By Senior Campaign Agent Megan Field
On Sunday 18 March 2018, the Russian Presidential election will take place. Vladimir Putin, if he wins, will then be eligible to serve until 2024. The word “election” is being used in the loosest sense of the term, since their are no genuine competitors to remove the President who has been incumbent since 2002.
To people in the UK, an election implies a set of conditions central to the democratic process; free speech, a range of viable competitors, freedom of the press and so on. However, Putin has regularly brandished democracy as a Western import which is incompatible with Russian traditions, begging the question - what does a Russian election look like?
For a start, they have banned the only candidate with any hope of decreasing Putin’s share of the vote, Alexei Navalny. Over 15,000 supporters gathered across the country in December to formally nominate his candidacy, but this was always a long shot given that he has recently been convicted for embezzlement. Russian law prohibits those with a criminal sentence standing for election, although sceptics argue his conviction was an instrument to prevent him from running.
Despite this, the opposition leader has not been silenced, boldly stating that "The procedure in which we are invited to participate is not an election. It involves only Putin and those candidates whom he personally chose, who do not pose a slightest threat to him.” The anti-corruption campaigner was arrested in Moscow on Sunday having orchestrated protests which saw 2,000 people gather near The Kremlin. Nalvany’s vision is not a comprehensive plan for government but a staunch rejection of the status quo, demanding that himself and other candidates should be allowed to compete in the elections (and have a fair chance of contesting the Presidency), whilst putting a stop to the harassment of activists and election observers. This rhetoric is a threat to Putin, not due to the fact that, if he had been allowed to run, he could win but rather that it would dispel the myth transmitted in state propaganda that there is no alternative to the current system.
Indeed, there are other opposition candidates but they lack any palpable electoral appeal. Take Kesniya Sobchak for example, a liberal journalist and the daughter of the man whom Putin has often labelled his political mentor. She has refrained from any direct criticism of Putin, and is arguably too enmeshed in the world of the elite to gander any real support. It is not surprising then that her candidacy has been actively supported by the presidential administration. She is a merely a tool of the authoritarian elite to lend a certain degree of legitimacy to the election process. In the same way, the “managed opposition” parties largely support Putin’s policies and are therefore of little consequence.
The US has come under attack this week ahead of a report which is expected to detail the closeness of senior Russian political figures and Oligarchs to President Putin, which the Kremlin are depicting as a malicious attempt to meddle in the election. This comes after the controversial list of figures, also released by the US Treasury, that supposedly acquired their wealth through corrupt connections with Putin and could be subject to future sanctions. It's similarity to a Forbes list of the 200 Richest Russians has rendered the report an embarrassment for the Trump administration.
Evidently, Russian elections cannot be measured with the Western yardstick, as the aims are altogether different. It is not a question of winning for Putin but rather winning with a large majority, to re-affirm the strength of his rule. He is seeking 70% of turnout and 70% of the vote as he enters into what will be, under current rules, his final term. Although some took part in anticorruption protests held last year, Mr Putin’s efforts continue to pay dividends, as official polls put his support at 80%. His popularity rests on the idea that he is “a leader of the political Olympus”, a God like figure who has restored Russia’s global standing, perpetuated through state propaganda.
In a poll conducted last year, 46% of Russian respondents believed that Russia needed its own very special version of democracy, in line with their unique norms and traditions. This election surely serves as evidence that they have achieved this.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Samuel Osborne, “Vladimir Putin compared to god by Kremlin ahead of Russia presidential election”, The Independent (29 January 2018)
- Neil Macfarquhar, “Victory in Russia Election Assured, Putin Seeks High Turnout”, The New York Times (25 January 2018)
- Marc Bennetts, “Alexei Navalny detained at anti-Putin protest in Moscow”, The Guardian (29 January 2018)
- Darin Andone, “Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny barred from entering presidential race”, CNN (25 December 2017)
- “Alexei Navalny tells Russians they have a choice”, The Economist (19 October 2017)
- Oliver Carroll, “Russian election 2018: Whatever happens in the first round, Vladimir Putin will be the one constant”, The Independent (31 December 2017)
- Shaun Walker, “Putin mentor's daughter Ksenia Sobchak to run for president”, The Guardian (18 October 2017)
- “Russia Putin: Kremlin accuses US of meddling in election”, BBC News (29 January 2018)
- Adam Robinson, “Putin cast as national saviour ahead of Russia election”, BBC News (21 January 2018)
- Jana Bakunina, “A very special version of Russian democracy”, The Newstatesman (22 January 2016)
Image: Pavel Kazachkov @Flickr