One man, one vote

| November 29, 2023

As expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin has unofficially begun his campaign for re-election ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 17 March 2024. Exhibitions celebrating the Putin era are already on display, and cultural performances are set to tour Russia. Surprisingly, he has yet to officially announce his candidacy.

The election outcome is, of course, preordained. It’s an open secret that Russian elections are heavily ‘managed’ and political opposition has been suppressed for decades.

But that doesn’t mean the election is irrelevant. Putin will almost certainly be re-elected, but to truly ‘win’ he must convincingly refresh his political mandate.

Russian elections are theatrical, designed to create the perception of political popularity and a democratic mandate. John le Carre, in his novel Russia house, quipped about the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s more ‘open’ glasnost approach that ‘every democratic wish is filtered upwards by means of consultation at all levels, then dumped into the Neva’.

The failure of Gorbachev’s reforms is well documented. Putin can’t afford to alienate or disregard the Russian public in the same way. He came closest to doing that during his rokirovka with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008–2012. Blatantly sidelining the constitution resulted in mass protests in Bolotnaya Square and elsewhere in 2011 and the ‘March of Millions’ (50,000–100,000 participants) in 2012.

The Kremlin describes its approach to governing as ‘sovereign democracy’. The term was first attributed to prominent Putin supporter Vladislav Surkov in 2006. It justifies the centralisation of power and democratic interference on nationalist grounds. As argued by Russia expert Angela Stent, it’s essentially ‘democratic rhetoric’ with ‘undemocratic intent’.

The regime is yet to fall into le Carre’s trap. There’s remarkable tolerance in Russia for Putin’s authoritarianism and he remains broadly popular for a variety of reasons. In a recent poll, 62% of Russians said they believed the country was heading in the right direction.

Still, a motivating factor for election management is the Kremlin’s genuine fear of a ‘colour revolution’. This is partially based on the regime’s understanding of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin has lamented as a ‘major humanitarian tragedy’ and a ‘geopolitical catastrophe’, and the impact of the August 1991 protests in overcoming the conservative KGB coup in favour of Boris Yeltsin.

Anti-authoritarian movements swept through the post-Soviet world early in Putin’s tenure: in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005—although Kyrgyzstan quickly devolved back into authoritarianism.

It’s no coincidence that the Kremlin cracked down on the independence of large enterprises and the media following these revolts. For example, it directly targeted Putin’s political opposition by seizing the Yukos oil company in 2003 and imprisoning media baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2005. The emergence of the concept of sovereign democracy in 2006 was a justification for anti-democratic electoral interference against a hostile regional trend.

But interference isn’t without consequences. Political apathy is high, especially in Moscow, and has been the norm for most of Putin’s tenure. His stabilisation of Russia and the country’s economic growth since 2000 created an implicit social contract, sometimes called the ‘no-participation pact’, wherein the public exchanges political participation for prosperity and higher living standards.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western sanctions that followed have fundamentally challenged this status quo.

Dissatisfaction and even apathy could eventually become widespread opposition. This is mitigated by the consistent alienation and coercion of the opposition, particularly the assassination of leaders, such as Boris Nemtsov in 2015, or their arrest, as with Alexander Navalny in 2021. But the results of Russia’s regional elections in September indicate that opposition is not wholly irrelevant.

Kremlin-backed candidates from Putin’s United Russia party unsurprisingly won 15 of the 16 party-list elections for regional parliaments and 19 of the 21 gubernatorial elections. But analysis by election researcher Ivan Shukshin shows high levels of fraud in the results. Few regional elections were left undisrupted, particularly those of national importance.

Moscow’s elections were particularly targeted and featured high levels of non-participation. The capital’s apparent apathy towards Putin suggests that it remains a centre of support for the opposition—the city notably almost elected opposition candidate Navalny mayor in 2013.

The Kremlin’s treatment of the capital during the Wagner mutiny in June provides another indication of the strength of opposition support there. Moscow was of course quickly fortified in the face of the military threat, but Russia’s state security agency, the FSB, also used ‘anti-terrorist’ powers, including to dispel public gatherings.

This was instructive—anti-terror terminology has been used consistently under Putin to justify suppressing democratic and journalistic freedom, silence political opponents and restrain pro-democracy civil-society organisations.

Concern that Muscovites might seize the opportunity to publicly protest against Putin and the war must have affected this choice, particularly given the anti-war protests in the city in 2022. The threat of a protest correlates with its size, and polling indicates that 25% of the city’s residents would like to be actively involved in politics (30% of respondents selected the neutral ‘can’t say’ option).

Nationally, Russian domestic support for Putin and the Kremlin remains firm, as do mechanisms for electoral management. But the public is not monolithic, and Putin does genuinely have to campaign ahead of next year’s election. Even theatrical elections must keep the audience engaged.

Over the past few months, the Kremlin has already worked to score some easy political points, particularly through attempts to stabilise the economy.

Most recently, it reinstated currency controls, creating tensions with Russia’s central bank, which preferred other measures of inflation control, raising the key interest rate by 2 percentage points to 15% on 27 October to try to further curb high inflation, which hit 6% in the third quarter of 2023.

Russia’s 2024–2026 budget revealed in September features record wartime spending, up 68% on 2023 levels, with the Russian finance minister announcing it contained ‘everything needed for the front’.

Overall spending in 2024 is estimated to be 26.2% higher than in 2023, but the claimed sources of that increased funding are dubious at best. Cutting social services would be highly unpopular, but military defeat would be catastrophic. Already, the Ministry of Finance has announced the reallocation of 6.7 trillion roubles (US$75 billion).

Similarly, unpopular reforms have been stayed. Chiefly, new digital conscription laws, passed in mid-April, are yet to be activated. Ongoing high casualties in Ukraine and ineffective offensive operations combined with a renewed post-election political mandate will probably see Putin start using the new system.

Sanctions and support for Ukraine have compounded the pressure on the Kremlin, and it’s important that it be sustained even as other geopolitical crises require attention and resources.

Rigged or not, Russia’s election matters—because of the regime’s extensive and obvious interference, not despite it. Through the campaign period, Putin will attempt to dominate information and sell economic success. He will stoke international division and coerce domestic political dissidents.

A serious challenge to Putin isn’t likely to emerge by March. But it’s worth remembering that Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny was unprecedented. At the very least, the election is an important opportunity to observe an opaque political system in one of its rare clearer moments.

This article was published by The Strategist.