March 28, 2024

Putin’s Sham Elections: Tightening Grip Amid Opposition Dilemmas

For Vladimir Putin, the 15th-17th March "elections" were a ceremony of consolidating the power of the president, other candidates only offered the illusion of competition in the election campaign.
For Vladimir Putin, the 15th-17th March "elections" were a ceremony of consolidating the power of the president, other candidates only offered the illusion of competition in the election campaign.

The recent presidential election has become the least competitive and transparent in the entire post-Soviet history of Russia. It has become yet another step for the Russian mafia state towards a neo-totalitarian dictatorship internally fortified by an ideological amalgamation of imperialism, anti-Westernism, and great power chauvinism.

Electoral Campaign: The Illusion of Competition

Probably for the first time in more than three decades, access to the voting procedures and results was exclusively controlled by the Kremlin. There were no independent observers at the polling stations, while availability of video monitoring was effectively blocked. Moreover, the voting period was extended from 1 to 3 days, and one-third of voters were granted the opportunity for online voting without the ability for unbiased verification of results, thus significantly broadening the room for potential falsifications.[1]

Everything suggested that the elections would serve as a ceremonial facade for Vladimir Putin’s continued governance. Three relatively unknown representatives from established political parties — Vladislav Davankov, Leonid Slutsky, and Nikolay Kharitonov — were pre-selected for him as punching bags. Throughout their entire careers, they have played peripheral roles in Russian politics and, due to their endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have been included in the EU sanction lists. Even before the official onset of the election campaign, all three admitted they did not aspire to ultimate victory and were entirely unwilling to criticise Vladimir Putin.

The “main candidate,” who had previously arrogantly avoided participating in pre-election televised debates, predictably ignored them once again. Nonetheless, he was disproportionately more visible in the news broadcasts of federal TV channels. For instance, according to the Golos movement, Vladimir Putin was mentioned 7 times more frequently than all other candidates combined.[2] Even according to calculations by servile and entirely Kremlin-loyal Russian Communists, Putin-related news items accounted for 85.4% of the television coverage across federal channels throughout the entire presidential campaign.[3] The televised debates among the remaining three nominal candidates proceeded with notable lethargy, scarcely resembling the format of a political talk show. Their interventions, for the most part, amounted to monotonously reciting and repeating pre-prepared theses.

In the absence of any intrigue regarding the election outcome, the Kremlin exerted considerable efforts to boost voter turnout. At polling stations, citizens were welcomed with concerts, sweets,[4] and smartphone giveaways.[5] The United Russia party, predominantly comprising employees of municipal and state enterprises, sought to monitor its members’ participation by encouraging the use of a mobile application to confirm voters’ geolocation when present at the polling station.[6]

The Powerlessness of the Powerless

The Russian opposition in exile approached the presidential election in desperation and disunity, lacking any coherent strategy to counter the Kremlin. Often, conflicting statements emanated from its representatives. For instance, their advice to western governments not to recognise the legitimacy of the Russian election and Putin as a legitimate leader was paradoxically accompanied by appeals to Russian citizens to participate and vote “against Putin,” thereby inadvertently reinforcing his legitimacy. Some of them asserted that Russia had transformed into a dictatorship where electoral outcomes held no significance;[7] however, subsequently, these same speakers persistently recommended voting for a “conditionally anti-war” and “least toxic” candidate.[8]

The Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) was in a state of bewilderment and, for the first time, lacked any ideas on how elections could be leveraged to effectively counteract an increasingly repressive regime. Out of despair, Alexei Navalny even turned to his supporters for advice and conducted a survey among them.[9] All it revealed was that the overwhelming majority did not want Putin’s presidency to continue. Given the absence of any better alternatives, the FBK endorsed a simplistic appeal as its strategy, advising to “campaign and vote against Putin.”[10]

At the same time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s team announced the start of the “Putin Must Go!” campaign[11] but soon admitted to lacking a clear idea of its scope and what specifically needed to be done on the voting day.[12] A more consistent stance was only articulated by the Free Russia Forum led by Garry Kasparov and Ivan Tyutrin, who characterised the 2024 elections as a “Kremlin farce” and advocated against participation, viewing it as a form of collusion with the criminal Putin regime.[13]

However, approximately one and a half months before the election, a significant part of the émigré opposition managed to unite around the “Noon Against Putin” flash mob initiative, proposed by former St. Petersburg City Assembly deputy Maxim Reznik as early as September 2023. Opposition-minded Russians were encouraged to come to polling stations at noon on 17 March to form queues and demonstrate that they were not alone in their protest against Putin and his aggressive foreign policy. In doing so, the opposition sought to create the impression of a lack of “national unity” around Putin and the war against Ukraine.

Starting from January 2024, the “Noon Against Putin” flash mob was endorsed by organisations associated with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and on 1 February 2024, Alexei Navalny also called for participation, stating that it was a “completely legal and safe protest action.” Two weeks later, he was killed in a high-security prison in the town of Harp beyond the Arctic Circle. After his funeral, the FBK began referring to the “Noon Against Putin” flash mob as Alexey Navalny’s “political testament,”[14] while his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, urged everyone to come out in memory of her husband and vote for anyone but Vladimir Putin.[15]

Despite the widespread attention the flash mob received on social media, there was no hustle and bustle at most polling stations across Russia at noon on 17 March. Queues of voters were only spotted at several dozens of stations, mainly in large cities. Instead, there was an impression that much larger queues formed outside of Russia, and in some countries, they persisted until late evening. Interestingly, Russian emigrant media outlets, which covered the “Noon Against Putin” campaign, published significantly more photographs and videos depicting queues at overseas polling stations rather than those within Russia.[16]

In fact, queues abroad were quite anticipated, given the sharp reduction in the number of polling stations from 394 to 298 compared to the previous elections. Moreover, despite a significant wave of emigration from Russia in 2022, estimated at around one million people, the number of voters at overseas polling stations decreased from 474 000 to 374 000.

The Uncertain Future of the Émigré Opposition

Thanks to the “Noon Against Putin” flash mob, the opposition in exile demonstrated relative solidarity for the first time in two years since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, its rather modest ability to mobilise the domestic Russian audience for any protest actions was confirmed. Actually, the FBK had previously acknowledged the constant reduction of their already limited capabilities to influence political processes in Russia.[17] Furthermore, they lamented that, regardless of the content released on YouTube, FBK videos rarely surpassed the 1 million view mark.[18]

It is now apparent that, even in the medium term, the émigré opposition will be unable to impose a serious struggle for power on Putin. Its leaders are acutely aware that contesting for power in Russia is a venture for which they lack the requisite resources and influence within the country. Illustrative in this regard was the situation in the summer of 2023 when Mikhail Khodorkovsky endorsed Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny and advocated for armed resistance.[19] He believed then that a protest of 10-15 thousand people in Moscow would suffice to seize the Kremlin, yet no Muscovites took to the streets in response.[20]

Alexey Navalny’s murder might have seemed to finally debunk any illusions regarding the potential for change in Russia solely through nonviolent means such as peaceful protests and social media activism. However, it did not lead to the radicalisation of anti-Putin sentiment among Russians, and neither did the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For the overwhelming majority of Russians residing both inside and outside Russia, the very idea of armed resistance against Putin, as well as fundraising for the needs of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, remains absolutely unacceptable. Furthermore, according to surveys, the indicators of approval by Russians of the state of affairs in their country — as well as the performance of many governmental institutions — are currently at historic highs.[21] Overall, it appears that the subconscious acknowledgement of their complete incapacity to effectively resist an increasingly totalitarian regime is perhaps the primary reason for the enduring disunity among the emigrated opponents of the Kremlin.

Against this backdrop, Russian anti-Putin opposition leaders abroad are increasingly redirecting their efforts from the domestic arena towards the consolidation primarily of emigrated Russians. This trend is evidenced by the growing prevalence of anti-western resentment in their rhetoric, which resonates with both recent émigrés and those who left Russia long ago, many of whom have obtained European passports and now lend their support to populist parties such as Die Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). For instance, on the day following the 2024 presidential election, Mikhail Khodorkovsky accused the United States of Russian troubles, stating that America “has nominated several ‘good tsars’ for Russia in the past, and each time it has ended badly.”[22] Likewise, Vladimir Milov, who oversees international relations at the FBK, has long held similar views, arguing that western leaders have facilitated Russia’s transformation into a robust and imperialistic dictatorship.[23]

Recognising that “[w]ith each passing year of war and emigration, the likelihood of some individuals never returning to Russia increases,”[24] émigré opposition leaders are likely banking on the prospect that, over the medium term, a considerable part of Russian emigrants will integrate into western societies. Hence, their efforts are aimed at consolidating Russian-speaking emigrants into a community under their leadership to increase their lobbying potential and gain real leverage over the political processes of western countries. In this sense, there is a prospect of increased competition, and possibly even overt confrontation, among different anti-Putin political organisations for domination within the Russian-speaking emigrant milieu.

Putin’s Regime After the 2024 Election: Consolidation of Dictatorship

In this election, the Kremlin sought to demonstrate two things. Firstly, to show total control over the political system and readiness to rigorously suppress any potential protest activity. In this sense, Putin’s high official results, combined with the assassination of Alexey Navalny, should be seen as his firm determination to continue the course towards the “sovereignisation” (or “de-westernisation”) of all spheres of public life, including the strengthening of censorship on social media and the creation of a completely isolated segment of the Internet.

Secondly, to demonstrate the high degree of consolidation among Russians around Vladimir Putin. Despite the lack of transparency in the election process and evidence of electoral fraud, it is clear that the majority of Russian voters have expressed their approval for both their leader and the war in Ukraine. As Professor Alexey Levinson once put it, the Putin regime has achieved an unprecedented level of resonance with the Russian majority.[25]

Clearly, after the elections, Putin is poised to persist in military actions against Ukraine, counting on Donald Trump’s assumption of power in Washington this fall and the gradual “orbanisation” of Europe. Nonetheless, there are several other plausible focal points in his domestic and foreign policies that can be discerned:

Firstly, the imperative of increasing military production and Putin’s campaign pledge to expand social commitments may signal that the Kremlin will keep injecting funds into the economy to sustain economic growth, thereby undermining the Central Bank’s efforts to curb inflation. Putin appears convinced that the economic situation will remain manageable, as there will always be global demand for Russian oil and natural gas, with revenue from sales to China and India sufficient to satisfy the appetites of the bureaucracy and security apparatus.

Secondly, it is highly probable that Russia will seek to significantly escalate industrial espionage efforts in western countries. During his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin identified the shortage of highly skilled personnel and advanced technologies as the main challenges impeding the Russian economy and military-industrial complex. It is quite possible that he will attempt to address this issue by intensifying the activities of Russian intelligence agencies abroad.

Thirdly, Putin intends to refresh and strengthen his “power vertical” from within. He has indicated his plans to integrate “heroes of the special military operation” into it. We may soon witness war veterans assuming high-ranking positions as governors, heads of state-owned corporations, and members of the State Duma. Putin will gradually remove long-fed and accustomed-to-luxury representatives of the older generation of officials. In their place will come individuals hungry for wealth and power, armed and ready to defend the Putin regime, regardless of any moral norms or “red lines.” Thus, for Russians, the war against Ukraine represents more than just a means to earn money or vent their complexes. It can become a rapid social elevator for those demonstrating the highest degree of ideological and political loyalty to the dictator.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

[1] Andrey Kuzmenko, “Дистанционно проголосовать на выборах президента смогут 38 миллионов россиян”, Parlamentskaya gazeta, 27 December 2023.

[2] Golos, “Агитация и административная мобилизация на выборах президента России 2024 года”, 14 March 2024.

[3] Communist Party of the Russian Federation, “ТВ-мониторинг президентской кампании. (18 декабря 2023 г. – 14 марта 2024 г.)”, 18 March 2024.

[4] Irina Rybnikova, “На избирательных участках в Мособласти голосуют еще и за проекты благоустройства”, Rossiyskaya gazeta, 15 March 2023.

[5] Alyona Kataev, “«Пробелы в воспитании»: зачем выдают подарки на выборах в Пермском крае?”, RBK Perm, 16 March 2024.

[6] Valeria Fedorova, “Мейксин прокомментировал появление QR-кодов на избирательных участках в Петербурге”, MK v Pitere, 15 March 2024.

[7] Maxim Kats, “От диктатуры обмана к диктатуре страха | «Прогресс» российской власти”, Youtube, 29 August 2023.

[8] Maksim Kats, “Кандидат Даванков”, Youtube, 5 March 2024.

[9] Navalny, “10 вопросов Навального о выборах. Давайте превратим трэш в нормальное общение”, 17 October 2023.

[10] Navalny, “Президентские выборы-2024. Агитировать и голосовать против Путина”, 7 December 2023.

[11] Russian Anti-War Committee, “Обращение российских демократических сил”, 8 November 2023.

[12] Zhivoy Gvozd’, “Стратегия оппозиции на выборах 2024. Ходорковский: Утренний разворот”, 3 November 2023.

[13] Free Russia Forum, “Resolution of the Free Russia Forum”, 3 October 2023.

[14] Leonid Volkov, “Как жить без Навального?”, Youtube, 27 February 2024.

[15] Alexey Navalny, “17 марта. Полдень. За Навального”, Youtube, 6 March 2024.

[16] “«Полдень против Путина». Фото и видео Что происходило на избирательных участках по всей России — и рядом с посольствами в других странах”, Meduza, 17 March 2024.

[17] Popularnaya politika. “План борьбы с Путиным | Леонид Волков”, Youtube, 7 October 2023.

[18] Dozhd’ TV Channel, “Кац, Жданов, Ходорковский, Гуриев. Как россиянам голосовать на выборах 2024”, Youtube, 14 January 2024.

[19] Khodorkovskiy Live, “Ходорковский о бунте Пригожина: Оружие пригодится россиянам уже завтра”, Youtube, 24 June 2023.

[20] Khodorkovskiy Live, “Ходорковский и Пастухов: Пригожин доказал элитам, что Путин ослабел. Новый мятеж — уже скоро!”, Youtube, 28 June 2023.

[21] See: Levada-Centre indicators.

[22] “Ходорковский: “Псевдовыборы” подорвали возможности Путина”, Deutsche Welle, 18 March 2024.

[23] Vladimir Milov, “Россия в Мире | Как запад позволил Путину захватить Россию”, Youtube, 29 March 2023.

[24] Fyodor Krasheninnikov, Vladimir Milov, “The Normal Russia of the Future: Yes, We Can. Common Features of the Future Free Russia”. Free Russia Foundation, 2023, p. 40-41,

[25] Ksenia Gulia, “Социолог Алексей Левинсон: Путинский режим добился небывалого унисона с российским большинством. Это факт, это надо признать”, RFI, 28 August 2022.

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