Russians headed to the polls on Sunday to determine Russia’s next president, even though the results are already about 99.9 percent certain. Incumbent Vladimir Putin will unquestionably win a fourth term in office.
It’s no secret that Putin enjoys significant popular support across Russia. His approval rating has held at around 80 percent for the last four years, ever since Russia annexed Crimea, according to the Levada Center, the country’s only independent polling outlet.
Yet a vibrant opposition movement continues to unmask the government’s head-spinning corruption and gather tens of thousands in protest nationwide, which could ostensibly indicate that Putin’s days are numbered.
It isn’t so simple. Putin has developed an intricate set of techniques designed to placate his people, offering up what may look like democracy only to systematically chip away at it simultaneously. He won’t seize power by force, in other words, but he’ll make sure he does what he needs to do to win re-election.
He does have his work cut out for him, though. The cornerstone of this year’s strategy has relied upon physically getting people to the polls, making his victory look a little less like a foregone conclusion, while keeping the opposition on a tight leash.
High turnout is this year’s end game
The Kremlin has focused its efforts in the months leading up to the election on garnering a high voter turnout as a means to validate Putin’s victory. He’s facing expectations of a particularly low turnout, the Levada Center predicted, due to widespread apathy surrounding a political process that is largely predetermined. Parliamentary elections in 2016 drew only 47 percent of voters, the lowest number in Russia’s history.
“This is the election with no choice,” Nikita Pavlov, a resident of the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, told the BBC. He’s six days shy of being old enough to vote. “It doesn’t matter, I wouldn’t have voted anyway.”
Reports of incentives peppering the country to get people to the polls have abounded. Some include changing the date of the election to coincide with the annexation of Crimea, a move that has proven hugely popular among Russians; raffling cars and iPhones; and selling basic goods like sugar and meat at reduced rates at special stands set up near polling stations.
Putin wants the process to look as democratic as possible, Olga Oliker, the director of the Russia and Eurasia studies program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, told HuffPost. “Ideally they’d like a nice, strong turnout without having to do any of that but they’re prepared if it goes another way. The goal is to get a large number of people to vote for Putin. But ballot boxes will [still probably] be stuffed.”
What happened to the protests?
Mass protests have been relatively nonexistent in advance of this year’s election ― barring one day of mass demonstrations in late January across the country ― compared to this time six years ago when Putin was last up for re-election. It’s not that fewer people are frustrated with Putin, Oliker said. But given the government’s obsession with voter numbers, the choice not to vote holds new appeal for those who don’t support him.
Alexei Navalny, one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders (whom Putin has barred from running in the election), decided to zero in on an election boycott versus his more traditional strategy of merely organizing protests and rallies.
“We refuse to call the reappointment of Putin an election,” Navalny said in a statement. “We are not going to vote and will convince everyone around us not to vote. We are going to campaign [for a boycott] with all our might.”
But the Kremlin can expect protests to pick back up after the election, at which point Putin will continue to face the reality that the energy for dissent in Russia is only growing louder, said Alina Polyakova, a Brookings Institution David M. Rubenstein fellow in the foreign policy program’s Center on the United States and Europe.
Not only are the protesters who have entered the scene in the last few years more spread out geographically than those who partook in demonstrations around the 2012 election, she noted, but they’re also much younger. They’re the group the Kremlin fears most.
“From Putin’s point of view, this generation of people born around the year 2000 when he came to power are really Putin’s generation ― they only have known Putin, they’re supposed to be the loyalists,” Polyakova said.
An internal debate in the Kremlin has swirled for years on whether to let the protests naturally peter out or forcefully put an end to them, added Oliker.
“These two viewpoints take turns winning out,” she said, “but what we saw in the most recent protests is that the Kremlin largely left the protesters alone, which draws less attention and everyone goes home. It’s probably the smart thing to do because the opposition isn’t smart or unified enough” for people to view them as a viable alternative to Putin.
Is Putin threatened by his opponents?
The seven candidates running against Putin wouldn’t be allowed to have their names on the ballot if Putin himself hadn’t in some way approved their candidacies, Polyakova said. They legitimize the electoral process, all the while making Putin look good.
Putin’s opponents are well aware that they have no shot of winning, Oliker added. But the act of running, aside from aiding Putin, can in some cases be self-serving. In the case of Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian socialite and media presenter turned opposition figure, the election may represent the beginnings of what she hopes is an eventual political career.
Sobchak is “trying to establish herself as a political actor in Russia and globally and run for Parliament next year,” Oliker predicted. “She does genuinely believe things she says, just doesn’t expect to win the presidency. She believes that her candidacy will convince the Kremlin that they need to hand over power peacefully to someone like her.”
She doesn’t hesitate to call out Russia for all of its afflictions, according to Polyakova, but she does so tactfully.
“She’s there to soak up the Moscow and St. Petersburg liberals — let’s give them somebody who talks like a liberal, looks like liberal. She criticizes corruption but doesn’t name names, doesn’t air out dirty laundry.”
Then there’s the case of Navalny, whose entire career is defined by airing out dirty laundry. He and his team produce well-researched exposés revealing the layers of corruption linked to Putin and his inner circle. In addition to leaving him out of this year’s election, the Kremlin regularly raids his campaign offices, seizing materials and electronics, and is on a crusade to shut down his social media channels.
There’s no doubt the Kremlin views him as a threat, so they try to “undermine Navalny any way they can,” Polyakova added.
Yet his movement still has a long way to go, Oliker said, because he would never be able to beat Putin in an election. Navalny and his team “are able to galvanize people who are willing to come out into the streets and protest,” but the opposition is still too fractured to make a difference at the polls. “They have one guy and they organize meetings. But if [Navalny] were to come to power, who would he draw on?”
This story has been updated to remove a photo of a polling station in Moldova.