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26 April, 2018  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

The choice of the autocrat

How the re-election of Vladimir Putin revealed Russia’s weaknesses and can benefit Ukraine

On March 18 Russia held its presidential election. Nothing unexpected happened: according to preliminary data from the Central Election Commission, the turnout was 67.4%. Of these, 76.6% voted for Vladimir Putin. It is difficult to establish how much these results line up with Putin's actual rating, as data from Kremlin sociologists does not inspire confidence. In any case, the Russians have accepted this result, so until at least 2024 they will live in a world constructed for them by Putin. Despite the mass vote rigging and illegal voting in the annexed Crimea, Putin's legitimacy is recognised by the international community as well. However, the immovability of the Putin regime is only superficial, as evidenced by the bustle behind the scenes of the electoral performance.

Anatomy of the performance

The staged character of the Russian elections was obvious. According to the Russian media, the Kremlin followed the 70/70 formula, setting the goal of ensuring at least 70% turnout and at least 70% support for Putin. Implementing this plan was not so easy: the civic movement Golos [Voice], which monitored the election process, collected 2,927 reports of violations. They mainly concern using administrative pressure to ensure high turnout. There were many cases when people were obliged to report on how they voted by calling their supervisors or posting selfies from polling stations. A carrot was added to the stick. Fairs and festivities were held near voting stations and in places coupons were handed out alongside ballot papers for a prize draw offering smartphones, concert tickets, trips to Crimea, etc. The required result was also ensured by more traditional means: ballot stuffing, carousel voting and other falsifications right under the lenses of video cameras that were live streaming the vote. In order to create the impression of control over the procedure, the Central Election Commission voided results from five polling stations, but this did not affect the overall outcome.

In such a manner, the Putin regime has sufficiently prepared Russia for the dismantlement of democracy. Still, he does not feel confident enough to openly reject it by abandoning electoral formalities. This is not only about Putin's personal wishes. Like any dictator, he is a derivative of the interests of the Russian elite who are interested in preserving the status quo. These circles do not profess democratic values, but they are not ready to transition to obvious dictatorship either. This is not only out of fear of inevitable sanctions from the West, but also because of the lack of alternative mechanisms for constructing the legitimacy of Putin's authority.

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Taking into account the purely nominal election campaign and the fact that the winner was known in advance, what happened in Russia in mid-March was more reminiscent of a referendum of confidence in Putin. If the Kremlin can carry out such operations, this is evidence of the regime's sufficient power and the fact that Russian society is not an actor in domestic policy regardless of whether it is due to sincere loyalty, conformism or fear. At the same time, it also demonstrates the Kremlin's hidden uncertainty, as Putin's victories are organised in a sterile, totally uncompetitive political space.

Imitation of elections under non-democratic regimes carries out another important function – proving once and for all that there is no alternative to the unchanging ruler and demonstrating the insignificance and helplessness of his opponents. This function was performed by elections in the USSR, where the leader always won with a stunning advantage, just like in Putin's Russia. For 18 years in a row, the Kremlin has repeated a scenario in which candidates from the official (i.e. puppet) opposition comprised of the Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party pretend to oppose Putin in conjunction with a situational selection of marginalised liberal dissenters. This backdrop of carefully selected political nobodies makes it easier to create the impression of a popularly beloved leader. The image of a "national leader" was strengthened by the Kremlin's political strategists: this time Putin stood for election not as representative of Yedinaya Rossiya [United Russia] party, but “at the request of the working people”, quite literally. Putin announced his intention to participate in the polls during a visit to the GAZ car factory in Nizhniy Novgorod, where the workers asked him to give them such a “gift”.

The electoral corps de ballet

“We participate in the elections while knowing the result, because Putin has a huge advantage over all of us.” These words, said by candidate Boris Titov, are an epigraph to the entire election campaign in Russia. Titov himself, an employee of the Presidential Administration, was merely a dummy candidate and received 0.7%. However, the rest of the players danced their part in the same corps de ballet too. As usual, Putin's main sparring partner was the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which, instead of the washed-up Gennady Zyuganov, put forward non-partisan businessman Pavel Grudinin, director of the Lenin State Farm near Moscow. The entire political legend of Grudinin was built around this enterprise portraying him as a saviour of his farm from the ruins of the 1990s, a modernizer and a builder of “communism” in one village with free housing, high wages and other benefits. Obviously, the Kremlin assigned Grudinin the role of a spokesman for social discontent before sinking the “red director” in the run-up to the election. This was not hard to do – 13 of Grudinin's undeclared bank accounts, including some in Switzerland, surfaced two weeks before the election. After an intense smear campaign on state television and the internet, Grudinin ended up with 11% of the vote, forcing those who were nostalgic for the soviet time to re-focus their hopes on Putin.

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The radical imperial-chauvinist audience gathered around Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another unchanging sparring partner of the Kremlin's resident. By promising to “unite with the patriots of Novorossiya” and liberate Ukraine from the “Nazi regime”, he assembled an electorate that had not yet calmed down from the post-Crimean patriotic hysteria and demanded more than Putin was proposing. Sergei Baburin, a supporter of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev who was popular in the 90s and is now leader of the nationalist Russian All-People's Union, worked in tandem with Zhirinovsky. He repeatedly visited Donetsk following the occupation of parts of the Donbas and made terrorist Igor Girkin one of his authorised representatives after becoming a candidate. Zhirinovsky and Baburin converted the expectations of their electorate into a total 7% of vote (6% and 1% respectively), giving an outlet to the excess post-Crimea hysteria. In passing, they also scared respectable citizens with their brutal populism, mobilising them in support of Putin's “stability”.

The most brilliant victory organized by the Kremlin for Putin was over the liberals embodied by Grigory Yavlinsky and Ksenia Sobchak. After the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in February 2015, Alexey Navalny claimed leadership of this camp, but he was not permitted to take part in the polls by the Central Election Commission due to his previous convictions. He called for the boycott of elections, de facto working against the liberal candidates. Still, they had no chance regardless of Navalny.

Yavlinsky's star faded about fifteen years ago, but even then he scored less than 6% at the 2000 presidential election. He was also prevented from taking part in 2012, but now, seen as a no-risk competitor, he was allowed to run and score 1% of the vote. Ksenia Sobchak’s result was not much better at 1.7%. Despite her active civic engagement in recent years, for most Russians she remains a “spoilt blonde” – a glamorous, vulgar socialite from a TV show and the post-soviet version of Paris Hilton who was quickly reinvented as an opposition politician.

Cold war 2.0

The Kremlin has thus fulfilled its task and Putin entered another term without much trouble. Over the next six years, he will focus more on foreign policy while ignoring internal problems, which he has been openly neglecting since the occupation of Crimea. “Russia has an indisputable advantage over other countries, as it is governed directly by God. If this is not the case, it is unclear how it exists at all,” he recently quoted Burkhard Christoph von Münnich, an 18th-century general in the Russian Empire. However, Putin’s growing interest in geopolitics does not only come from his personal ambition to quickly write his name in world history. Another source is the purely practical calculations of the Russian elite.

For a long time, the loyalty of Russian society and its establishment has been insured by income from oil and gas. Part of it was spent on privileges for key social strata and a sort of “stability” for the rest. Now these resources are exhausted. In 2008, the Russian Stabilisation Fund was divided into the Reserve Fund and the National Welfare Fund. At the beginning of 2014, the Stabilisation Fund was worth about US $90 billion. By the end of 2017 it had emptied and was shut down. Now the National Welfare Fund will be used by the government to cover the budget deficit. It is estimated that this should be enough for another four years, and then it will be time to tap into the foreign exchange reserves. Therefore, the Kremlin needs to look for a new model for keeping the population loyal. It seems that it will be based on an external threat.

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Putin described this scenario in his latest address to the Federal Assembly, essentially presenting a renewed Cold War paradigm. It was then that he first talked not about succession, but about the oneness between Russia and the USSR, describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a territorial loss for Russia itself. In addition, the theme of the nuclear war with the West returned to the Kremlin's official rhetoric: in one interview, Putin spoke in an eschatological tone, posing the rhetorical question “Why do we need a world with no Russia in it?” In the context of such apocalyptic rhetoric, a Russian Wunderwaffen was presented – the Sarmat intercontinental missile that allegedly has a nuclear engine, an unlimited range and an unpredictable trajectory while being invulnerable to any missile defence system. It is impossible to interpret this in any way other than a preview of a continued hybrid war and an escalated cold one. In addition, Putin's speech before the Federal Assembly was full of calls for unity and solidarity in the face of new threats. The official pre-election information was broadcast in the same tone. The common denominator of its content was encapsulated in a video that even leading Western media outlets turned their attention to. The essence was that neglecting the elections (i.e. not voting for Putin) would lead to a catastrophe: families would have to take in homosexuals, school education would cost millions and even elderly men would be taken away by the army. According to the plot, this was the nightmare of a common man who could not be bothered to go to the polling station in the evening. The main leitmotif of the official propaganda was formulated even more clearly by “head of the Crimea” Sergey Aksyonov: “This is not only our civil responsibility, but also our gratitude towards Russia, which saved our peninsula from the horrors of the civil war. Today, as in the days of the 'Crimean Spring', we need maximum mobilisation.”

The first decree issued by Putin right after the election to call up reservists for military training is significant in this context. However, the Kremlin will most likely look for “small victorious wars” and hybrid conflicts that will not lead to open confrontation with the West. Russia is pushed towards this option not only by the depletion of its economic resources, but also its progressing military and technical obsolescence. Presenting the Sarmat rocket, there is a good reason why the Kremlin only showed an animation. Real rocket launches have not been going so well in Russia lately. In November 2017, a Soyuz-2 rocket exploded shortly after take-off, a Soyuz-U burned up in the atmosphere in December 2016 and overall there have been 11 accidents during or after rocket launches since 2010. The Zapad-2017 military exercises were also unsuccessful: a helicopter struck the audience, a fighter plane crashed and a bomber fell apart right on the runway. So the Kremlin will mainly hype up the Cold War 2.0 in the heads of the Russians themselves.

A lesson for Ukraine

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the Russian elections are an extremely useful case study. First, they show how much an authoritarian regime reliant on a rent-seeking elite can degenerate. It is likely that Viktor Yanukovych and Co. were preparing something similar for Ukraine. Secondly, it is proof that there are no "friends of Ukraine" on the Russian political scene. True, there were some differences between the candidates regarding the “Ukrainian question”. While Zhirinovsky, Baburin and Grudinin announced their intentions to annex the “LNR and DNR”, Sobchak and Yavlinsky on the contrary insisted on ending the war as soon as possible and returning the Donbas to Ukraine. But, in essence, these are only different versions of the Kremlin's plans: Zhirinovsky continues to broadcast the dream of “Novorossiya” from Kharkiv to Odesa, while the liberals reproduce the present “peacekeeping” rhetoric of the Kremlin. “It is absolutely abnormal when, instead of constructive development between two close, brotherly countries that are actually parts of one people, a situation emerges like the one we are seeing today,” Putin said in January 2018. “To quarrel with your nearest people and closest neighbour is really a huge tragedy. Both for us and for you,” Sobchak said a few weeks earlier. “We should not allow politicians to drive a wedge between our brotherly nations,” she specified on Matvey Ganapolsky's radio show.

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But the true attitude of Russia's liberal opposition towards Ukraine comes to the surface on the topic of Crimea. While open imperialists such as Zhirinovsky call the annexation of the peninsula a manifestation of Russia's historical right, Russian liberals have come up with a more sophisticated way to deny Crimea's return to Ukraine. Yavlinsky, Sobchak and Navalny all admit that the “referendum” carried out at the barrel of Russian guns was fake and illegitimate. However, they all unanimously insist that in order to solve the problem it is necessary not to return Crimea to Ukraine, but to hold another referendum there, only this time according to all international standards and even with the participation of Ukraine. Indeed, during her election campaign Sobchak tried to get official permission to visit the peninsula, but it is difficult to believe in her respect for Ukrainian sovereignty. Firstly, she intended to go Crimea as a candidate – even an opposition one – to urge the local population to participate in illegal elections organised by the occupying authorities. And secondly, Sobchak visited Crimea as a journalist in summer 2014 without asking for permission. It is not about Sobchak herself, of course, but the fact that “a Russian democrat ends where the Ukrainian question begins”, even if today this democrat is criticising Putin.

In this sense, various subtypes of Russian imperialists who differed in everything except their contempt for Ukrainian sovereignty competed in the elections. This, as surprising as it may sound, is good news, because Ukraine's main historical task today is decolonisation and gaining independence from the former parent state. As the experience of the last four years shows, this process has been much faster in the context of Russian aggression, although at a much higher cost. Pro-Russian sentiment among Ukrainians has reached a historic minimum, nationalist rhetoric can be heard from the state's top dignitaries, de-communisation was completed without obstruction, de-Russification has been launched and an open pro-Russian position guarantees marginality, if not political death. The geopolitical position of Ukraine has also changed dramatically: thanks to Russian aggression, we have a chance to accelerate our integration into Euro-Atlantic political and security structures. In this sense, Putin is indeed one of the main drivers of Ukrainian decolonisation and the guarantor of Ukrainian-Russian non-brotherhood. So, things are moving in the right direction.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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