by Maia Otarashvili*
Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced that he will seek reelection next year. Although it is commonly understood that the March 2018 Russian presidential elections will be a mere technicality as Putin is practically guaranteed to win, the pre-election period will still include a number of unknown factors. Will Putin make an effort to create an actual election platform which will promise reforms and improved quality of life for Russians? Will he continue to count on his foreign adventures to serve as popularity stunts and examples of his many accolades? Will the Russian people, although dissatisfied with growing poverty and diminishing access to social services at home, quietly opt for more of the same in the name of safety and stability? And finally, what will happen to the opposition movements and the masses of disillusioned young protesters throughout Russia? Early months of 2018 will surely reveal answers to these pressing questions and thus shape Russia’s near future.
PUTIN IN CHARGE FOR A QUARTER CENTURY
On December 6, at a relatively low-key concert dedicated to the 85th anniversary of a car factory in a small industrial Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, Putin announced that he will run in the March 2018 presidential elections, seeking a fourth term as Russia’s president. By March 2018, Putin will have spent over 18 years serving either as President or Prime Minister of Russia. He first became Prime Minister of Russia in 1998 under President Boris Yeltsin. Putin served as Prime Minister until 2000, at which point he was elected president for the first time. He served two terms, and in 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev was elected the President of Russia, Putin became Prime Minister as the Russian constitution did not allow for Putin to run for the third consecutive term. During his second tenure as Prime Minister, Putin was still seen as the top decision-maker in the Kremlin. Early in his presidency, Medvedev amended the constitution extending the presidential term from four to six years. The decision was to take effect after the 2012 presidential election. After Medvedev’s first presidential term ended in 2012, Putin ran for reelection and became president for the third time. Russians protested, but the demonstrations were crushed by the government with violent force. In March 2018, Russians will elect a president for another six year term, and there is very little doubt that Putin will win again. This will mean that by the time his second set of two presidential terms are up, Putin will have ruled Russia for a quarter of a century. It seems that Putin is working hard to cement his status as one of the greatest leaders in Russian history. Should the March elections go as expected, by the end of his term in 2024 Putin will be the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin (who ran the USSR for 29 years).
IS FOREIGN POLICY ENOUGH?
In the 18 years (so far) as the leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin has managed to bring the country out of the limbo of post-Soviet transition and reestablish it as a regional hegemon and a formidable international actor. Putin’s third term as president brought about a different, aggressive, ambitious, openly anti-democratic and anti-liberal Russia. He has managed to challenge the existing global order, help destabilize Western democracies, and even take on two of the most powerful global actors, the United States and NATO. Putin continuously and openly questions the concepts America holds dear like Western liberal democracy, the global spread of democracy, the importance of international organizations, collective security, and the very nature of the post-World War II order which eschews the idea of great power politics. In doing so, Putin’s vision has managed to manifest into reality: Western liberal democracies are now weakened under tremendous authoritarian pressure; many of the recently consolidated democracies are now backsliding; and international organizations such as the European Union are victim to skepticism at home as they undergo painful changes thanks to Brexit and rising far-right nationalism in places like Hungary and Poland. Great power politics is starting to trump the post-WWII order – smaller, weaker countries like Ukraine are indeed defenseless against regional hegemons like Russia, a reality that was very harshly illustrated by Putin when he annexed Crimea and started backing the still-ongoing civil war in eastern Ukraine.
In places like the Middle East, where the United States has waged long wars and taken upon itself the apparently impossible task of establishing stable and lasting peace, Russia is now a major player. Putin’s recent visit to Syria was a good reminder of that. Now that he is presidential candidate Putin, he will stage such heroic acts as visiting multiple countries in the Middle East and North Africa in just one day. On December 11, he visited Syria and Egypt. In Syria, he met with Assad and declared victory over terrorists, telling a large part of the Russian military personnel to prepare to be sent home. Russian General Sergey Surkovkin, who commanded the contingent at the last stage of the Syria operations, told the Russian media that approximately 7,000 flights of Russian aircraft and the same number of helicopters were being committed to Syria, about 32,000 terrorists and nearly 400 tanks were destroyed, and almost 1,000 settlements were liberated. In his speech, Putin said that Russia has had to make great sacrifices and endure terrible losses in this war. “But it will not make us fold our hands and retreat, it’s not in the nature of our people at all. … On the contrary, this memory [loss] will give us additional forces for eradicating that absolute evil, which is terrorism, under whatever face it hides and disguises itself.” Three hours later, Putin flew to Egypt to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with whom Putin has managed to build a close relationship and has secured lucrative arms deals for Russia.
Looks like Putin, the international strongman, and Russia, a rising global superpower will be on full display during the next three months of election season as he will dial-up the foreign policy discussions in his media appearances and public speeches. In his annual press conference on December 14th Putin eloquently spoke of the North Korea challenge, of the weak and mindless United States, and of Ukraine – an example to avoid. He has made Crimea a national pride issue, jailing many activists who believe Crimea belongs to Ukraine. He has even created a law to make sure such “unpatriotic” Russians get their punishment. Russia’s “law of separatism” allows the government to imprison individuals for up to five years if they make public calls against the territorial integrity of Russian Federation, i.e. statements against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The “calls for separatism” can be anything from statements made through traditional media outlets to social media posts.
GRIM OUTLOOK AT HOME
While Putin’s decisively aggressive foreign policies are earning him popularity points at home (he still enjoys an 81% approval rating according to Levada Center’s December statistics), the life of regular Russians is less than ideal. The burden of the economic sanctions and the country’s expensive foreign wars is starting to take its toll on the domestic conditions. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the Russian economy began to boom and most Russians saw a major improvement in their quality of life. But as Russian political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky recently articulated, now “the standard of living is falling, education and medicine are inaccessible, taxes are rising. But the financial resources go to Ukraine and Syria.” Preobrazhensky, like many of his colleagues, does not even expect Putin to include reform plans in these areas in his pre-election campaign, not even in the form of false promises: “Not a word about the education reform, which is no longer free of charge for most Russians. Not a word about the collapsing health care system.” Instead, Putin is expected to play with people’s patriotic emotions by promising greater benefits for retired military and police forces and announcing a handful of new infrastructure projects, which will likely put a greater strain on the state budget. But all-in-all, Putin is expected to offer more of the same: project great Russian power abroad, keep Russians “safe” at home by fighting terrorism in places like Syria, and “protect” the rights of those Russians who live outside of its borders, in places like Ukraine.
Will this type of an election platform be an easy sell for Mr. Putin? After all, the falling quality of life in Russia is further exacerbated by the growing isolation from the West that many Russians now have to face. As a result of worsened U.S.-Russia relations, the U.S. embassy has had to significantly reduce its staff in Russia, which means that most Russians simply don’t have access to U.S. consular services and have to travel to other countries, like Ukraine, to apply for and obtain American visas. In even more devastating news for Russians, thanks to state-backed systematic doping, Russia has been barred from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. But when it comes to Russia’s isolation from the West, or the material consequences that the Russian people have to pay at least in part thanks to Putin’s policies, public opinion is divided. Putin’s staunch supporters blame the West, and America in particular, for their troubles—sparking further anti-Western sentiment in Russia. But the youth blame Putin and demand change.
Among those disillusioned Russians are the youth movements behind the anti-corruption activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. They strictly oppose Putin, the only leader they have ever known or remember. The Navalny-led movements were gaining major momentum throughout 2017, but he was arrested so many times on trumped-up charges that this momentum never managed to grow powerful enough to actually challenge the continuation of Putin’s reign. Now, Navalny has been barred from participating in the elections due to his criminal record. He was arrested multiple times over the past several years for staging anti-government protests. He has, however, released his pre-election presidential platform. The plan is promising and radical as expected. It offers a number of social welfare reforms, including a promise to double the pensions. It also promises to create a special anti-corruption task-force and decentralize Russia’s state authority. It is unclear how Navalny plans to get his name on the ballot, considering the long list of reasons why he’s not allowed to run.
As Russian political analyst Oleg Kashin recently described it, the pool of oppositionists who will run against Putin in March is actually a swamp made up of some political veterans and less-than serious contenders, like the eccentric communist-party leader Gennady Zuganov and equally as eccentric far-right party leader Vladimir Zhirinovski.
But in Navalny’s absence from the ballot, a Russian heiress, daughter of Putin’s political mentor, and a celebrity TV personality-turned journalist, Ksenia Sobchak, has announced that she will run against Putin in March. Sobchak’s announcement was not very well received, as she was mocked and labeled as Putin’s hand-picked opposition and the Kremlin’s stooge. The anti-Sobchak argument is that her participation in the election will take some of Navalny’s votes away, thus diluting the opposition votes. Sobchak, however, has explained that should Navalny be allowed to run, she will step down and ask her supporters to vote for him. In theory, this clarification should have absolved Sobchak, but most Russians still doubt the sincerity of her intentions. While Sobchak has spent recent years building a serious career for herself as an activist and a journalist, Russians still do not seem to take her seriously. In the Western media, she’s often referred to as the “Russian Paris Hilton”, liberal laughingstock, or worse, a token woman in Putin’s election.
Yet, Sobchak seems to take herself very seriously. The Western-educated heiress with a rightful place among Russia’s elite comes off as well-rounded, highly intelligent, and eloquent. In a recent interview on CNN, she told Christiane Amanpour that she has been fighting against the Putin regime for six years, she helped to reveal the corruption cases in the Putin government. Sobchak also expressed that she wants to make sure people vote even if Navalny isn’t allowed to participate in the election, as there should be a backup plan in Navalny’s absence. “My goal is to make sure people go and vote against the system,” added Sobchak. Oleg Kashin, a prominent Russian journalist and writer, who thinks Sobchak is a Kremlin-approved fresh face for Putin to pretend-compete with, has recently praised Sobchak’s confidence and poise in “magically” maneuvering the hostile environment of Russian television debates featuring the “swamp veterans” alongside the 36 year-old. Token woman or not, Sobchak does seem to liven-up the election season, and for those still shocked by the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, she might even offer a sinister hope for an improbable, yet not entirely impossible, “March surprise” for Putin.
PRESDENT PUTIN BUT NO MORE PUTIN ERA?
At the end of the day, none of these factors are going to actually jeopardize Putin’s reelection. However, they point to the larger picture, to the fact that those six years of impending Putin’s fourth term are likely to be his last in politics. While Putin will become further occupied with building an unforgettable legacy for himself as one of the greatest leaders in Russian history, these domestic factors will work to shape the future of the country beyond Putin. Navalny promises to be a force to be reckoned with, Sobchak is challenging the male status-quo while also exposing the corrupt system that surrounds and props up Putin, and the Russian youth aspire to have greater access to the rest of the world. Preobrazhensky presents a very provocative argument in this regard: Putin will continue to be president of Russia beyond 2017, but the Putin era is over. Certainly, as the young Russians of the “Putin” generation become older, they are likely to start seeing the (now) 65 year-old former KGB officer as an out of touch leader who doesn’t represent their views and preferences. Many of Navalny’s followers already express that sentiment. Thus the current wind of change within Russia may not be strong enough to seriously challenge Putin, but nonetheless it merits special attention.
*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.