As the dust settles after the September elections into the State Duma, several important factors define the outlook for 2024, when Putin will likely seek to extend his Presidential tenure for another term— and, if in case of success, stay in power indefinitely.
Firstly, popular support for the current regime in Russia is at its historic low. Electoral mathematician Sergey Shpilkin, who has analyzed Russian elections for more than a decade and developed an effective methodology for extracting real electoral results filtering out fraud, estimates that the ruling party United Russia received 31-33% of the votes. This is consistent with other sources of data (including the opinion polls by WCIOM, FOM, Levada Center) that peg the support for the ruling party at around 30%.
Mr. Shpilkin’s analysis demonstrates that the ‘Constitutional majority’ in the Duma now claimed by the United Russia has been achieved through massive fraud at the level unseen before. He does so by comparing the relatively reliable voting protocols from polling stations monitored by independent observers (which normally see the turnout at around 30-40% and vote for ‘United Russia’ at 30% or only slightly higher) to the outlandish protocols from the rest of almost 97,000 Russian polling stations, which did not have substantive observation efforts.
Even Putin himself is no longer capable of breaking through the 30% support ceiling. A recent Levada Center poll pegs him at exactly that level of support, if one considers respondents who gave him positive marks. Where does the rest of the 60% supporters come from? That’s people who have more neutral views of him, but simply see no alternative, or are afraid of radical changes as such. This type of approval hardly evokes confidence.
The September Duma elections have uncovered the legitimacy crisis befallen the Russian Government — unprecedented since Putin’s rise to power in 2000. Even thoroughly brainwashed by the state propaganda, Russians do not believe in the fairness of the Duma elections. According to the October 2021 Levada Center poll, public opinion is split on fairness of the September elections, with only 14% of Russians considering them “definitely free and fair”, against 24% who view the elections as “definitely unfree and unfair”.
When it comes to the prospect of extending Putin’s Presidential tenure beyond 2024, one thing is clear— he doesn’t have the required majority support. The October Levada Center poll records only 47% of support of people who want to see him in power beyond 2024, with 42% opposed.
Among Russians aged 40 and younger, and among the people who get their daily news from the Internet (as opposed to television), there’s a prominent majority opposed to the extension of Putin’s rule. This trend will only get worse for Putin: polling data on Russians’ media consumption shows that the share of TV as the main source of information has been steadily declining, the role of Internet growing), and the gap is closing.
Given the evolving demographics and media landscape, Putin will likely face much steeper political challenges in 2024 compared to today.
The second important factor is grounded in the state of Russian economy. There are no reasons to expect any improvements in the social and economic situation in Russia, which is the major source of public discontent with Putin and his ruling party. Consider the draft federal budget for 2022-2024 recently submitted by the Russian Government to the State Duma: it doesn’t envisage growth of Russians’ real incomes in 2022-2024 higher than 2-2,5% per year. However, even this is likely an overly optimistic projection with the inflation likely to spoil the Government’s rosy 4% forecast. In the past few years, a higher-than-expected inflation was the key factor dragging real incomes into negative territory.
Putin’s new budget is not focused on growth. Its assumption that GDP growth will reach steady 3% in 2022-2024 is not realistic, given the fact that there are no growth factors seen on the horizon. Capital is fleeing Russia, foreign direct investment is in decline, sanctions are still on, structural reforms are not even on the agenda, tax burden is high, government-sponsored investments in ‘national projects’ aren’t working.
Russian opposition spares no effort in broadcasting its key message to the Russian people: continued Putin’s rule means long years of stagnation, isolation, confrontation with the civilized world.
Increasingly, polling data shows that, although still generally skeptical of the West, Russians are tired of confrontation and living in the ‘besieged fortress’ mode and prefer normalization of relations with developed countries. August 2021 poll by Levada reflects that the number of Russians agreeing that the country is in international isolation has reached a historic high stands at 57%, with 57% of respondents saying that they consider the West to be either ‘friend’ (13%) or ‘ally’ (44%) – while only 34% view the West as ‘adversary’ (29%) or ‘enemy’ (5%).
This data suggests that ‘wartime mobilization’ as an instrument for boosting Putin’s popularity is becoming more problematic and a new international confrontation will most likely do Putin more harm than good domestically.
Putin is heading toward a very difficult path to 2024— with popularity already low, and no visible factors to boost it and the legitimacy crisis only deepening. However, Putin clearly remains undeterred. The brutal repressions of 2021 and a dramatic boost in spending on security and police forces (+17,4% overall, +12,5% on National Guard in 2022 as opposed to 2021) in the draft federal budget for 2022-2024 give away Putin’s plans. He will continue to aggress, oppress and imprison people, but will not tolerate their free will to change Russia’s leadership and the country political course.
However, Russians have also lost their illusions about Putin— as manifested in Putin’s inability to boost ‘United Russia’s approval ratings during the election campaign, despite of intense personal involvement in the campaign unseen since the 2007 Duma elections. Putin had personally chosen and announced the top 5 figures on the ‘United Russia’ electoral party list, he had allocated a payment of 10,000 rubles (approximately $140)— to the Russian pensioners. None of that worked to improve the ruling party’s approval ratings. Putin’s magic has worn off.
The opposition is focused on increasing domestic pressure on Putin in the coming months and years. Putin’s plan to banish Alexey Navalny’s network hasn’t worked. Having suffered significant setbacks, Navalny’s team still continues to operate and broadcast from abroad, thanks to the support of democratic governments which have provided the ability to relocate for many of the Russian opposition activists facing persecution. After withstanding the initial blow, the opposition was able to gradually recover, increase its broadcasting and mobilization capacity, and put a serious test for Putin during the Duma elections. Despite nominally having reached ‘constitutional majority’ in the new Duma, ‘United Russia’ candidates struggled in most districts challenged by the Navalny Smart Voting candidates, and the fight across most of the country was equally challenging. Moscow and St. Petersburg were unequivocally lost by the ruling party, with the situation “corrected” through fraudulent electronic voting system in Moscow and complete rewriting of protocols in St. Petersburg. Next time around, if popular mobilization grows even a little, even massive fraud would not save Putin from electoral loss.
Naturally, Putin and his circle are not too happy about the Duma election results. They have been raging— punishing Russian civil society with a new wave of repressions, criminal investigations, prison sentences, labeling more NGOs and individuals as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesired organizations’. As Putin’s support continues to slide, more repression should be expected. Russia is heading toward a stormy showdown, as happened many times in our history, when an obsolete dictatorship refused to listen to a growing popular demand for change.
However, the resistance is not subsiding, as many brave Russians are fed up with Putin’s mafia and his dead-end political course and are committed to keep fighting for freedom. There have been no major post-election street protests— simply because people want to regroup and understand the futility attacking the brutal repressive machine head-on. But the anger has not disappeared, and Russians will show it when time and circumstances permit. We will work tirelessly to make that happen— and the clock is ticking for Mr. Putin.