March 20, 2018

Six More Years

A man walks past a poster announcing March 18 presidential election in the small town of Krasnyi, some 50 km north of Smolensk, on March 17, 2018.
A man walks past a poster announcing March 18 presidential election in the small town of Krasnyi, some 50 km north of Smolensk, on March 17, 2018.

President Vladimir Putin just received another six-year mandate to lead his country.

The voter turnout in the 18 March presidential elections was higher than in 2012, and Putin enjoyed unprecedented popular support (76.66%, according to preliminary results). This should signal domestically and internationally that Russia’s self-confident president is at the very height of his power. His voters likely believe – or pretend to believe – that Russia is not yet the superpower that the Soviet Union used to be, feared by the West and respected by the whole world, but the leader will continue to steer the country in that direction.

Vladimir Putin probably has little faith in the promises he made on March 1 in front of Russia’s Federal Assembly – to generate in just six years prosperity and economic development that Russia has never seen before remains an untenable goal. However, he seems to have confidence in Russian efforts and methods to undermine Western liberal democracy, political solidarity and security order in Europe. Is it impossible – from the Kremlin’s perspective – that the European Union ultimately collapses and NATO virtually disintegrates? Or isn’t it plausible that the EU and the US could become separated by an ocean of political and economic disputes that would dramatically redefine the European security environment? The West has major problems, indeed, and Russia stands always ready to “help”.

Nevertheless, the domestic and international reality does not seem to favour Vladimir Putin and the fulfilment of his dreams. Russia’s re-elected president managed to rally high popular support, largely amplified by anti-Western hysteria (including related to the attempted murder of Sergey Skripal), and the regime feels safe and well protected. Yet, Putin’s inner circle has significantly less financial resources than during the high oil prices bonanza, and it is and probably will be constrained for years to come under Western sanctions, which may yet become even tougher. While ordinary Russians may suffer more, and accept obediently the regime’s reality show, Putin can hardly transform Western societies into similar soap operas, in spite of aggressive influence operations and massive disinformation campaigns, cynical murders that are meant to induce fear, and Russia’s continued show of increasing military might.

President Putin did not even bother to engage in a personal election campaign, because the country’s entire apparatus did the job in different ways. Ksenia Sobchak, who arguably received funds from state enterprises to play her role, and Pavel Grudinin simply added certain intrigue to the reality show, whereas Vladimir Zhirinovski played his usual character of rude opponent (obviously against candidates other than Putin). The other presidential runners were entirely insignificant – with this cycle simply raising the number of candidates to eight in order to imitate democracy and pluralism.

According to Russia’s Central Electoral Committee, and even Sobtchak, there were no massive and significant electoral irregularities (as in 2012). By Russian standards, the 18 March elections were (almost entirely) “fair”. However, by Western standards these “elections” were grossly manipulated, considering unequal possibilities for candidates in the pre-election campaign. In addition, everyone knows the old tradition of literally herding Russian military (including conscripts), workers of huge state factories, even students and many others, by the millions, to voting stations in order to support existing leaders.

Therefore, in Russia’s latest elections there were no surprises, because there could not be any wonders. Elections are, in the Western world, about political, economic and social changes desired by the electorate. In Russia, elections are about cementing the status quo and showing loyalty to the ruling regime. Indeed, most Russians fear changes and an unpredictable future, preferring instead “stability”. Even if that means stagnation and decline in living standards, not to speak of the lack of basic human and civil rights.

The next six years in Russia may turn out as a Stalinism Light 2.0 version, which in part raises the question as to why the recent film “The Death of Stalin” was banned in Russia. It seems that it was prohibited because the movie not only ridiculed rightly and accurately the tyrant and his cronies, but it also showed Stalin to be an ordinary mortal, instead of an icon. After his death life in the Soviet Union changed considerably, for the better (it could hardly get worse), even if the system survived for almost four decades. President Putin has to think deeply about what his legacy will be, although there are no indications he seeks to change course. Of course, neither did Stalin change anything to the end and he could only regret that he killed the doctors who could have helped him during his last moment.

Last but not least, Putin highlighted the difference and the similarity between latest American and Russian presidential elections. The former had an unpredictable result, the latter’s outcome was predetermined, and Putin had a prominent role in both elections.