By Murray Lang
Correspondent, International Relations & Russian
In March, Russia will hold an election. There will be campaigns of a sort. There will be debates and interviews. There will even be opposition rallies and protests. But none of this will change the result that Putin will serve a fourth term as president. But it is clear that he cannot go on forever. Already the Russian elite is distancing itself from the presidential office, the courts and bureaucracy are asserting themselves, and ordinary people can’t help but ask: what comes after Putin?
It is in this context that the Russian election is important for seeing what sort of Russia will emerge post-Putin. In this election it is possible to see competing visions for what comes next. There are many opposition candidates, often tied to Putin, or running because of Kremlin influence whereby the Kremlin is creating the impression of democracy while the result is never in doubt. It is described best by Peter Pomerantsev’s book and particularly its title “Nothing is true and everything is Possible”. The candidates who stand are too weak or subservient, and often have close ties to the Russian elite and sometimes Putin himself. When charismatic, popular figures who challenge Putin’s authority emerge they are banned from standing in elections, harassed, arrested and sometimes exiled.
This represents another issue in the election; while the result is predetermined, Putin and his party— United Russia— have been governing since the 2000s, and people are tired of them. In the past they worked hard to create the impression, if not the reality, of democracy, and in previous elections they have chosen candidates who can be trusted to not attack the system and who appeal to relatively few voters. They want the appearance of opposition, campaigns and competitiveness. And it helps to have a high voter turnout to do this. This is democracy produced like a reality show, with characters introduced to entertain and plot lines produced in advance, though ultimately without any real novelty and surprise beyond cheap theatre. But this has all been done before, and like all reality shows people have become bored of it.
Putin remains powerful and popular, with a recent poll (admittedly from a state media company) in Russia saying that 81% of Russians would vote for him, however his influence is waning. While he still occupies a central role in foreign policy, his influence domestically is declining either through choice, disregard for the dull domestic politics, or the greater independence of the courts, which was on full display in the prosecution of his former economic development minister Alexei Ulyukayev. This points to members of the inner circle beginning to pursue their own interests at the expense of Putin. It could also be that Putin has become tired and less interested in governing now that he is 65 and has been in power for a long time.
To solve this, the Kremlin has come up with a solution allowing opposition figures to seriously criticise the government. There are two plans in particular, one involves the daughter of Putin’s mentor the other, and the other, a populist candidate from the Communist party. The first is Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s mentor, who is naturally close to the Russian elite— so close she reportedly told Putin in person she was running. Paradoxically this closeness is allowing her to criticise the regime in a way that over official candidates would never be able to. She has strongly condemned the corruption at the heart of modern day Russia.
The other is Pavel Grudinin, a former member of United Russia who is still close to its local Moscow leadership, and claims to be Russia’s Donald Trump. He appears to be independently mined with a strong following on YouTube, his videos normally get around 800,000 views, and he owns a fruit farm on the outskirts of Moscow (along with construction and property companies). He is someone whose videos are retweeted by Alexei Navalny (Russian anti-corruption campaigner).
This reveals that the Russian authorities are growing more comfortable with criticism, yet there are still suggestions that he is a Kremlin backed candidate. The official opposition to Putin is still only those who the Kremlin thinks they can control or believe appeal to relatively few voters. But they are raising controversial issues in the election and talking about them in a way that was previously unimaginable in Russia. However, those the Kremlin view as an existential threat still face harassment and arrest.
The most well-known and credible opposition figure—Alexei Navalny—will not be on the ballot in March, or for the foreseeable future, but he will be prominent in any opposition campaign. He was banned from standing, but he remains the most well-known and effective opposition to Putin. He is boycotting the election and refusing to support any opposition candidate, saying (justifiably) the entire process is corrupt.
Still, he continues to travel around the country drawing large crowds and with them conflict with the authorities. Most recently he was arrested by police using extreme force. He continues to draw attention to the corruption of the Russian elite, by engaging in activities like flying a drone over the mansions of politicians and their families. But his very existence and perseverance, and indeed the fact that people keep showing up to his rallies points to the desire for an alternative.
What is happening is that has the end of Putin’s presidency is coming closer. There are clear alternatives emerging as to what Russia will become. It can continue down the authoritarian path laid out by Putin and his party, or it can liberalise and embrace democracy and hold genuinely competitive elections, but while the election’s result is certain the consequences are far from obvious or predictable.