February marks the a mid-point of the formal presidential campaign in Russia. Yet, even though the authorities have sought to maximize turnout, there are few public reminders of the elections (beyond some advertising on billboards, leaflets, and even plastic bags)––and no competition.
The problem is not that the outcome is predetermined. If candidates decided formally to participate in a given electoral process and take serious their participation, they would have to do something to simulate competition. While the candidates have published their electoral platforms, it is unlikely that potential voters are much interested in these official documents. It is not due to negligence that anticipated winner and incumbent president Vladimir Putin still has yet to present plans for his next term. He will lay out his program only during his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The date of the address has been postponed several times. It had to take place in the Autumn 2017 but finally it was scheduled on March 1 so that Putin can take the floor right before the election day.
Alexei Navalny who is the most popular and the most influential leader of the liberal opposition at the moment was not allowed to run formally because he was convicted in a controversial and politicized case but basically because the regime seeks to avoid potential unrest during and after the run up. Therefore, Navalny tries to challenge the election. The protests organized by him on January 28 were unsuccessful. Not only were there fewer participants in Moscow and Saint Petersburg than at the 2017 rallies, but the protesters clearly acted without any precise plan in mind, instead aimlessly walking around the central streets of each city, sometimes clashing with police. Navalny has not announced new rallies, as he is instead now focused on training observers for the election. These observers will be in place to help provide evidence of the low voter turnout expected by the opposition. While it is evident that Putin will receive an overwhelming majority of the votes, voter turnout is an important measure for both the government—which wants to demonstrate Putin’s legitimacy—and for the opposition, which believes that any figure below 70% will signify that the current president does not enjoy mass public support. The general depoliticization and apathy of Russian citizens does inspire hope among the opposition that not many voters will ultimately show up at polling stations.
Moreover, while observers helped to spur protests after the 2011 parliamentary election, there is no guarantee that the same strategy will succeed in 2018—especially as new legislation restricts observers’ activities, and since civic activity has decreased in general since 2011.
Meanwhile, the Russian security services have been hard at work in advance both of the election and this summer’s FIFA World Cup. Social activists in several cities, predominantly anarchists and anti-fascists, have been arrested and charged with organizing terrorist groups. Human rights campaigners and arrestees themselves have both accused the authorities of using torture. Since Russian anarchists have not been involved in anything resembling terrorism since the Civil War a century ago, the accusations seem to be fabricated. Moreover, there is a tendency for major events—like the election and the World Cup—to result in chaotic repression and tightening by the regime.
On February 12, some excitement in Russian social media was sparked by reports that Putin had caught a cold. In March 2015, the public discussed the sudden disappearance of the president with similar enthusiasm; that month, Putin had not been seen at official events for more than a week. To date, this disappearance has not been explained; but what is more remarkable is the intensity of reaction in liberal circles both then and now. The opposition simply does not believe in itself; it believes that political change in Russia is possible only in the event that Putin dies or becomes gravely ill.