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Putin's Russia at a Crossroads: Can the Presidential Elections Bring the Change?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at conference, 2023 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In March 2024, Russia is poised to conduct its fourth presidential election, marking another distinctive chapter in the evolving electoral landscape. Each successive election cycle has witnessed a shift characterized by a growing authoritarian grip on power and the promotion of conservative ideologies by the regime. However, the forthcoming election holds unique significance.

This electoral event will be the first held under the backdrop of an updated Constitution, amended in 2019. These amendments, which effectively "reset" Putin's previous presidential terms, ostensibly permit him to run for office again, aligning with the letter of the law. Notably, the endorsement of these amendments was presented to the public in the form of an "all-Russian vote on the amendments to the Constitution," ostensibly securing an expanded consolidation of power in the hands of the Russian president through the asserted "free will of the people." Nevertheless, the imposition of coronavirus-related restrictions provided unforeseen opportunities for manipulation, particularly evident in the introduction of "electronic voting" and the extension of the voting period over multiple days, further limiting the ability of already scarce observers to scrutinize the fate of the ballots.

Furthermore, these elections will be conducted amid a full-scale aggression against another state and a state of "partial mobilisation" for the first time. Consequently, the key demographic of voters shifts from pensioners to military personnel and their families. The proximity of the elections compels Putin to refrain from implementing drastic measures, particularly the initiation of general mobilisation, prior to the electoral process. Instead, such actions are anticipated in the post-election period, leveraging the perceived approval, symbolized by the notional 99%, to legitimize the adopted course – a prolonged and full-scale "domestic" war. This strategic timing serves to justify the conscription of all male reservists.

A noteworthy aspect of these elections is the unprecedented circumstance of having all opposition candidates either incarcerated or in forced political exile. Following the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2011-2012, Putin's domestic policy exhibited heightened repression towards his adversaries, driven by an escalating fear of the opposition as a potent force capable of toppling the regime. While direct killings and imprisonments were infrequent immediately before the annexation of Crimea, the murder of Boris Nemtsov marked the inception of a more repressive phase in Putin's regime. However, the widespread nature of these measures only became pronounced with the initiation of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The significance lies not merely in the sheer volume of criminal and administrative cases under political charges but, more significantly, in the apparent "randomness" characterizing their application. Individuals from various walks of life – from "random" train drivers expressing dissent against Putin to psychologists in kindergartens who simply "liked" an anti-war post – find themselves in the same prisons as municipal deputies, prominent political activists like Ilya Yashin and Kara-Murza, as well as human rights activists and lawyers. The punitive approach is indiscriminate; dissenters, deemed "enemies of the people" and "traitors," face repercussions. As articulated by a State Duma deputy in relation to regime opponents, "And I would like our society, <...> so that all the rot that remains, it should be, if not isolated, then at least somehow destroyed."

Moreover, Putin's opponents, regardless of their ideology and stance on the war, face punishment or literal elimination. The bombing of Prigozhin's plane and the arrest of Strelkov serve as ominous signals to all elites about the imminent consequences of "betrayal," a grave offense within the security forces and the vernacular of the 1990s "concepts." These trends, characterized by indiscriminate repression for the grassroots and the looming threat of punishment for the elites, render political opposition increasingly impractical. The mobilization of the electorate through the media, a tool historically used by the Russian opposition as an alternative to direct participation, loses effectiveness when people fear clicking a "like" due to the risk of being "followed" or reported by their neighbors for watching Maxim Katz's videos. Meanwhile, elites refrain from risking independent candidacy and autonomous campaigning, even if they possess the financial means and political capital, out of fear of severe consequences for "betrayal."

Additionally, the liberal opposition is far from achieving consolidation, a critical prerequisite for effectively seizing a window of opportunity rather than letting it slip by unnoticed. Presently, the opposition is divided concerning the upcoming elections: some advocate for a complete boycott (Khodorkovsky's camp), while others suggest waiting for the opportune moment before taking action (FBC, represented by Volkov). Another faction actively mobilizes the electorate against Putin, urging all the "hesitant" to vote for anyone but Putin (Maxim Katz). The symbol of the latter camp is a unicorn, as Volkov contends that believing in Putin's overthrow at the polls is akin to believing in unicorns. While efforts are underway for consolidation, with various "parties" attempting to unify—for instance, Alexei Navalny's publication of a poll with 10 questions about his election strategy—the lack of institutionalized external opposition and legitimacy hampers coordinated action by the Russian liberal opposition at this juncture.

Likewise, the challenge is compounded by the fact that Russian emigration has developed its own distinct national identity, separate from those who remain in Russia. This identity encompasses varying views on key political concepts such as freedom and democracy, a distinct interpretation of history, different literary classics, diverse musical preferences, and sometimes even an alternative language, distinct from Russian "novoyaz" (hence, Russia is mockingly referred to as "orkostan" by the Russian opposition). These differences find expression in graffiti on fences and bridges when they cannot be articulated orally, such as "Swan Lake... Waiting" (where the ballet Swan Lake symbolizes the demise of a dictator, broadcast when Brezhnev died, and the dawn of a new democratic era). Within this detached emigrant-oppositionist Russian identity, mobilizing support for national elections among those still in the country becomes a formidable challenge.

Nevertheless, elections pose a perilous prospect for personalist dictatorships, even when the autocrat perceives invincibility. This is particularly true when repression intensifies, and both the population and elites are enveloped in paralyzing fear. In such circumstances, the autocrat loses access to genuine public opinion, hindering the ability to discern strategic directions for minimizing protest risks amid discontent. Additionally, the autocrat is cut off from avenues for coopting or bargaining with the opposition, as it remains silent, offering no signals of its presence or demands. Moreover, Russia has never embraced a steadfast political ideology that implies high levels of political participation. Quite the opposite, amidst the economic prosperity of the 2000s, the emphasis was on minimizing citizens' political engagement and encouraging absenteeism. In exchange for economic advantages and a relatively civilized life, including the ability to travel to destinations like Turkey and France, enjoy coffee at Starbucks, and purchase new Adidas trainers, people were deliberately detached from political affairs: "everything seems fine, there's no need to delve into politics, let the politicians worry about it." This sentiment is particularly pronounced within the middle class, the linchpin of the regimes. Also, Putin capitalized on the Chechen war and the tumultuous 1990s (a distinct historical myth serving the regime) when he ascended to power, crafting an image of himself as a guarantor of security and stability.

However, the social contract on which Putinism rested has now been undermined on both fronts. Security is no longer assured, with drones regularly breaching border regions (sometimes reaching Moscow), and any man can be conscripted or imprisoned for opposing the war and the president. Economic stability and predictability have also faltered due to declining living standards and isolation from "civilization". And as military expenditures rise, sectors vital for enhancing living standards, particularly healthcare and education, will further stagnate, amplifying the visibility of this ruptured contract for a greater number of Russians.

When this realization permeates the public consciousness, even penetrating the veneer of propaganda and the need for double-think among a sufficient number of Russians, including those returning from the front, who could potentially counterbalance Putin's "siloviki" (the backbone of his regime), a regime change through collective action becomes plausible. The upcoming election presents precisely such a window of opportunity, providing the opposition with a platform to enter the media arena and illustrate to Russians that their pact with the "good Putin" is shattered—this message is particularly crucial for those returning from the front, a demographic often overlooked by the Russian opposition.

Moreover, there is an actively promoted proposal by Maria Pevchikh, head of the FBK, suggesting the imposition of sanctions on individuals involved in Putin's presidential campaign as "confidants" (beloved celebrities endorsing Putin as a "good man" simply because another "definitely good man" supports him) chosen randomly. This proposition aims to intimidate them with penalties (deprivation of numerous privileges), potentially robbing Putin of a key asset in domestic politics—media attractiveness and the ability to command attention. It would send another signal to Russians that the social contract is shattered, bereft of support, and that few back the president, signaling that "he isn't such a good man," that he "really betrayed us," and must be "punished accordingly."

Finally, even if the electoral window of opportunity in 2024 closes, one should not overlook the fact that a year after the Russian elections, in 2025, Belarus will hold presidential elections, posing an additional vulnerability for Putin. With Putin losing control over domestic politics amid an attempted coup by Prigozhin, evidence of state erosion, and embroiled in a self-destructive war, his ability to manipulate elections in a neighboring state, Belarus, seems doubtful. Given the level of coordination and international support for the Belarusian opposition, a repetition of protests is likely. Given Putin's weakened state, the supplier of power resources capable of suppressing the 2020 rallies, such protests may culminate in a democratic coup. A democratic upheaval in Belarus could, in turn, serve as a catalyst for democratization in Russia. With Putin's attention diverted as he seeks to maintain control in Belarus while sustaining the war in Ukraine, dissidents within Russia could seize the opportunity. Additionally, the momentum of democratization often spills over to autocratic neighbors, who may gain additional resources, external support, and a crucial signal of high probability of success.

However, the presidential election might transpire sooner than anticipated. Speculations about Putin's demise are circulating widely in the media. While likely an unfounded rumor, the rapid dissemination of this information from less credible sources and its popularity in Russian search queries are indicative of a mounting desire for change among the populace. Moreover, this reminder of the risk of Putin's sudden death—akin to any other individual, especially a 71-year-old—compels both leaders of the Russian liberal opposition and the existing elites, some of whom may constitute an interim government, to strategically plan for such a scenario. This foresight is crucial not to squander the opportunity to reshape Russia's future. At this critical focal point, a departure from the autocratic and imperialist path dependence towards a new trajectory initiating a democratic transition in Russia becomes imperative. Such a transition holds the potential not only to terminate the war in Ukraine but also to usher in a new era of democratic governance in Russia that will make peace and security in the world far more feasible.


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