BY: FARRAH BARBER
March 18, 2018 brings with it a pivotal election, one of an immensely democratic nature in which the 144 million citizens in Russia may find themselves with a fresh, ambitious leader to take the country from its current political tenterhooks. They wish. A wave of nationalism has swept across Russian lands, a distant espousing of the “our country, our President, our choice” propaganda echoing through Red Square and the Golden Ring. Putin has ruled Russia since his victory in 2000, and the ‘tandemocracy’ that he and Medvedev began continues to maintain its aptitude today.
As an outsider, much of the West views the Russian elections completely perplexed. In the UK and US, we see fiercely fought campaigns for office, candidates fighting tooth and nail for the title of leader. This is most definitely not the case in Russia. Putin has seldom even publically acknowledged that he’s engaged in an election to be reintroduced as Russia’s leader. In fact, his most recent public appearance was a mere 2-minute speech in which he neglected to mention the word ‘election’.
It seems that an undercurrent of national pride is the fuel of Putin’s election fire. Having eradicated any realistic competition, he sits in his palace in Novo-Ogaryovo content with the knowledge that he’s more than likely on the cusp of being granted the title of Russia’s supreme leader. Again.
There are feasible alternatives, however. This is what saddens the Western democrat the most. That Yavlinsky is an educated economist, anti-armed conflict and pro-international integration (and Russia certainly could do with a touch of soft power progress at the moment). There is a female candidate- Ksenia Sobchak. Whilst she’s an unpopular candidate from a far from humble background, she has protested against Russian corruption and anti-Putin re-election campaigns. She is a woman sure in her views, and proposes to walk the less trodden path, describing herself as being ‘outside of ideology’.
It’s also important to note that while Putin is addressed with censure from international leaders, at least he is static. He’s a constant threat, but a known threat nonetheless. Such cannot be said of his opponent Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The ‘ultranationalist’ that has advocated a pro-Russian Fascist agenda in his manifesto, he would be a new introduction to a Hobbesian world whose foundations lie in a persistent threat of conflict. Furthermore, perhaps Putin is at least more plausible than Grundinin, the ‘bourgeois’ Communist party candidate. It doesn’t take a cosmonaut to realise that Russia, who was starved and exploited by a Communist regime with a kleptocratic ruler, does not seek another Communist ruler. Definitely not a bourgeois one, at that.
It’s rumoured that anti-Western sentiment is feeding the popularity of the rightist, arguably fascist regime spear-headed by Putin. The charged reaction of the Russian people is egged on by press coverage of the incidents in the UK, rhetoric being spread across every media outlet in Russia. This is worsened, of course, by Putin barely conducting any election campaign. By not detracting from the contemptuous international skirmishes and acting in an overtly provocative manner, Putin is running a free campaign and not making any promises that he can be accused of foregoing. He’s playing the election game in a way that no Western leader can. The inverse relationship between Western confrontation and Putin’s popularity continues to work to his advantage.
Putin is leading a campaign from the cult of personality that he has cultivated since 2000, his popularity figures have consistently soared since the protests against his rule, and the strongman persona that he champions continues to place him as one of the most favourable characters in Russian politics.
Considering glasnost policies post-Cold War, one may expect that Russia would bask in its position as a democratic ‘маяк’ in former Soviet Union territories, yet this has seldom been realised. Putin, in his role as a near deity in Russian politics and culture, is rarely opposed in his decisions to lessen the power of oligarchs, introduced state-control over popular culture mediums (most notably television), and orchestrated a Putin-ophile office by birthing the reinstating of policies that allowed him to directly appoint and dismiss ministers.
The idea that Putin will remain in place until 2024 is an interesting one. With Britain and Russia in a petty tit-for-tat after the Russian state commissioned an act of terrorism on British soil (the poisoning of Skripal), it’s difficult to foresee an international climate of collaboration. It’s difficult to conceptualise a condition in which the bully, the self-interested state that even invaded its neighbour in 2014, begins to corroborate a relationship with Western powers. The election, realistically, is fallacious. It’s a façade based on the infamous lie that Russia is a democracy.
The Putin administration has the ambition of 70:70, a 70% voter turnout with a 70% favour for the President. Figures such as these are unprecedented in a modern democracy, if one can pardon the pun. The last five years have, around the globe, been a time of political ambiguity and unexpected election results. There has been a rise in populism, a fall in humanity, and a near universal phenomena of populations dispelling the accuracy of projected outcomes. The world is becoming increasingly frustrated, so perhaps Putin’s term is not as certain as he perceives it to be. Perhaps.
If Putin can survive the annexation of a foreign territory, sanctions imposed due to election-meddling and cyberattacks, an act of what can only be described as terrorism on British soil, all with only condemnation; it’s absolutely impossible to foresee a loss in any election campaigns.
Farrah Barber is an International Relations and Russian student at the University of Saint Andrews. She is particularly interested in Political Risk and Intelligence, with a specialization in Russian foreign policy.
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