A successful leader at the height of his power: This is how Russia's president Vladimir Putin is presenting himself. His re-election was unquestionable — and the possible consequences are worrying.
It's business as usual in Russia: Vladimir Putin is set to embark on a fourth term as president and looks likely to be determining the country's fate for another six years.
The 65-year-old Kremlin leader's victory in the election on March 18 was always considered certain. Scoring more than70 percent, though, is a personal record for the former KGB officer who was first elected as president in 2000.
According to sociologist Lev Gudkov, head of the renowned public opinion research institute Levada Center, Putin's approval ratings are currently at a high point. "The high approval of his policies, not taking into account the (current) patriotic-military wave, is based on the lack of alternatives and crucial illusions," Gudkov told Deutsche Welle in December. One such illusion, he said, was the belief held by many Russians that Putin will guarantee the existing prosperity.
A total of eight candidates will take part in the Russian presidential election. They include experienced party leaders, such as right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky. But there are also some new faces. For example, instead of their elderly leader, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communists have entered local politician and Stalin admirer Pavel Grudinin in the race, in what seems like a good move for them. The 57-year-old, who runs a successful agricultural company near Moscow, has moved up to second place in recent surveys. Polls put him in the upper single-digit range, well behind Putin, but still ahead of Zhirinovsky.
Another new candidate, the only woman who is running, is 36-year-old television presenter Ksenia Sobtchak. She is the daughter of the former mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobtchak, whose deputy during the 1990s happens to have been Vladimir Putin. This self-proclaimed "candidate against all" is trying to attract liberal protest voters and is helping the Kremlin, whether consciously or not, to increase voter turnout.
At first glance, the full spectrum of political views appears to be represented, from far left to far right, with Putin positioned in the center. But this impression is deceptive. In surveys, all candidates, with the exception of Putin, are polling at less than 10 percent and are no real competition for the favorite. Some are suspected of being dummy candidates in cahoots with the Kremlin. There are TV debates in which Putin is also criticized, but they often degenerate into trash shows without any real substance. The Kremlin leader himself never takes part in them.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has stylized himself as Putin's number one opponent, was not even allowed to run for president and has called for an election boycott. The 41-year-old Moscow-based politician and anti-corruption campaigner was given a suspended sentence for an economic crime in what he considers to have been a show trial. He is fighting his sentence through the courts. Navalny is currently regarded as the most influential opposition politician in Russia and has already organized several mass protests. Electoral researchers believe that while he would not be able to defeat Putin in a fair election, he could dampen the Kremlin leader's result.
Probably the biggest unknown in this election is whether Navalny will call for street protests again after Putin's expected victory. "I believe that people have a fundamental right to a rebellion against tyranny," Navalny told Deutsche Welle in February. "But what is happening in Russia right now are completely peaceful actions. The demonstrators' attitudes are much more peaceful than those of the authorities, who accompany every demonstration with some kind of military deployment."
In the winter of 2011/2012, Navalny was one of the leaders of protests that overshadowed Putin's return to the Kremlin. The urban middle class' dissatisfaction with Putin personally brought tens of thousands of Muscovites to the streets. His image as a successful ruler was tarnished for the first time.
Concerns about voter turnout
After his victory in the last presidential election, Putin reacted by imposing restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, and by establishing "Rosgwardija," a police force under his personal control. It stands ready to put down any insurrection — such as, for example, in neighboring Ukraine in 2014.
In order to signal a fresh start, the election administrator has been replaced. He had been utterly discredited amid allegations of falsification. One of his successor's tasks is to boost voter turnout. In recent years, fewer and fewer Russians have turned out to vote, especially in big cities such as Moscow.
The Kremlin seems concerned and Russian authorities are trying to woo citizens using all available means: from comical promotional videos on social media, to election advertising on milk bottles, to (free) cancer screening on election day. The election date, which falls on the fourth anniversary of the Crimean annexation, was also deliberately chosen to revive the euphoria of 2014. There is no perceptible mood of protest, which is probably due to domestic and, above all, foreign policy.
The legacy of Putin's third term
Putin's third term in office, which is now coming to an end, was extended in advance from four to six years by a constitutional amendment. It changed Russia more than the previous ones. The Crimean annexation is regarded as a turning point. It caused Putin's stagnating poll results to skyrocket, got the general public to rally behind the president and put the country on a confrontation course with the West. Since then, politicians and the media have been stoking such public sentiment as though Russia were a besieged fortress. Warlike rhetoric has become part of everyday life.
The spiral of sanctions, which the West was, at first, reluctant to implement, is gaining momentum following Russia's attempt to interfere in the US presidential election in 2016. So far, these sanctions have harmed Moscow less than the 2014 collapse in world oil and gas prices, Russia's main export commodities. After a dramatic decline in recent years, the Russian economy is slowly growing again and inflation seems to be subdued. However, in 2017, the average real income fell for the fourth consecutive year, by 1.7 percent. By contrast, military spending was kept at high levels, at the expense of education and health care.
Putin 4.0 — a bleak outlook?
With the military intervention in the Syrian civil war on President Bashar al-Assad's side, Moscow's leadership was able to end Putin's partial isolation on the international stage and establish Russia as a big player in the Middle East. Putin substantiated his aspiration of re-establishing Russia as a major power. In his keynote speech on the state of the nation at the beginning of March, he portrayed himself as a successful ruler leading his people from one victory to the next. His presentation of new nuclear weapons, addressed to the arch-rival USA, was a surprise. Putin's message: "Don't mess with us."
Foreign policy seems to be the main subject of Putin's election campaign. The closer election day comes, the more often the president brandishes his atomic arsenal. In a documentary film called "World Order 2018," Putin makes it clear that if his country is attacked, he will use nuclear weapons, even if it would mean the end of the world: "Why do we need a world if there is no Russia there?"
And the signs are still pointing to turbulent times ahead. The US is preparing new sanctions. Russia, which has so far been hesitant to respond, will then probably retaliate. The conflict in eastern Ukraine, currently on a low burner, could quickly escalate. In the Middle East, there is the threat of an expansion of the war in Syria, which could require stronger involvement by the Russian army.
Putin has used the past few years to militarily strengthen his country and disconnect from the West, whether in regard to food products, banks or the internet. Some observers are warning that Russia may spin out of control after the elections or, at the latest, after the football World Cup this summer.