Election postmortem

Mar 22 2018

Views on the “elections”

All of the presidential candidates running in Russia’s elections understood exactly what kind of game they were playing – “Putin fighting with no one but himself,” said Lilia Shevtsova of Chatham House, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday.

With eight names on the ballot, said Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia, “in reality, there was still the one.” “It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” he said, referring to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, who was banned from participating in the election.

While the true opposition candidates were kept away from the election, the alternatives offered to voters on the ballot could not be taken seriously, said Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, speaking at the Kennan Institute on Tuesday.

Experts have widely said that voting fraud, such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, were commonplace in Russia’s elections, even if there were fewer reported irregularities than in previous years. However, as political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted, the tactics have changed, with less of a focus on the ballot box and more on the manipulation of people, which is very similar to Soviet methods.

There has been a “mobilization” of regional leaders and employers, said Schulmann, referring to pressure put on employees at both state and private companies as well as students to vote. This “dependent electorate” helped boost turnout, which was more of a concern for the Kremlin than the outcome of the election, added Schulmann.

Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council said that although there is some genuine support of Putin, it remains “shallow” and this election wasn’t a “very impressive performance” in light of the absence of the competition, ridicule of other candidates and coercion to boost turnout.

A new level of dictatorship

Experts speaking at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute this week agreed there haven’t been democratic elections in Russia since 2004, when Putin was re-elected for his second presidential term. The Kremlin has increasingly gained control over the country’s regional powers since then, said Oreshkin, with the regions beginning to compete for Putin’s favoritism. Oreshkin characterized the regions where local elites are highly supportive of Putin as “electoral sultanates,” with 19 such regions in this election, although in the USSR power was even more absolute. “What we have now,” said Oreshkin, “is USSR in miniature”. Looking ahead, the regime will continue using Soviet methods, including a confrontation with the West, he said.

Sergey Parkhomenko of the Kennan Institute described a process of “vote harvesting”. After delivering strong results for Putin, the authorities start to believe in their cause, reinforcing their enthusiasm, said Parkhomenko. “This enthusiasm,” he said, “will become an important factor for Russia after the elections […] The tightening grip that we expect from the Russian regime is to some extent rooted in this strange psychological feeling.”

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said Putin’s official election result of almost 77% is something new for Russia and reflects the degree to which authoritarianism has developed. Rogov said the Kremlin has reached “mature authoritarianism,” where institutions have become so entrenched that the role of a particular leader is secondary. Rogov said that one should look beyond the idea of Putin’s widespread popularity. “It is not about the popularity of one person – it is an institutional issue,” said Rogov.

From left to right: Matthew Rojanksy, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA); Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst, Liberal Mission Foundation; Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst and political geographer; Sergey Parkhomenko, George F. Kennan Expert.

The current political system depends much less on one person than it appears, said Schulmann. “The personalization of the regime, as it seems to me, is highly overestimated,” she said, adding that during the Medvedev’s time as president, there were no major changes to the “political machine”.

Kara-Murza said dictators are known for producing strong elections results, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu garnering 89 percent and 98 percent of the votes in elections. However, these numbers neither reflect the reality nor really help the dictators themselves, Kara-Murza said. The Kremlin appears to be terrified of mass protests on the one hand, and on the other hand they ironically leave their citizens no other choice but to take to the streets, he said.

What next?

The Kremlin has found a role for Putin as a “defender of the fatherland,” said Shevtsova, but it has created a conflict between Putin’s agenda and the system. This system is largely dependent on Western finance, resources and technology, and the system also consists of the cronies in the West and “Londongrad”. “Putin has started to undermine the key principles of the current Russian state and the system’s survival,” said Shevtsova. “I would say that President Putin will be presiding over his last chapter”.

Putin also cannot change this system, said Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council, because the system, with $1 trillion of private money hidden offshore, supports him and those “lower down in the bread line” will stop supporting him if he tries to change it.

Rogov said that the assets owned by political and business elites close to Putin are not secured by anything but Putin’s power. However, Putin himself and his elite are also facing a generational shift, which further complicates the transition dilemma for Putin. Rogov ruled out the idea of a successor for Putin since “even a hand-picked successor such as Medvedev proved to be a difficult model because it provoked polarization among elites and society.”

It is also questionable whether the public’s acceptance of Putin’s role as “defender of the homeland” will prove sustainable, as the polls show a majority of people would like to see Russia as an economic power first and as a military power second, said Shevtsova. She said there are signs that society is fatigued with the regime and that a “regime without an idea, vision and mission cannot exist for a long time.”

Vershbow said that Putin’s policies will continue to exploit nationalism, at least in the short-term, which is still perceived as a “winning strategy,” based on the perception that Russia is a “besieged fortress” under attack by Western enemies. But, he said, people are becoming more “cautious” about the costs of this policy approach. “The Russian people may buy this in the short term, but I am not sure they are comfortable with this going forward,” said Vershbow. Although economic stagnation could also create public discontent, he doesn’t believe society will “boil to a degree of making changes.”

Kara-Murza and Shevtsova said Russia’s civil society should not be underestimated in their ability to respond to the current regime, although Shevtsova said that “people are demoralized in general after so many years of this zombie propaganda.” She expects political change could happen when the older generation of politicians retires and the Kremlin tries to “fill the vacuum”. A lot depends on the ability of civil society and the new Russian opposition to create resistance, she said.

Kara-Murza noted there are a lot of people, including the young generation, who reject the current regime. “Even if we forget about abuses and corruption, there are those who are tired of the same face on TV […] Don’t underestimate civil society,” he said, pointing to the protests of 2011. Russian history shows that changes may happen rapidly, said Kara-Murza.

By Valeria Jegisman

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