself the key job of chair of the powerful security council for life — until his crony turned on him and he was forced “voluntarily” to give up his position and be sidelined.
Ever since the invasion of Ukraine, though, there was no way Putin could risk stepping down, so the only question was when and how he was going to announce his run. Instead of staging a glitzy event for the announcement — he didn’t have to, when the full panoply of state-controlled media would blast the news to every corner — he took this approach with two goals in mind.
First of all, Putin is trying to present himself not simply as the people’s choice, but their servant. He has, in the past, complained of how hard he works for the Russian people, as a virtual “galley slave” — it is clearly tough shuttling from palace to palace and sending men to die in an imperial war — and this is a similar gambit. Aware that there are signs of “Putin fatigue,” his political technologists are trying to portray him as acting from duty, not ambition.
Secondly, the war is not actively popular with most of the electorate, and so Putin is faced with the challenge of being a wartime leader without being able to talk too much about the war. By surrounding himself with soldiers — Heroes of the Russian Federation, at that — he is seeking to invoke the needs of the war by osmosis.
Why does any of this matter? Surely Russian elections are stage-managed frauds, not real democratic processes? Of course — but that doesn’t make them wholly meaningless. They are essentially legitimating rituals, meant to try and persuade the masses that their vote counts and the regime deserves their loyalty and obedience, and make dissenters feel they are in a small minority and better keep quiet. To this end, they matter not for the outcome, but how much effort the political machine needs to put into manufacturing the planned result.
Rig it too much and too obviously and this defeats the object and risks — as happened in 2011/12 — triggering popular protests. The Russian presidential administration apparently plans an overwhelming win with 75-80 percent of the vote on a 70 percent turnout, to give a sense that the nation is united behind both Putin and his war. Avoiding protests will be a huge challenge.
To this end, there will be considerable efforts to “pre-rig” the vote as far as possible. Favorable constituencies such as pensioners and factory workers can expect to be bought off. The minimum wage is already going up in January, and we can expect other sectors to get promises and maybe even real payoffs, all at the cost of an overstretched federal budget already supporting 30 percent defense spending.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, will try to neutralize hostile constituencies. While the liberal opposition leadership is exiled or imprisoned, there is still life in the opposition, with Alexei Navalny’s team pushing an “anyone but Putin” campaign. This may acquire greater significance as a nationalist “turbo-patriot” opposition also emerges, with outspoken Kremlin critic (and likely war criminal) Igor Girkin, also in prison, campaigning to get on the ballot — already with unexpected support from the leftist Red Front.
Of course, it is unlikely any genuine opposition candidates will get on the ballot — another way of managing the result is to make the others standing even more unattractive than Putin. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov will be standing, even though his brand of paleo-Marxism doesn’t appeal to many in his own party. Caricature nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky used to be a fixture to make Putin look statesmanlike, but he died last year and while his successor at the head of the LDPR, Leonid Slutsky, has suitably unpleasant views, he’s no showman. The real question will be who they can dredge up to be the token liberal and whether anyone with any even limited credibility will be willing to play this compromised role.
Above all, elections are inherently destabilizing, even sham ones. There has to be some kind of disagreement and debate, even if scripted, and this can create space for more discussion. The war, growing authoritarianism, the scope for civil society, environmental worries, economic dislocation: all of these will creep into the discussion, even if cautiously and often coded. So while the outcome is a given, the process is worth watching.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.