Putin

In A Whirlwind Of War And Repression, Putin Set To Secure Six More Years In Power

March 15, 2024
8 mins read

The backdrop for Russia’s election is grim: The war against Ukraine grinds on, the relentless repression of dissent has moved political debate from the campaign trail to the courtroom, and President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent is dead.

Putin, who has been president or prime minister for nearly 25 years, is set to prolong his rule by securing a new six-year term in a tightly controlled March 15-17 election whose outcome, with the Kremlin holding levers of power nationwide, is not in doubt.

The election — in which Putin, 71, is running against three token candidates who barely campaigned and whose positions are indistinguishable from the incumbent’s — is being held in the shadows of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now in its third year, and the suspicious death of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in an isolated Arctic prison on February 16.

Although the result is predictable, the election is nonetheless a portentous one for Russia. The Kremlin is seeking to turn it into a convincing demonstration of national unity behind Putin and his chief policies: war in Ukraine, repression at home, and confrontation with the West. The country’s beleaguered opposition, mostly relegated to prison or exile, wants to make its presence felt and show that a significant portion of the Russian public opposes the country’s descent into authoritarianism and militarization.

“It’s a plebiscite about Putin, and even more so it’s a plebiscite about the war,” said Sergei Medvedev, a Russian historian who teaches at Charles University in Prague and a contributor to RFE/RL. “Putin wants a resounding endorsement of his war with Ukraine, with the West, and basically a world war to remake the world order.”

Russian political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky describes the election as “a special operation to reappoint Vladimir Putin,” a reference to the Kremlin’s insistence that the war against Ukraine be euphemistically termed a “special military operation.”

“There is no way you can call this an election,” he told RFE/RL. “And the majority of the population understands this perfectly.”

That appears to include the other candidates on the ballot: They are “not even trying to pretend to really want to run or get votes,” said the independent election-monitoring organization Golos. The group, banned in Russia after documenting reports of widespread fraud in previous elections, described the current campaign as “the emptiest” in the post-Soviet period.

Political analyst and former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov told the Associated Press that the election is one in which “multiple choice is replaced with a simple, dichotomic one: Are you for or against Putin?”

Voting In Ukraine

As it has in other Russian elections since Moscow seized Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, Moscow is conducting voting this year in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. There are reports of occupation authorities using intimidation tactics to get out the vote in these areas, and the Kremlin has been encouraging people who live in parts of Ukraine that Moscow claims but does not occupy to vote electronically.

Ukraine has denounced the election on its territory, which is illegal under international conventions. On February 20, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania issued a joint statement denouncing the voting in occupied parts of Ukraine as “a grave violation of international law, the UN Charter, and Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

Analysts also say the voting in the combat zone on Ukrainian territory is a key tool for the Kremlin to falsify the results and boost Putin’s margin of victory.

It’s Not 2018 Anymore

Critics say elections under Putin have never been free or competitive. However, much has changed since the last presidential vote in 2018, when liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky and television personality Ksenia Sobchak were allowed to run and to campaign in opposition to Putin.

Navalny was not allowed to run because of a 2013 criminal conviction that he and many others said was drummed up to stifle his political ambitions, but he issued a campaign manifesto, gathered signatures in a demonstration of his political pull, and commented extensively on the election.

Since then, however, the authorities have carried out a sweeping crackdown on dissent that has accelerated steadily since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Navalny’s organizations were declared “extremist,” forcing most of its activists to flee the country or face criminal prosecution.

When the invasion came, independent media outlets fled en masse, unwilling to work in Russia under conditions of wartime censorship. Political dissent was increasingly equated with “treason,” as was made clear when opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison — mostly on a treason conviction — in April 2023.

The current election is being held under conditions that economist and political scientist Kirill Rogov calls “mature authoritarianism,” the main characteristic of which “is that the opposition has insufficient resources to exercise any significant influence in the results of the voting or the election.”

This year, the two would-be candidates who seemed to articulate positions genuinely different from Putin’s — journalist Yekaterina Dunstova and former parliament deputy Boris Nadezhdin — were barred from participating by the Central Election Commission. Analysts suspect they were shut out because the prospect of their anti-war candidacies generated a substantial level of enthusiasm among the Russian public, with people standing in long lines to sign petitions supporting Nadezhdin’s effort to get on the ballot.

“I might not agree with what Nadezhdin or Duntsova said, but I would happily vote for them,” said exiled opposition politician Olga Sidelnikova.

The Battle Over Turnout

With would-be candidates who represented opposition to Putin and the war out of the picture, the Kremlin is pulling out all the stops to boost turnout. As in past elections, the authorities are in particular targeting voters vulnerable to pressure, such as teachers, state-run factory workers, and other public-sector employees.

“If you don’t go to vote, there’s the door,” said one Russian man who works in a state heating plant in St. Petersburg and asked not to be identified out of safety concerns, quoting the message company managers had for workers at a meeting last week.

His supervisor, the man said, showed him a list of employees who didn’t vote in the 2021 national legislative elections: “They have some sort of connection [with election officials].”

A St. Petersburg teacher told RFE/RL that staff at her school had been reregistered so that they had to vote at the school instead of in the neighborhood where they live.

“It is clear the administration has been told that as many people as possible must vote,” said the woman, who also asked not to be identified out of safety concerns.

Analysts say the authorities are demanding that local officials and the ruling United Russia party ensure 80 percent turnout in a bid to foster an air of legitimacy around the compromised process. With such a turnout, they say, the authorities can use their control of election commissions at all levels and the absence of independent election monitors to produce support for Putin in the region of 85 percent.

Comments from officials and state-funded poll results have suggested that the Kremlin is aiming for an outcome of above 80 percent for Putin, who official results said received 77.5 percent on the 2018 election. Official turnout was 67.5 percent.

Urging Russians to vote in a brief address on March 14, Putin said, “We must affirm our unity and our determination to move forward.” He asserted that Russians are “one big family.”

People walk past a cardboard cutout of Putin on a street in Moscow on March 13. “There is no way you can call this an election. And the majority of the population understands this perfectly,” one analyst said of Russia’s March 15-17 presidential vote.
People walk past a cardboard cutout of Putin on a street in Moscow on March 13. “There is no way you can call this an election. And the majority of the population understands this perfectly,” one analyst said of Russia’s March 15-17 presidential vote.

For an opposition beset by obstacles, the task is to make a showing that could cast doubt on Kremlin claims that the Russian people are united in their support for Putin, for the war of aggression against Ukraine, and for the confrontation with the West.

‘Noon Without Putin’

The demonstrations of support for Nadezhdin and Duntsova were not the only indications of simmering discontent with Putin and his policies in Russia. Thousands of people braved an intimidating police presence to pay tribute to Navalny during his funeral in Moscow on March 1. The families of mobilized soldiers have been carrying out regular protests for months now, venting anger over their treatment of their loved ones at the front. Thousands of people in the central region of Bashkortostan protested in January against the conviction and sentencing of a popular local activist, a wave of protests that analyst Gallyamov said was driven by “the accumulated burden of grievances and the perception that the regime is weakening.”

Emboldened by such developments, opposition leaders have been promoting an election tactic called Noon Without Putin. The idea, they say, is for everyone who opposes Putin to show up at polling stations at exactly 12 p.m. on March 17 in a massive, and entirely legal, show of strength.

“The Noon protest gives everyone a chance to express themselves as they wish in proportion to their anger or rejection of the regime,” said former St. Petersburg lawmaker Maksim Reznik, who came up with the idea. “The main thing is the unity of time and place…. Of course, these days it is not about an election, it is about impressions.”

Once voters come to the polls, Reznik said, they can do as they see fit — not vote, spoil their ballots, or cast their vote for one of the other three candidates, Nikolai Kharitonov, Leonid Slutsky, and Vladislav Davankov.

Navalny endorsed the Noon Without Putin idea in one of his last social-media posts before his death, saying “it could be a powerful demonstration of the mood of the country.”

“It will be a Russia-wide act of protest against Putin that is happening right near your home,” he wrote. “Everyone, everywhere can participate. Millions of people could take part, and tens of millions will see them.”

Many in the opposition, however, cast doubt on the utility of such symbolic gestures, arguing that the Kremlin can easily spin the appearance of long lines as a show of support for Putin.

The Morning After

“What is really important is what happens the next day, March 18,” activist Aleksei Manannikov, a former member of Russia’s upper parliament chamber, said on Facebook.

“Will these same people, as usual, go off and assemble tanks and drones, transport convoys of military equipment to the front, continue to devise new weapons, and pay taxes to the chekist junta so that it can continue the war?” he wrote, using a historical term for the secret police to point to the predominance of security officials in Putin’s circle. “Or will they stay home? Or will they come out and protest against the war?”

Human rights activist Aleksandr Podrabinek, in an essay for RFE/RL’s Russian Service, said the Noon Against Putin protest was “a generous gift for Kremlin propaganda” and the only result will be to allow people to tell themselves “I didn’t do nothing while the country was being destroyed.”

Former parliament deputy Boris Nadezhdin was barred from participating by the Central Election Commission, likely because his anti-war candidacy generated a substantial level of enthusiasm among the Russian public.
Former parliament deputy Boris Nadezhdin was barred from participating by the Central Election Commission, likely because his anti-war candidacy generated a substantial level of enthusiasm among the Russian public.

While the outcome of the election is not in doubt, what comes after is less clear.

In his state-of-the-nation address on February 29, Putin largely ignored the war and laid out an expensive vision of expanded social programs, infrastructure development, and economic growth.

Critics, however, say that vision is unrealistic, given the pressures of the ongoing war and the standoff with the West. What is more likely in Putin’s new six-year term, they say, is the accelerated militarization of society, including the prospect of expanded call-ups to the armed forces — something Putin has been wary about ordering after an unpopular “partial mobilization” he decreed in September 2022 and higher taxes. In addition, there are indications the government is preparing new limitations on Internet access and other steps to further isolate Russians from the West.

According to polling by the Khroniki research group, nearly two-fifths of Russians expect a new military mobilization in Putin’s next term and nearly three-quarters expect an increase in military spending. Only 28 percent foresee the restoration of relations with the West.

The same study, using indirect questioning in an effort to circumvent the public’s reluctance to discuss the war freely, found that 17 percent of Russians are “consistent supporters of the war,” while 19 percent could be classified as “consistent opponents.” The rest have more ambiguous views.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time

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