This year, strictly speaking, there is no real presidential election in Russia. In this strange process I call an “election” only for brevity’s sake, all candidates must be approved by the incumbent president and do not have equal access to the mass media.
The vote counting process is not reliable. Finally, we already know the result: Vladimir Putin will win once again. Nevertheless, this “election” will still affect life in Russia over the next few months to some extent.
The most important event of this process took place on December 6, 2017, when Putin announced his intent to run for re-election at a meeting with automotive workers in Nizhny Novgorod. Previously, there had been some discussion of the possibility that the president might decline to continue in office and instead choose a successor. While such speculation was groundless, it—whether intentionally or not—did fuel some weak interest in the election.
An important task for the presidential administration in this process is to identify and recruit suitable “sparring partners” to be inevitably defeated by the main candidate. The partners should be quite convincing to create a more realistic appearance of competition and encourage turnout.
To this end, the Communist Party nominated not its leader Gennady Zyuganov instead one Pavel Grudinin, director of the so-called Lenin Collective Farm (совхоз). In reality, it is not a collective farm, but rather private agricultural enterprise in Moscow Oblast that was privatized—but not renamed—by Grudinin in the 1990s. Younger and more energetic than the 73-year-old Zyuganov—who at this stage looked to be an inept sparring partner for Putin—Grudinin was once a member of the ruling United Russia party. Despite his conservative and nationalist ideological background, the Communists nominated Grudinin because of his potential to attract voter support for its parliamentary candidates—in 2016, the party’s weak performance at the polls almost cost it second place. In turn, the presidential administration is counting on Grudinin to spur greater voter turnout.
While Grudinin embodies paternalistic conservatims combined with rhetoric on social welfare, liberals are “represented” by represented by Ksenia Sobchak, given that the most popular leader of the non-parliamentary opposition, Alexei Navalny, was not permitted to run. Sobchak is the daughter of the first post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. It is well known that when Putin worked at the city administration in the early 90s, his boss Anatoly opened the future president’s way into politics. In the 2000s, Ksenia made her name as a socialite and as a host of the notorious television program House 2 (Дом 2). For many Russians, she is a symbol of social injustice and inequality, an emblem of a system in which children of important officials and oligarchs enjoy luxury, while most people live in poverty. Nevertheless, in 2011-2012 Sobchak participated in protests against fraudulent elections, declaring her adherence to democracy and liberal values. Because of her liberal bona fides, the non-parliamentary opposition seems to be split, with some calling for a boycott and others arguing that Sobchak’s campaign has brought some meaning to the elections.
As noted above, Navalny was not able to register as a candidate. Despite a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, his previous criminal conviction in a controversial embezzlement case is still in force. At his annual press conference, Putin indirectly confirmed that Navalny was not allowed to run due to political reasons. The president compared him to Mikheil Saakashvili and stated that a situation “like [that] in Ukraine” must be prevented from occurring in Russia. Therefore, according to Putin, Navalny may not participate in the election because otherwise he would organize political protests—reasoning that makes any court decision simply insignificant. In response, Navalny called on citizens of Russia to boycott the election. The opposition organized rallies across the country in a so-called “electoral strike” on January 28.
The rallies gathered couple of thousands in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Smaller actions were undertaken in different Russian cities and regions. Generally speaking, “electoral strike” has resulted in relatively peaceful walks, although minor clashes with police were witnessed. The non-parliamentary opposition plans to increase pressure on the government at least until March 18, i.e. the day of voting, or until May, when Putin will be inaugurated. On the other hand, the regime is ready, and authorities already know how to cope with Navalny’s activities. Peaceful protest cannot take the government by surprise, and the opposition has neither the ability nor the desire to carry out more radical actions.