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Why Wait? Takeaways (Already) From This Weekend's Russian Election

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches honor guards pass as he attends a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow in February 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches honor guards pass as he attends a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow in February 2016.

As Russians prepare to go to the polls in the March 18 presidential election, the usual questions don't apply. No one needs to ask which candidate ran the most effective campaign, which one put forward the most compelling platform, who will make it to the second round. And no one needs to ask who will win.

Incumbent President Vladimir Putin will secure a fourth term as president, but that doesn't mean the events currently going on in Russia aren't instructive. Below are a few things that this process has brought to the fore.

Putin Is Above Politics

Technically, there are eight candidates participating in the presidential election -- seven challengers and incumbent President Putin. In reality, however, Putin has given the entire campaign a pass. He didn't align himself with any party. He didn't seek funding, but instead -- officially, at least -- financed his campaign from various quasi-state funds and from the United Russia party. He didn't participate in televised campaign debates (in fact, he never has in any of his "campaigns"). He didn't produce a campaign platform. He didn't press the flesh or kiss babies or answer unscripted questions from journalists or voters.

Instead, his entire campaign has consisted of a few deus ex machina-type, large-than-life appearances such as his conveniently rescheduled state-of-the-nation address on March 1 and a brief appearance before a stadium full of supporters on March 3, during which he made vague promises such as, "we will do everything we can for [our children and grandchildren] to be happy.

Even more importantly, though, is that the Kremlin has placed Putin entirely above and outside of politics. The 65-year-old incumbent who has ruled the country for more than 17 years has become as much a symbol of Russia as the matryoshka or the double-headed eagle. Putin's supporters may complain about various policies or problems in their lives, but they don't connect those problems with Putin.

The Kremlin's decades of ironclad control over state media and over all the country's political processes have produced a situation where it is possible to grumble about low pensions or corruption, but where criticizing Putin personally is widely seen as bordering on treason. Occasionally one even hears comments to the effect that even holding elections at all is insulting to Putin's status.

Management Is The Key And It Starts Early

We've heard for years that Russia is a "managed democracy," but the extent of the "management" is impressive with each election cycle.

Control over elections is first of all conditioned by the fact that they occur within the context of a strictly controlled overall political environment in which there are not significant independent actors. Poll after poll demonstrates that a majority of Russians "see no alternative" to Putin, which is one of the most telling features of the country's current political system.

World chess legend and outspoken Putin critic Garry Kasparov wrote that in response to questions about Putin's purported popularity, "I'm fond of asking in response...if a restaurant is popular if it's the only one in town and every other restaurant was burned to the ground."

But for at least the last 18 months, the Kremlin's political planners have been stage-managing this election. The discredited gray-beard former Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov was replaced in March 2016 by former presidential human rights ombudswoman Ella Pamfilova. Governors in various problematic regions were reshuffled. The date of the election was moved to correspond to the anniversary of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Key independent organizations such as the Levada Center polling agency and the Golos election-monitoring NGO were branded as "foreign agents" and effectively marginalized -- or at least discredited in the eyes of many Russians who get their information from Russian state media.

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was also sidelined by means of a felony embezzlement conviction that has been widely seen as fabricated and politically motivated. For insurance, his brother, Oleg, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, a term that is scheduled to end in a few months.

The extent of the management goes down to the extraordinary design of the ballot, with Putin's name appearing dead center surrounded by a halo of white space. One can't help but wonder if a big part of the motivation for disqualifying Navalny wasn't because alphabetically his name would have appeared on the ballot just ahead of Putin's.

Of course, the Russian-language section of the notorious St. Petersburg "troll factory" has been working diligently to shape the public perception of the election and the candidates. Last month a Telegram account appeared that purports to be from a man working in that section. On March 15, he published what he said was the official instruction on how they are supposed to respond to the inevitable claims of election fraud, including numerous links to articles that apparently have already been placed in the cybersphere for exactly this purpose.

The Public's Low Expectations

Many Russians, even young ones, traditionally hold stability as their highest value. Most Russians believe their elections are unfair, but they don't care. Very few Russians believe elections are a realistic means of changing anything. Polls show that Russians generally favor "reform" but only when the concept is expressed vaguely.

"Society is dominated by the view that if anyone can carry out a transformation, then it is, paradoxically, the current authorities," wrote Levada Center analyst Denis Volkov and political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov in Vedomosti in December. "The lack of political alternatives means that the majority of poll respondents associate the name of Vladimir Putin with their hopes for reform."

"The model that has existed for many years in which the president fulfills the hopes of all groups in society -- he is the main liberal and the main nationalist and the main imperialist and the main socialist -- is turning Putin into the main reformer as well in the eyes of many," they continue. "Russians are ready for change, but only not at their own expense and preferably without their active participation."

The Threat Of Force Behind The Façade

Despite Russia's heavily managed and controlled political space, the specter of force is ever-present. The population knows well that the police and the courts are tools of the government. There is no presumption that one branch of the government will oppose another to protect individual rights.

In 2016, Putin created a National Guard, which is essentially 400,000-strong riot-control force that has played a prominent role in quashing unsanctioned opposition rallies and in keeping track of dissidents that the government accuses of "extremist activity."

As the government rallies to boost turnout for the predictable election, there have been numerous reports of schools and state-sector employers threatening students and workers with real-life consequences if they fail to vote.

Hardly a day goes by without a report of a Navalny office in some regional town being raided. Even one-person protests, which are legal in Russia, are routinely disrupted by authorities.

In short, publicly breaking the illusion of consensus in Russia today is an act of considerable courage.

On the other hand, "going along" can be rewarded and is often seen as the only "elevator" into the middle class. A poll in February found that 69 percent of Russians view working in the Federal Security Service (FSB) as "an attractive career path."

The Opposition Is Boxed In

The results of nearly two decades of managed democracy is that there is essentially no viable political path for any alternative to the Putinist authorities. The experience of former liberals from Nikita Belykh -- a former associate of slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov who became Kirov Oblast governor and is now serving a long prison term on a corruption conviction -- to Pamfilova herself have demonstrated there is no opening to "reform things from within."

Perennial liberal presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, who has said he would consider accepting a government post following Putin's victory, essentially claims participating in the election is a way of promoting reform "from within." He tempts voters with the unrealistic prospect that he can compel Putin to adopt new policies by getting enough votes to force a second round of the current election.

Critics accuse the Kremlin of harassing and marginalizing all legitimately independent political movements and parties, cutting them off from publicity and funding, denying them registration, arresting their activists, etc. Journalist and presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak has said she will form a new political party on the foundation of her current campaign and contest the next Duma elections in 2021, but so far there is no reason to think her initiative will be any different.

The current election has been dominated by the debate about whether the opposition should participate at all. Navalny has called for a boycott, while Yavlinsky and others plausibly argue that if the opposition doesn't show up, the appearance of universal support for Putin will only be reinforced. This debate, in one form or another, has cropped up with every election of the Putin era and there is no satisfactory resolution. The debate itself consumes a lot of political energy.

In an interview with RFE/RL in 2011, Yavlinsky offered an analysis of Russia's political environment that is arguably more true today than it was when he made it: "There is no dynamic in society. There is no engine of development. Fatigue is rising in society. Dissent is rising. Alienation is rising. Not only due to corruption, the lack of human rights, the lack of property rights, but also because everything has been the same for a long time, and this has caused alienation. Change is only possible if there is an alternative."