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Presidential pseudo-election in Russia: what does it tell us about Putin’s regime?

The 2024 “presidential election” (March 15th to 17th) is intended to consolidate Putin’s neo-totalitarian grip on Russia. The West should not recognize its results and hamper the Kremlin’s efforts to pursue its aggressive goals both in its foreign and domestic policy.

March 12, 2024 - Maria Domańska - AnalysisHot Topics

Vladimir Putin submitting documents to Central Election Commission in December 2023. Photo: Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation

This year’s “election” will take place under circumstances that disqualify Vladimir Putin as Russia’s legitimate leader. First, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, marked by shocking war crimes, has now been underway for two years. The presidential vote will also be organized in the occupied Ukrainian territories, where the local population has been subject to brutal Russification. State propaganda portrays this war as an “eternal” clash of civilizations, an existential, “defensive” battle against the West, and a natural state of the political system and society.

Second, for the first time in his political career, Putin is running for the presidency illegally. The constitutional reform of 2020, which paved the way for him to serve two more terms in office (until 2036), violated the constitution in force at the time – both its letter and spirit. Moreover, the constitutional referendum developed into a farce that bore all the hallmarks of a “special operation” that in no way reflected the genuine mood of the citizens. That display of extreme voluntarism and impunity on the part of the Kremlin marked an open break with its previous policy, which was based on attempts to maintain the appearance of legalism (even if the law in Russia had continuously been instrumentalized before).

After decades of increasing repression, which intensified to an unprecedented extent after February 24th 2022, Putin’s re-election serves to ostentatiously demonstrate his self-confidence and brute force. This year’s voting ritual is designed as a great triumph for Putin: in neo-totalitarian Russia, his political opponents are all in prison, in exile or dead. The recent death of Alexei Navalny, who had unequivocally condemned the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, was a particularly clear signal to those who oppose the regime and the war to give up all hopes for change. Navalny, whom Putin considered a personal enemy (and who could have become the only potential democratic alternative to the current president in favourable circumstances), was harassed and tortured for three years in a penal colony. The authorities took these actions deliberately, playing with the idea of his possible death. This show of ruthlessness and impunity will strengthen Putin’s position in the system, built on intimidation and repression, at least for the next few years.

Technologies of electoral fraud

Traditionally, the Kremlin has decided on the voting results well in advance. According to leaks, Putin will officially win above 80 per cent of the vote with at least 70 per cent turnout. The Kremlin’s preventive campaign measures include mass censorship and digital surveillance, which serve to nip any signs of disloyalty in the bud. State propaganda is building a cult around Putin as the saviour of the nation and its “traditional” national identity. In the public debate, there is no room for narratives other than the official one, which glorifies the war and demonizes Ukraine and the West. Putin’s critics are discredited as traitors, enemies or foreign agents. Methods of electoral fraud continue to be perfected. This year, for instance, citizens can vote on the internet for the first time in Russian presidential elections. It is one of the most efficient ways of rigging the voting results with impunity: independent monitors cannot look into this “black box” and uncover manipulation, while the secrecy of the ballot can easily be violated. Many employers linked to the state force their subordinates to vote in their workplaces, and there are serious concerns about the authorities’ potential access to citizens’ voting records.

All political competition has been eliminated early on. Putin’s three registered sparring partners, not well known by the public (Leonid Slutsky, Nikolai Kharitonov and Vladislav Davankov), represent parliamentary parties that are completely loyal to the Kremlin. It should come as no surprise that neither of the two anti-war candidates, Ekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, were admitted to the elections. While Duntsova was disqualified from running at a very early stage, Nadezhdin’s similarly brief electoral campaign confirmed the significant anti-war sentiment among part of the electorate.

Put forward by the liberal non-parliamentary party Civic Initiative, Nadezhdin has been present in Russian politics since 1990. Despite preaching liberal-democratic slogans, he usually avoided confrontation with those in power. In the past, he worked with several political parties, both independent and linked to the Kremlin. Sceptics accuse Nadezhdin of flirting with the authorities and legitimizing the system, including by participation in propaganda talk shows that focus on slandering liberal-democratic values. On the other hand, Nadezhdin has unequivocally criticized the invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s domestic policy. In 2020 he also disapproved of constitutional reform.

Although the Kremlin could have prevented Nadezhdin’s participation in the election at the party nomination stage, he was allowed to collect signatures of support. The apparent attempt to discredit his views as marginal during the election campaign backfired, as a section of the anti-war electorate quickly mobilized to back him up. Most opposition leaders unanimously supported his candidacy, and in some cities residents stood in long lines to give their signatures for him and his campaign. Many had never heard of Nadezhdin but decided to express their anti-war stance in the only legal way, not cherishing much illusion about his official election result. Moreover, he enjoyed relatively high support in the polls. The independent Russian Field found that more than ten per cent of voters who had already made up their minds were prepared to vote for him. It then should come as no surprise that the Central Electoral Commission refused to register him as a presidential candidate.

“Super-stability” and a mass social experiment

The Russian people are confronted with the growing costs of war, the burden of budget cuts in the civilian sectors of the economy, and rampant corruption. The winter of 2023-24 has been marked by a record number of utility breakdowns that left at least 1.5 million citizens without heat, water, electricity or gas in January 2024 alone. For months, the wives and mothers of those mobilized to the frontline have been unsuccessfully demanding a rotation of troops (no regular rotation has taken place since the autumn of 2022). There are also ethnic tensions at a local level (e.g. in the North Caucasus, Bashkortostan and Yakutia) that are due to general frustration with the policies of the federal centre. However, there are no signs of mass discontent among the Russian public, despite the significant losses on the front (Western sources estimate that some 300,000 Russian soldiers may have permanently left the fight so far), the increasing cost of western economic sanctions, and the price Russians are paying for the country’s self-isolation and militarization of the economy. In general, Russians are accepting of the invasion of Ukraine and are effectively adapting to the deteriorating socio-economic situation in the country. Declared support for the actions of the state remains high – support for Putin, measured regularly in independent surveys, did not fall below 80 per cent throughout 2023, while the involvement of the Russian army in Ukraine was supported by more than 70 per cent of respondents (Levada Centre). These trends continued in early 2024.

The Kremlin has so far succeeded in silencing anti-regime sentiment, partly due to brutal repression and the poisoning of much of society with war propaganda. As the regime ruthlessly suppresses political opponents, the lives of those serving long prison sentences (including the opposition leaders Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin, and Alexandra Skochilenko, an artist convicted of protesting against the war) are in serious danger. Attempts to intimidate independent lawyers are also continuing. Under these conditions, any meaningful public activity by the democratic opposition and civil society takes place in exile.

At the same time, the Russians succumb to a reflex of “rallying around the flag” in the face of an alleged “existential defensive war against NATO”. Psychological defence mechanisms are also at play. By accepting the interpretation of reality offered by officials and propagandists (from openly fascist slogans to the “right or wrong, my country” approach) people try to avoid a strong cognitive dissonance. Moreover, participation in the war offers the soldiers and their families the opportunity of unprecedented social advancement and generous payments. Those employed in the industries related to the military also benefit from the invasion. In this way, the Putin regime is deliberately shaping an iron-fisted constituency interested in continuing the war “until the final victory”.

The Kremlin is still not facing the “arms or butter” dilemma: it can finance both accelerated arms production and arms imports from rogue states such as North Korea or Iran and buy the loyalty of large sections of society and the nomenklatura. The public’s increasing war-weariness, as noted by sociologists, is offset by the conviction that time is working in Russia’s favour and that the country will ultimately win the war.

The Russian ruling elite (nomenklatura) is loyal to the Kremlin, despite the frustration and dissatisfaction that prevails in these groups due to the war, economic and personal sanctions, and Russia’s self-isolation from the West. Over time, anti-western sentiment is increasingly spreading among them. They see no alternative to Putin and consider a possible rebellion too risky and unprofitable, while their loyalty allows them to profit from corruption and war. The West’s hesitant military aid for Ukraine and its meek reactions to the massive human rights violations in Russia, including the political murders, show the decision-makers in the Kremlin that the West is weak and intimidated and that Moscow will ultimately win the “epochal” battle to reshape the world order sooner or later. This perception strengthens Putin’s position in the system and reduces the chances of political change in Russia to almost zero. This could only be brought about by Moscow’s complete loss of control over the occupied territories of Ukraine, which would be perceived by the elites and the public as clear evidence of Putin’s incompetence.

Propaganda, censorship, indoctrination and surveillance (including so-called “patriotic education” in schools and universities, which is riddled with militaristic and openly fascist content) have assumed a prevalence previously unknown in Russia. There is unprecedented state interference in the private lives of citizens, presented as a “fight for traditional values”, which manifests itself, among other things, in the outlawing of LGBT+ people, including the ban on gender transition. These developments testify to the Kremlin’s efforts to realize a massive neo-totalitarian social experiment of creating a zombified “homo putinicus”: an authoritarian personality bred in the cult of leadership, the cult of death, hatred of “enemies” (external and internal) and chauvinistic pseudo-patriotism. This mass brainwashing is intended to guarantee that those in power can remain in power forever and that liberal-democratic values (which are considered the new “Nazism”) cannot penetrate the airtight digital curtain.

What next?

After the presidential “election”, the Kremlin may take unpopular decisions, including another wave of military mobilization, a further increase in the tax burden, and cuts in budget spending for purposes other than defence and security (while maintaining social transfers for selected groups of hardliners among Putin’s voters). Most likely, however, these measures will be implemented cautiously and over time in order to minimize social tensions. More radical steps can only be expected if the budget situation deteriorates significantly or defeats on the frontline loom on the horizon. In addition, a further intensification of repression can be expected, directed against opponents of the regime both at home and in exile. The war will remain a convenient pretext for the authorities to continue their social engineering and keep the economy on a war footing.

Continued aggression has become a political necessity for Putin. Its ultimate goals remain unclear to the population, which allows the Kremlin to postpone the final victory further and further and intensify its neo-totalitarian domestic policy despite growing human and economic losses. Conversely, the end of the war would disrupt the militarized economic model and draw citizens’ attention to domestic problems, which could lead to a serious weakening of the regime’s legitimacy.

The final wake-up call for the West

Without a political transition in Russia, which is in the strategic interest of the West, there will be no lasting peace in Europe. There is no magic formula to effectively prevent Putin from pursuing his aggressive goals, but the least that needs to be done is to accelerate military support for Ukraine, defeat Russia on the battlefield and punish the Putin regime for its blatant human rights violations. EU and NATO leaders should refuse to recognize Putin as the legitimate president of Russia after the “elections” in 2024 (he has lost all credibility as a partner for possible future negotiations anyway). This could help to undermine his legitimacy in the eyes of the ruling elite (similar to the arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court). No matter how much the nomenklatura perceives the West as a threat and despises Western democracies at the same time, it still craves respect from their “enemies” (which was proved by the propaganda hype surrounding Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin in February 2024).

In addition, a new package of economic and personal sanctions should be put in place immediately, targeting the Russian state and all identifiable individuals who have been involved in one way or another in the political repression in Russia. This should include prosecutors and judges implicated in politically motivated trials, in order to raise the price of their continued cooperation with the regime. Even if Putin can formally rule Russia until 2036, we must do everything we can to prevent this.

Maria Domańska is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.

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