It is election day in Russia and the country’s incumbent president, Vladimir Putin, has his victory in the bag. The impending 2018-2024 term is expected to be Putin’s fourth in power, since the former KGB agent, once deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, relieved a widely unpopular Boris Yeltsin of the presidential sceptre in 2000. Nevertheless, whilst its results are entirely predictable, this election stands out from those that preceded it due to an exceptional combination of external and internal factors.
In recent years, more specifically since at least the Magnitsky Affair in 2008-2009, the passing of the eponymous legislation by the Obama administration in 2012, and Russia’s subsequent adoption ban, relations between Russia and the West have steadily deteriorated into what can at best be called an uncertain state of affairs. In March 2014, the West stood by in disbelief as Russia, in what NATO’s then secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen called a “blatant violation” of Ukraine’s national sovereignty, annexed the Crimean Peninsula by means of an illegal referendum and began funding an armed separatist-led military conflict in its neighbour’s east in a war that persists to this day. Though many Western nations, amongst them the United States, the European Union, and Canada, introduced targeted sanctions against the Russian individuals directly involved in the Ukraine conflict, followed by targeted sanctions against certain businesses, the West’s complacency encouraged Russia, which had previously but dipped its toes into the water, to dive headfirst into the pool.
Today, Russia’s controversial behaviour vis-à-vis its neighbours and countries as far away geographically as the United States, can no longer be seen as isolated, albeit highly consequential episodes, such as those mentioned above. The country is now the topic of international controversy for a great number of trespasses, amongst which are its alleged interference in the 2016 American presidential election and collusion with United States president Donald Trump, as well as its meddling in European affairs and backing of Europe’s far-right parties. Russia has also been accused of being behind pernicious troll factories contaminating the Internet with misinformation and cyberattacks, the most recent of which was on the United States energy infrastructure. And, finally, Russia is believed to have played a highly likely role in the poisoning of former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, with a deadly nerve gas just two weeks ago on 4 March.
When faced with Western accusations of involvement in blatant violations of human rights, from the shooting down of passenger airliner MH17 over Ukraine on 17 July 2017 or the use of the chemical agent sarin in Syria on 4 April 2017, Russia has made a habit of exonerating itself and its allies despite any evidence to the contrary. Russia also refuses to engage in any form of diplomacy that it deems humiliating. When British Prime Minister Theresa May demanded in a uncharacteristic ultimatum that Russia explain how Skripal had been poisoned by Novichok, Russia not only ignored her deadline, but responded with ultimatums of its own, while diverting blame to countries like Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Whilst the West seeks to call Russia to account through tough diplomacy, Putin maintains his country’s innocence, alluding, as has become customary, to Western anti-Russian paranoia and desire to keep Russia down – an argument that, in his eyes, has only been strengthened by Western sanctions. On the domestic front, the tactic of depicting Russia as an unjustly bullied nation has, historically, proven efficient in rallying its people around a strong political father figure.
Nevertheless, whilst Russia’s toxic duo of state-sponsored anti-Western propaganda and domestic policing infrastructure may have been enough to quell internal unrest in the past, Putin’s tightening of power in recent years has cultivated a fearful environment reminiscent of that of the Soviet period, as well as popular discontent and increased political factionalism.
With the country’s youngest voters having essentially lived most of their lives with Putin and his inner circle in power, Russians are beginning to ask more questions, even if doing so is becoming more and more dangerous. Some, who choose not to speak out openly against the current administration, engage in anonymous, passive forms of resistance, like this “quiet warning” against “another six years of slavery” found today near the AFP Moscow bureau. Putin supporters, on the other hand, have been free to engage in as unconventional methods of campaigning as they desire. The following pro-Putin pop music video by girl band Fabrika is just one example.
It may be that be that increasing tension at home is the ultimate reason for Putin’s intensifying antagonism towards the outside world, as he attempts, once again, to present himself as Russia’s strong protector confronting an ill-disposed world. Domestic unrest may also be why Putin has committed himself like never before to building infrastructure and a stronger middle class in Russia, where 7.27 percent of the population (approximately 19.8 million citizens) was living in poverty in 2016 – the highest rate the country has seen in a decade.
In this article, The Cambridge Globalist offers a brief guide to Russia’s ongoing presidential election, the political and socioeconomic climate surrounding it, and the main players involved. Though there are seven candidates officially running against Putin, we choose to focus on socialite and journalist-turned candidate Kseniya Sobchak and oppositionist leader Alexei Navalny, the latter of whom has officially been banned from running.
The political climate in Vladimir Putin’s Russia today
At the start of the millennium, Putin’s tenure brought an economically-distraught Russia, fraught with racketeering and kneeling amidst the shrapnel of a fallen Soviet Union , back onto its feet. Putin has since been in power almost continuously, minus a semi-hiatus in 2008-2012, and, even then, his former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was largely seen as holding the reigns only in name, while the latter’s own Prime Minister – Vladimir Putin himself – pulled the strings in the background. At the very least, this was the impression both abroad and even in certain circles in Russia.
Upon coming to power, Putin created what he called the “power vertical,” in which he consolidated political control at the country’s centre, i.e. Moscow and the Kremlin, at the expense of freedom and political diversity. Those willing to play by Putin’s rules soon came to comprise his inner circle, and those who stood in opposition were often pushed out of favour, and therefore out of power, and sometimes, as if by accident, just disappeared. Russia’s long list of assassinated, poisoned, shot, arrested, ostracised, or exiled political challengers, journalists, and activists serves, at the very least, as evidence that the country’s political apparatus is not inclined to protect freedom of expression or the right to intellectual diversity and lacks a healthy, open marketplace of ideas – a principle intrinsic to the democratic spirit.
In recent years, Putin’s control over Russia and its citizens has only tightened in light of increasing resistance to his rule. Examples of this include Russia’s 2013 laws against “gay propaganda” and “offenses against religious feelings.” One of the most famous set of laws of this kind is the yet-to-be-implemented 2016 “anti-terrorism” legislation proposed by Duma deputy chairman Irina Yarovaya, which requires, amongst other regulations, Russia’s telecommunications operators to store recordings of all telephone and online messaging conversations. The legislation, which targets “extremist activities,” has also infringed on religious freedom in the country. In August 2017, two court rulings were separately passed on the status of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, one branding the Christian denomination as extremist and the other banning its translation of the Holy Bible. From punk band Pussy Riot in 2012 to one-man picketer Ildar Dadin, who was brutally tortured by prison officials in 2017, Russia is seeing more arrests and mistreatment of activists. Non-Russian NGOs have been classed as foreign agents alongside, ironically, many of their Russian counterparts; humanitarian headquarters raided, property confiscated, doors to offices sealed without warning. This was precisely the situation in which Amnesty International’s employees unexpectedly found themselves one Wednesday morning in November 2016.
There have also been notable examples of innocent, politically-inactive people being prosecuted indiscriminately for offenses that, at least on the surface, do not obviously constitute crimes. Yevgeniya Chudnevets – a school teacher the city of Kataisk – was sentenced to six months in prison in November 2016 for reposting a three-second video of camp employees bullying a half-naked child, and Oksana Sevastidi – a resident of Sochi – was sentenced to seven years in prison for high treason for sending an SMS. These particular examples have not gone unnoticed by the public.
Paradoxically, in her first interview after being pardoned by Putin in March 2017, Sevastidi had nothing but words of praise towards the president. “After all this, I still love my President Putin. He always makes sweeping gestures – he helps Ukraine and Syria … He saved my life and my mother’s life. I would like to meet him and thank him.”
Sevastidi’s comments are ultimately to be expected, as a significant percentage of the Russian population continues to support Putin, whose official approval rating stands at around 80 percent. Many of these people are part of Russia’s humble “middle class,” amongst them those who came of age in the turmoil of 1990s and were at last able to find stability under Putin’s rule. It is difficult to determine just how much of Russia’s population, 59 percent of which relies on television as its primary source of news, as per a 2016 study conducted by independent, non-governmental polling organisation Levada Center, is unknowingly politically influenced by the country’s potent state-sponsored propaganda. Furthermore, it is difficult to assess precisely how many of Putin’s supporters are genuine in their support and how many live, much like their Soviet predecessors, in fear of persecution were they to express opinions not in line with “party policy” in a country where alternative platforms are often marginalised or delegitimised.
Alexei Navalny: a banned oppositionist
Russia’s young people, by contrast, do not share this fear of denunciation, which is why they formed an overwhelming majority of the protestors who took to the streets during the anti-corruption protests turned political manifestations that swept the country on 26 March 2017 and 12 July 2017. The country then the related 8 July 2017 rally organised in support of Navalny, as well as protests on 7 October 2017, 5 November 2017, and 28 January 2018.
The 26 March protest alone attracted around 60,000 participants in nearly 100 towns and cities across Russia; it also resulted in at least several hundred arrests. The rally was organised by oppositionist politician Alexei Navalny following the release of an investigation conducted by his brainchild, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, on the wealth of current Russian Prime Minister Medvedev. The investigation – Don’t call him “Dimon” – revealed that the Medvedev had funnelled over $1 billion worth of government funds through a number of charities supervised by his inner circle and used this money to buy lavish property in Russia and abroad, including a vineyard in Italy.
Each of Navalny’s protests revealed the extent to which Russia has grown comfortable with policing and violence to curb exuberant, but otherwise peaceful protest. Olga Lozina, a mere passer-by with no intention of protesting was suddenly swept away by police to be arrested. At that moment, she became the accidental protagonist of one of the most famous photographs from the 26 March protests. “At some point, the crowd pushed me back, but I came back up to the police. And that’s when they carried me off. I would not say that I was harshly detained – they carried me rather carefully. I would have gone myself if they told me why they were detaining me. But I didn’t even have time to ask,” the girl said in an interview with Meduza. Each protest preceded mass arrests and threats.
The 26 March protests, for instance, were immediately followed by “political information” sessions in schools and universities, where teachers and administrators forbade students from attending rallies, Meduza reported on 3 April 2017. “Students at Astrakhan State Medical University were told … that they would be filmed by the FSB at demonstrations; a senior at a rural school in the Rostov region [was] warned by a head teacher … that anyone who complains of corruption in Russia ends up dead … In some schools, for example, in Nizhny Novgorod and St. Petersburg, teachers asked students to take rally photographs off of their pages on social networking sites,” read Meduza’s report. Alexander Korovainy, a high school social studies teacher from the Krasnodar region, even claims to have been fired after attending the 12 June anti-corruption protest.
Two officers were injured during the 26 March, including one by the name of Evgeny Gavrilov, who had also been injured in the Bolotnaya Square protests of May 2012. Without a culprit in mind, authorities opened a criminal investigation in connection with Gavrilov’s second injury on the basis of an article called “on the encroachment on the life of a police officer,” an offense that carries a prison sentence of 12-20 years.
As cities and local officials had not authorised most of the rallies, “police across Russia arrested hundreds of demonstrators, including many young adults and children under 18,” reported Human Rights Watch. “In Moscow alone, authorities arrested 70 children, the majority of whom police questioned, with some facing administrative charges. All were released after several hours. Human Rights Watch documented at least two cases in which the charges were patently groundless.” Despite, such risks, however, many students continued to come.
“I went to the protest, because I’m, in many respects, displeased by the way our country functions and I wanted to show [my feelings and] to do something. I thought it was hypocritical to criticise the government and just sit home and not doing anything,” said one of the respondents in an episode of BBC Russian’s Awkward Questions (Неловкие вопросы) vox pop series dedicated to Moscow’s teenagers.
“I’ll soon be turning seventeen years old, and over my entire life [the government] has essentially remained unchanged,” said another BBC Russian respondent, adding that Russia’s current youth is free of the Soviet mentality of living in fear of being denounced by their neighbours. Another teenager claimed that this freedom from fear enables Russia’s youth to think more critically than previous generations could.
The interviewed teenagers, however, just as many adults in Russia, had mixed feelings on Navalny. Though resolutely critical of corrupt government officials and strongly opposed to Putin, Navalny’s platform is notably friendly toward ethnic Russian nationalists. In an old video prepared for Navalny’s Narod (the People) movement, he appears to be publicly endorsing nonviolent ethnic cleansing by means of deportation. Pretending to be a dentist, he said: “No one should be beaten. [Instead,] everything that bothers us should be carefully, but unyieldingly eliminated by means of deportation … A tooth without a root is considered dead. A nationalist is he who does not want the root ‘Russian’ to be deleted from the word ‘Russia.’ We have the right to be Russian in Russia and we will protect this right.”
Nevertheless, some liberal Navalny supporters caution against taking the politician’s words on nationalism out of context. In a 2011 interview with GQ, Navalny tried to clarify his thoughts: “We must admit that migrants, including those from the Caucasus, often go to Russia with very peculiar values … For example, in Chechnya, women who go out without a headscarf are shot with a paintball gun, and then Ramzan Kadyrov says: ‘You guys are good fellows, true sons of the Chechen people!’ Then these Chechen [men] come to Moscow. And I have a wife and daughter here. And I do not like it when people say that women need to be shot with a paintball gun because they walk around without headscarves.”
Though for some, Navalny position on migration, in light of the above clarification, may remain ambiguous, it remains astonishing that the Western media, barring a few exceptions, has neglected to make clear, at the very least, that the oppositionist leader is surrounded by some controversy when it comes to question of nationalism. The West must be wary of any naïve inclinations to see its enemy’s enemy as a friend, without fully assessing what is, more often than not, a complex and nuanced reality.
Putin, by contrast, at least on paper, is always quick to remind his people that Russia is a multicultural country with a wide range of ethnicities and religious beliefs. For this and many other reasons, some analysts claim that Putin, despite the many undemocratic aspects of his rule, would be a safer bet for Russia than Navalny due to the former’s relative predictability. It may be for this reason that people are often quick to blame the Russian government for any setbacks, as opposed to blaming Putin directly.
Nevertheless, because of his prominence, Navalny still remains vulnerable to attack, both physical and verbal, by those who feels that Putin’s reign is being threatened. In 2017, several Russian opposition figures were separately attacked with zelyonka (зелёнка) – a popular brilliant green anti-septic in post-Soviet countries. They included former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was attacked at a march commemorating assassinated oppositionist politician Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny while visiting the southern Russian town of Barnaul just days before 26 March protests. Then, Navalny took the attack in stride, even taking a selfie with supporters to immortalise his green-tinted face. However, after being doused with a chemically-altered version of the same solution by an unknown assailant on 27 April, Navalny suddenly developed a severe chemical burn in his eye and then had to have surgery. The politician blames the Kremlin for the attack.
In September 2017, Human Rights Watch’s Europe & Central Asia director Hugh Williamson even accused Russian authorities of intimidating and harassing Navalny’s campaign staff. Though Navalny’s grassroots movement had expanded to over 1000 active volunteer working out of 80 campaign offices by the end of the year, on 25 December 2017, the day after he officially submitted his candidacy application, Russia’s Central Electoral Commission announced that the politician was illegible to run in the 2018 elections because he received a five-year suspended sentence for fraud in the Kirovles case in what he believes to be trumped up charges.
When denied the right to run, Navalny said before the Commission: “You’ll be ruling against the 16,000 people who nominated me yesterday. And against the 200,000 volunteers who have spent a year working on the campaign. And against the millions of people who have spent the past year demanding from you one simple thing: ‘Let Navalny into the election.’ This isn’t about Navalny, but about the fact that we need a candidate who will at last speak plainly about what’s happening in this country – someone who will finally describe our reality, our lack of opportunity, our poverty, and more. I’ve done all this, and that is precisely why you don’t want to let me compete in this election.” Navalny’s unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Commission’s led him to encourage his supporters to boycott today’s election in an attempt to delegitimate Putin, whose campaign depends heavily on voter turnout, because the Kremlin, concerned about voter apathy, has sought to “make Putin’s victory as impressive as possible,” wrote Vladimir Isachenkov for the Associated Press.
Navalny’s departure from the race, however, has made room for the rise of a new oppositionist candidate, a person who, though in the public eye since her very childhood, only recently began to command respect.
Kseniya Sobchak: from reality TV star to presidential candidate
Kseniya Sobchak announced her candidacy after Navalny was officially barred from running, vowing from the off that she would withdraw from the race if Russia’s electoral commission were to reverse its decision and allow Navalny to run. Since her announcement, she has presented herself as the alternative candidate, as one who gives citizens the option to vote not for her, but against everyone else.
Sobchak is the daughter of the late Anatoliy Sobchak, the first democratically-elected mayor of St. Petersburg and former mentor to both Putin and Medvedev. In fact, Sobchak Senior and Putin had become close friends in the years before the former mysteriously died. From the first daughter of St. Petersburg, Kseniya transformed as she grew up from reality TV star and actress into a socialite, then a journalist, then a TV anchor on independent Russian television station Dozhd (TV Rain), and now a presidential candidate. Though quick to acknowledge that she is not a populist and could never truly be one due to her privileged upbringing, Sobchak claims to represent the peoples’ concerns, of which she learns by travelling from city to city and town to town and learning peoples’ grievances directly from them.
Sobchak has been blatantly critical of the establishment, even calling out what she sees as inaccuracies in Putin’s tax declarations and criticising the government for both its institutional corruption and for Russia’s behaviour internationally. In an especially controversial turn of events, Sobchak even goes so far as to deny that the newly-annexed Crimea belongs to Russia.
Despite Sobchak’s efforts, Navalny and his supporters adamantly insist she does not represent them, calling her Putin’s spoiler candidate meant to provide an illusion of choice in the election. In September 2017, even before Sobchak was officially enrolled in the race, Navalny maintained that she would be a “‘caricature liberal candidate’ whose candidacy the Kremlin is using to project the illusion of an open electoral process while simultaneously discrediting true opposition candidates,” reported Radio Liberty’s Tom Balmforth. Sobchak’s opponents give weight to Navalny’s argument because Sobchak informed Putin in person that she would be challenging him in the election, in a move that critics saw as equivalent to her asking the president’s permission.
Sobchak herself admits that the 2018 election is a complete spectacle and that her role in it is nuanced, though she dismisses Navalny’s claims that she is Putin’s hand-chosen marionette. Her position is far more complex. “It’s a fake election,” said Sobchak in a recent interview with BBC Newsnight’s Gabriel Gatehouse. “[Because] in Russian elections, the winner’s always on Putin’s side. So, I’m taking part in the elections not to win – I have no illusions about that. I’m taking part to be heard.” As Gatehouse noted in his reportage, “criticising Putin directly feels dangerous,” but Ksenia openly states that Putin created a system that enables corrupt people to benefit from government funds.
Even Sobchak’s campaign advisor Marina Litvinovich, a former political consultant to Putin himself, admits that Sobchak is a convenient tool. “Of course, her candidacy is useful to the Kremlin now, to show that there is pluralism, to pretend that these are real elections,” Litvinovich told the Financial Times. “But she is a media nuclear weapon. If they are really backing her, they are playing a very, very risky game. People who hear her say these things will start thinking: ‘Oh, so this is allowed?’”
Sobchak’s greatest strength may just be the fact that both Putin and the current opposition underestimate her. Sobchak first partook in notable opposition protests in 2011 and was arrested for doing so; since then, her criticism has become risker. Some experts believe that, despite Putin’s affection for the Sobchak family, he would not hesitate to eliminate Sobchak if he started to feel that she has become too great of a threat.
But this threat does not seem to be a deterrent for Sobchak. As Gatehouse summed up perfectly in his reportage, “behind the walls of the Kremlin, powerful people are playing games. Kseniya Sobchak is a pawn … [but] she thinks the pawn might just become a queen.”
Another Six years
In a predictable victory, Russia’s incumbent president Vladimir Putin is sure to have secured the country’s throne for another 6 years at the closing of polls Sunday evening. But this election, made exceptional by powerful internal and external factors, was one of great significance because of the spectacular entailed therein.
Though neither faction of Russia’s opposition had the means to secure a significant margin in the polls, the very fact that an anti-Putin platform was given such a prominent voice, whether as part of Putin’s grandiose ploy to manipulate voters or as a result of an unexpected twist of fate for Sobchak, is already an important accomplishment for the Russian who do desperately require evidence of that it is possible to stand up to the system losing. Both Navalny and Sobchak will hopefully have set an important precedent for the Russian people and made clear in a political environment in which individual voices are not valued, that just might be able to effect change if they choose to exercise their freedoms collectively, en masse, and magnify their voices.
Most importantly, this election revealed the extent to which Putin is terrified of losing Russia geographically, ideologically, and politically. In eliminating his competition in Navalny and choosing to tolerate a promising, yet inexperienced opposition in Sobchak, Putin gave himself ample opportunity to win. Putin’s victory, despite his popularity, was, therefore, made easily achievable in a controlled environment. But if the current political within Russia can reveal anything to Putin, despite his desperate efforts to consolidate power within and without, it is that the Russian people are slowly, but surely becoming better equipped at understanding what is politically healthy and what is not. If the Russian people were not living under increased surveillance, if Navalny had been allowed to run, if Sobchak were not stigmatised for her unserious past, and if the election were fair and free from interference, it may just be that Putin would not have won, because in different conditions the Russian people would be more able to resist authoritarianism.