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Stress Test


It’s long been clear who will win Russia’s presidential election. But the campaign is laying bare the flaws within the system Vladimir Putin has created.

© REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko

In today’s Russia, elections are above all a stress test for the political system Putin has built. Even if the results of the presidential election scheduled for March 18 are already established, the “campaign” exposes both the strengths and the weaknesses of the reigning regime.

First off, it is important to clarify that these are not free and fair elections in which real candidates compete against each other and enjoy equal access to the media and the public. Instead, this is a collection of candidates selected by the Kremlin (including newcomer Ksenia Sobchak) who will run a pointless race that only Vladimir Putin can possibly win. Putin has all the resources of the state at his disposal and unlimited access to Russian media. The Kremlin will manage the entire process in minute detail. This presidential election is thus a referendum on Putin’s popularity more than anything else.

Second, the actual votes cast on election day are less important than what happens before and after. Who will actually go to the polls? Who will get access to the public, and how much? And which numbers will the Central Election Commission recognize when it’s all over? Even if there are once again irregularities on the day of the election, with groups bussed from one voting location to the next to cast their ballots for the correct candidate several times, the process has become more and more professional.

Despite exercising almost perfect control over the opposition, the media, and the NGOs, the regime is always nervous ahead of an election. It has no real contact with the public, and does not trust the people. With Russian political leaders, communication is a one-way street: The public is meant to be directed by what the regime communicates via the media, but the regime receives no communication back. It has to rely on opinion surveys to understand the mood of the population.

While Putin, as a non-ideological populist, has sought direct contact with Russians in his annual TV appearances, only carefully selected individuals are given the chance to bring their problems to the president, and only as an opportunity for him to display the full power of his office in solving them. Putin issues direct edicts to governors, CEOs, and managers to solve the problems he has chosen to address, and for a brief moment he seems to be in touch with the concerns of his citizens. To the viewer at home, the message is clear: The corrupt bureaucrats are responsible for their problems, not the president himself.

A Magnifying Glass

Against this background, the presidential campaign serves as a magnifying glass that exposes all the weaknesses of Putin’s system. Putin has been in power for 18 years now, and it is becoming harder and harder for his government to pretend to stand for any kind of innovation or change; the system is geared entirely towards retaining power and enriching its elites.

Despite Putin’s considerable foreign policy successes in 2017, both the president and the media have been focusing their attention for several months now on domestic politics. The “Crimea effect” has been exhausted, Ukraine is mentioned less and less in Russian media, and there is a growing desire among Russians to withdraw the country’s military forces from Syria. Putin has been listening and announced a massive troop withdrawal at the end of 2017. Even if he does not entirely follow through on this promise, the shift in the public’s attention to domestic concerns is unmistakable.

Thanks to the rising price of oil, the economy has begun to slowly recover. Despite the sanctions, the Russian state is doing better than many economists predicted. Yet the average Russian’s standard of living has been deteriorating for years. According to the state statistics office Rosstat, real income decreased 1.7 percent in 2017. Poverty, social justice, education, and the health care system are the topics that actually concern Russians. It is increasingly difficult for the government to distract from this socio-economic reality, and Putin’s campaign offers no solutions to these issues; the long-serving president represents only continuity and stability. The state-directed media work to make this look like an attractive platform, pointing to Islamist terror in Europe or the EU’s eternal existential crisis as the potential alternatives. Be happy, they say, that you’re living in Putin’s Russia: At least we guarantee you security and stability.

Many Russians buy into that, especially in the regions where memories of the catastrophic 1990s are still fresh. And it is important to remember that over 90 percent of Russians get their information from the national, Kremlin-directed TV channels. Many of the active, educated young elites left the country long ago to try their luck in the US or Europe.

Putin does not have a particular theme for this campaign and offers no specific prospects for his country’s future other than himself – which will not be enough. The journalist Oleg Kashin described the feelings of many Russians, especially those who live in the big cities: Even if the entire state apparatus works to secure six more years in power for Putin, the whole process seems unreal to many. Despite Putin’s consistently high approval ratings, a discussion has started to brew among intellectual and elite circles and even in the streets over what will come after Putin. Is he still the right person to determine the future of the country, and does he have answers to the country’s real problems? How much does he really understand the reality in which most Russians live?

The Anti-Putin

With his own campaign, opposition leader Alexei Navalny is making the weaknesses of Putin’s system clear. He is the only one waging a real election campaign, and by addressing topics like corruption, social justice, and freedom, the only one truly communicating with the people.

While Putin’s campaign relies on a negative worldview—the world is evil and Russia is surrounded by foes—Navalny appeals to Russian’s patriotism and their positivity, above all among younger Russians. Russia is a wonderful country, he says, and if it were not for the corrupt elites it could do much better—and Russian citizens have the power to change their country. While Putin speaks of the past, Navalny speaks of the future. He is the only real candidate, and he campaigns as if he could win the election.

Even if he never had a chance to be allowed to run, he has already changed Russian politics. With his social media presence, his website, and his YouTube channel, he is in continuous contact with his public, informing and motivating his supporters. Through a crowd-funding campaign, he has managed to open 84 regional offices and attract more than 200,000 volunteers.

With his ironic and lively videos, Navalny reaches young people whom Putin has failed to reach and who are not afraid to take to the streets. For the first time in post-war history, many young Russians are becoming engaged in politics. They do not see themselves as liberals, but rather as patriots; they want to live like people in the West, while maintaining their differences.

These self-organized campaigns worry the Kremlin. It has not organized them, and it cannot control them. Particularly when it comes to elections, authoritarian regimes do not like to leave anything to chance, even when there is little actual risk of losing control. Putin would also win if elections were free and fair, after all. This element of uncontrolled irrationality is something the powerful in Russia cannot allow. Thus, they are trying to silence Navalny: Putin will not speak his name, as though he would deny his very existence.

According to political scientist Alexander Kynev, Navalny is the first person in modern Russia to communicate a liberal political discourse in a language people can understand. He presents himself as a patriot and a nationalist; he supported the annexation of Crimea; and, unlike traditional Russian liberals, maintains few contacts abroad—yet his platform is a synthesis of freedom and justice. He is trying to create change within the system, and he is ultimately calling into question the fundamental power structure governing the state – yet another reason he is not allowed to campaign.

Ksenia Sobchak’s campaign, on the other hand, is targeted at a minority of Russians. With her references to European values, sanctions, the legalization of drugs, and LGBT rights, Kynev believes that Sobchak is consciously bypassing the majority and speaking to only a small group of the Russian population. She is committed to appealing to all the values that the regime has described as “liberal decadence” for years. In doing so, she is legitimizing the official discourse on the decadent, liberal elite, and making herself one of the political leadership’s favorite candidates.

Navalny is competing in earnest – he wants to build a parliamentary majority and change the system. Sobchak has no chance and will not win a majority of the vote for the foreseeable future. She has gained media access, however, and the chance to address the public in ways that are barred to Navalny. Thus, she has become a candidate for the powerful. There is no candidate “against everyone,” as Sobchak describes herself; each candidate either supports the current political arrangement or does not. And even opposing the current political constellation can be, in a certain sense, futile: Navalny’s appeal to boycott the election entirely will predominantly find an audience among the young people who would not have voted anyway.

Mobilization with Social Media

The video Navalny published in March 2017 revealing the riches amassed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has now been seen 26 million times. The fact that so many young people were engaged via social networks in such an apathetic, apolitical, paternalist system shows that even Russian society is going through a process of fundamental change.

The Putin system has been holding the lid down on Russian society since at least 2012, but pressure has been growing faster than outsiders have realized. Many Russian regions have seen an increasing number of spontaneous demonstrations, usually concerning social justice or mistakes made by local administrators. These protests have no common goal, and there are still no political leaders who could assemble these outcroppings of anger into a coherent movement. But it is evident that another six years of stagnating economic growth—particularly alarming in an emerging economy like Russia—will not be enough to satisfy people.

That means that President Putin, so successful in his international relations, will have to devote even more attention to domestic politics, and he will have fewer tools and resources to pacify his citizens and the country’s elites. He has no answers to challenges like digitalization, the future of education, the country’s demographic problems, and migration.

The country’s isolation and the black-and-white thinking of its leaders will simply not suffice in an increasingly complex world. One should not underestimate Putin’s flexibility and adaptability, but it is already clear that in many key areas Russia has gone off the rails. Representatives of the more liberal economic elite inside the system, like Sberbank head German Gref, are pushing for an improvement of the country’s geopolitical environment to prevent Russia from falling further behind in technological and social competitiveness. The brain drain of the past few years has led to a shortage of qualified specialists in technical fields, no matter how many personal visits Putin makes to important Russian technology companies like Yandex.

Putin’s power is built on two elements: First, it is based on his apparent closeness to the people and his image as a populist leader. Putin is becoming a sort of sacred figure within the state, a leader who single-handedly directs all the governing institutions—which tends to undermine the tough everyman image he projects in his televised discussions. Second, it relies on the institutionalization of Putin himself and his supposed ability to change the bureaucracy. He has begun to remove his old friends and acquaintances from his time in St. Petersburg and the KGB from key positions, replacing them with young, professional and technocratic officials.

A Shrinking Circle

As a result, Putin’s role within his system has grown even larger—he now makes all the decisions himself. His close circle has contracted so much that there is almost no one left to serve as any kind of counterweight. Sooner or later, this will inevitably lead to the question of how much responsibility he bears for the mistakes of his administrators.
At the same time, representatives of the security services have gained prominence in the bureaucratic apparatus. Vladimir Pastukhov, a political scientist and research associate at the University College London, says the competition among various groups within Putin’s circle to gain influence and resources is becoming an institutionalized battle between the civilian and military bureaucracies. That makes the system even more opaque and calls into question the degree of control Putin is able to exercise himself.

The prosecution of former Minister of Economic Development Alexey Ulyukaev and legal action against film director Kirill Serebrennikov have worried the elites. Whether someone is close to Putin or not, no one is safe. Putin’s system demands absolute loyalty; he has less and less patience for statements and behavior that indicate any kind of independent thought. If this trend continues, it can lead to destabilization.

The Russian presidential election may seem a boring, forgone conclusion. However, look more closely, and the fundamental changes reshaping Russian society become clear. If the political system cannot find answers to the questions Russians are increasingly asking, it will eventually be replaced. The longer the lid is held down, the longer the current challenges are ignored, the likelier it is that eventually there will be an explosion