by Maia Otarashvili*
On May 7th Putin will be inaugurated as Russia’s president for the fourth time and will thus continue to lead Russia for another 6 years, making him the longest ruling leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin. If his 2012 inauguration is any evidence, Moscow will witness another extravagant ceremony, which will be meticulously executed, displaying Russian pride and grandeur. However, a closer look shows just how difficult the next six years promise to be for Russia under Putin.
THE PREDICTABLE ELECTION
To no one’s surprise, on March 18, 2018, Vladimir Putin was elected as Russia’s president for the fourth time. The election itself went over as everyone predicted. The pre-election season was more a celebration of Putin than an election campaign and included free concerts and other public activities. The government made every effort to encourage voter participation; according to Kremlin insiders a very high turnout was just as important to Putin as winning the election with at least 70% of the votes. A high voter turnout would be the same as high approval ratings to Putin, and would demonstrate to the outside world that the Russian voters have confidence not only in their government institutions but also in the electoral system. In 2012, Putin won the presidential election with 64% of votes cast, and the voter turnout was approximately 65%. This time, Putin won with nearly 77% of the vote, but the voter turnout was still at around 65% – not exactly what Kremlin had hoped for, especially after sparing no expense to drum up voter participation, but at least it was not lower than the 2012 numbers.
By all accounts this was an easy win for Putin. The main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was barred from the race on trumped up criminal charges; he was arrested multiple times in 2017 for staging anti-corruption protests throughout Russia. With Navalny out of the way, Putin was guaranteed that there would be no need for run-off elections, and that beyond the reports of standard election fraud and ballot stuffing (rather customary in Russia at this point), there would be no unexpected scandals that could potentially weaken the strongman’s image. Indeed, most experts called this one of the best organized and managed elections in Russia’s history.
The second most popular candidate turned out to be the Communist Party nominee, millionaire Pavel Grudinin, who was formerly a member of Putin’s United Russia Party. He was selected over veteran party leader Gennady Zyuganov in a surprise move by the Communist Party. His presidential election platform made standard Communist Party promises, and placed emphasis nationalization as a way to combat oligarchic monopolies and corruption in Russia. Although his candidacy generated a lot of interest in Russia, he only received approximately 12% of the vote. This was in part due to a last minute scandal; Russian election officials announced in early March that he had 13 undisclosed bank accounts in Switzerland. Russian election laws forbid presidential candidates from having foreign bank accounts. However, Grudinin’s candidacy was not revoked. According to Grudinin this information is false and he was framed by the government. Although at the moment Grudinin is not a major public figure, he will certainly be a Russian politician to watch as he has managed to make headlines and drum up support almost overnight.
Another fresh face in this election, a journalist turned politician—Ksenia Sobchak, only garnered 2% of the vote despite the massive PR her candidacy received. A veteran member of the opposition and long-time Duma parliamentarian—Vladimir Zhirinovsky—received 6% of the vote.
THE DIPLOMATIC CRISIS
The pre-election atmosphere was noteworthy not due to the events that took place within Russia, but because of what happened outside of Russia. Just a week before the election, on March 6, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter, were hospitalized in Salisbury, England, due to nerve agent gas poisoning. The UK government accused Russia of carrying out these poisonings, and in a retaliatory measure expelled 23 Russian diplomats suspected to be Russian intelligence officers. The scandal did not end there, as it quickly led to a diplomatic crisis of historic proportions: the rest of Europe and the U.S. followed suit and organized a massive expulsion of suspected Russian intelligence officers. Notably, the United States announced it would be expelling 60 Russian diplomats and closed down the Russian Consulate in Seattle. So far 28 nations have expelled over 140 Russian diplomats. After years of failure to show unity and resolve against Russian aggression, the international community has at last displayed a willingness to act collectively and decisively.
A handful of European countries, namely Austria, Portugal, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Greece, Malta, Slovakia, and Slovenia did not follow suit for various reasons, as most of them stated they would prefer if retaliatory measures were carried out by the EU rather than by individual EU countries. However, Luxembourg, Malta, and Slovakia said they would recall their ambassadors to Moscow.
Russia retaliated by closing down the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. This diplomatic crisis comes merely months after the previous rounds of consulate closures and diplomate expulsions between the two countries. As a result, Russians are having an increasingly difficult time obtaining US and EU visas and receiving consular services. Thus the great isolation of Russia from the west is no longer on the government level only, as it is now limiting the westward mobility of most Russians. This is a hard pill for them to swallow particularly because many of Russia’s neighbors like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine were recently awarded visa-free travel rights to the EU, allowing them to enjoy more international mobility and access to the west than ever before.
THE ROCKY START FOR PUTIN 4.0
To make matters worse, mere days after his reelection, Vladimir Putin had to deal with another scandal, this time at home. In Siberian city of Kemerovo, a mall fire broke out, killing at least 65 people. A fire broke out on the top floor of the Winter Cherry mall, trapping children in a nearby movie theater. According to reports, fire alarms did not sound off, and the fire exit doors were locked. Most Russians distrust their public officials so much that many of them don’t even believe that the number of victims is correct. Kemerovo residents blame their local government for mishandling the crisis, and have been protesting against the authorities. Protests also continue to take place in Russian city of Volokolamsk over a landfill policy issue and the resulting toxic air. Turns out the city of Volokolamsk, like many other cities surrounding Moscow, has been used as a dumping site for Moscow’s garbage companies, and the overflowing landfill has been poisoning the air. Approximately 150 schoolchildren were treated on March 21 after they fell ill following a suspected leak of noxious gas from Volokolamsk’s Yadrovo landfill.
The scandals in Russia illustrate just how desperately the country needs social and economic reforms. The rampant local level corruption is the common underlying theme in these local protests that often come after tragedies like the one in Kemerovo, and show just how little real control Kremlin has over Russia’s many regions. Increasing poverty rates and decreasing living standards are another major problem seriously impacting Russia’s regions. However, lack of adequate economic growth is revealing that Kremlin will be forced to implement some painful reforms that are likely to hurt the poor even more.
“GOING AFTER RUSSIAN MONEY”
The deteriorating Russia-West relationship is now taking a more dramatic turn, as in Western capitals there are talks of “going after Russian money.” The latest round of sanctions imposed by the US on Putin’s top cronies is a good example of this and comes as a possible game-changer in the sanctions saga. The new sanctions target seven of Russia’s richest men and 17 top government officials. This could seriously endanger the stability of Putin’s regime. To stay in power for such a long time, Putin has had to create a certain elite base in Kremlin. This group of ultra-wealthy supports and props him up. In return, Putin guarantees the safety of their foreign bank accounts and vast wealth, much of which has been obtained through corrupt means. Providing this cover, or “krisha” as they often call it in Russia, is Putin’s main tool for garnering the necessary elite support to stay in power. Should the Western nations start freezing and confiscating these assets, the disgruntled elites in Russia will no longer see an incentive in supporting Putin. Putin himself cannot fathom the prospect of not being in power, without thinking about the safety of his own wealth, which is quite immense as he is thought to be one of the wealthiest people in the world. Should he not be in charge of a power transfer in Russia—if it is to ever happen in his lifetime—he will be risking his physical safety, as well as the security of his assets. Thus, the succession question will continue to fester within the elite circles of Russia, as well as in Putin’s mind.
However, this type of devastating strike on the Putin presidency would require tremendous commitment, consistency, resolve, and maturity from the US government. It would also have to mobilize its European allies – after all, most of that Russian money is in Europe.
THE ROAD AHEAD
What should the world expect from “Putin 4.0”? Will he look inwards and try to fix Russia’s wide array of domestic problems? Will he continue to focus on propping up Russia as a global superpower? Or will he start laying groundwork for his possible retirement? Despite this wide array of challenges that Putin will face in his fourth term, most experts still expect him to carry out policies that will be more reactionary rather than strategic. The West is likely to find him at the negotiating table in the near future, as he may start looking for an “exit ramp” out of the wars in which he is engaged abroad (Ukraine, Syria). He may also implement a mild economic reform at home, but more broadly, we shouldn’t expect drastic changes in Russia’s economic policies. Because at the end of the day what keeps his approval ratings high and his regime stable, above and beyond the elite support and savvy authoritarian mindset, is a type of “Stockholm syndrome” under which most Russians are living. Putin remains the unchallenged leader of Russia not because Russians worship him, but because they fear a future of chaos and uncertainty, one that would be reminiscent of the post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s, without Putin. The Russian voters’ deep-seated fear of abrupt regime change is not entirely unfounded, as Putin regularly uses examples of failed recent uprisings as illustration for what can happen if he is overthrown. From Syria to Ukraine, modern success stories of popular uprisings are practically non-existent. This, coupled with the apparent deterioration of Western liberal democracies, is a narrative Mr. Putin will continue to sell to his base quite masterfully in the foreseeable future.
*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.