April 3, 2018

The First Days of Putin’s New Term

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with journalists shortly after his annual televised phone-in with the nation in central Moscow on April 16, 2015. Vladimir Putin said on April 16 that France's refusal to deliver two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Moscow over the Ukraine crisis would not affect its defence capabilities. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with journalists shortly after his annual televised phone-in with the nation in central Moscow on April 16, 2015. Vladimir Putin said on April 16 that France's refusal to deliver two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Moscow over the Ukraine crisis would not affect its defence capabilities. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV

It is meaningless to analyze the outcomes of the Russian presidential election, given that such an analysis was just as possible before the voting took place. Vladimir Putin has been reelected with a record-high amount of votes. No other candidate campaigned in any significant or meaningful way, making this arguably the most pointless run-up to any election in the history of contemporary Russia.

Normally, after an election pundits usually speculate about its impact on the future of the country concerned. In the Russian case, however, the winner did not even present any comprehensible program for his next term. His address to the Russian parliament pretended to be a strategy for the next six years. Yet, everything Putin said was either trivial phrases about the necessity of economic growth and technological development, or militaristic rhetoric about a new weapon. Thus, we should not expect any policy changes from the Kremlin, unless they are provoked by extraordinary events. The first week after the election was notable only for a possible tax increase. Evidently, the government does not believe in economic growth and sees no other source of income.

The biggest and most evident subject of intrigue during Putin’s new term is the potential for a transfer of power. According to the law now in force, Putin will not be allowed to run again in 2024. In this case he will have either to amend the constitution or find a successor. Perhaps he still does not yet know what he will do to solve this problem. In May Putin will form a new government. The choice of a new prime minister—assuming that Medvedev is not re-appointed—may demonstrates a draft strategy for the future power transfer.

For now, the liberal opposition is once again disoriented. Ksenia Sobchak, who formally represented the liberal ideology during the campaign has decided to continue her political career. Together with Dmitry Gudkov, a former member of the Duma and fellow liberal politician, Sobchak announced the creation of the new Party of Changes on the eve of the election. Alexei Navalny, leader of what in Russia is termed the “non-systemic opposition” (that is, outside the political establishment) has already labeled the new party a pro-Kremlin initiative.

The liberals are also split because Navalny’s boycott strategy proved unsuccessful. Turnout was about 67%. While this was lower than the 70% figure anticipated by the presidential administration, it does not allow the opposition any room to argue that Putin’s legitimacy has declined. The regime clearly remains able to demonstrate its massive grassroots support.

None of the attempts at election fraud—as alleged by independent observers—gave rise to any protests, and none of the candidates organized any rallies after the election itself. The most discussed protest of the recent days took place in Volokolamsk, a small city some 130 km from Moscow. Local inhabitants successfully demanded the closure of a deteriorating city dump, and the city mayor was fired as a result. Nevertheless, while these kinds of events do occur from time to time in different regions, the scope of their impact is restricted; they have no possibility of challenging the regime or of giving rise to any new political movement.

On March 25, a fire in Kemerovo killed at least 64 people and shocked the entire country. Mourning rallies were held in different Russian cities. Some of participants demanded the resignation of a local governor. However, it is unlikely that these rallies will have any significant political effect.

The 2018 election has not changed situation in Russia, and any viable alternative to the existing regime has yet to emerge. While the succession issue will ultimately force Russian elites to be active, the day of reckoning can be postponed. The near-term future seems certain.