Russians head to the polls on March 18 to elect their next president. Vladimir Putin is certain to win a fourth term in office; the only thing left to be decided is the margin of his victory. The incumbent president has already spent nearly two decades in power—longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Leading up to the election, here are four things to know about the candidates, the issues, and the implications for Russia and the rest of the world.
- The Ushankas in the Ring
Eight candidates are officially running for Russia’s top political position. Seven are unlikely to garner significant support. Among the candidates are the millionaire strawberry farmer and Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin; the daughter of Putin’s mentor Anatoly Sobchak and liberal opposition candidate Ksenia Sobchak; and the alternative communist candidate Maxim Suraikin. Critics charge that Sobchak and Suraikin are running Kremlin-backed campaigns intended primarily to fracture the opposition vote.
Absent from the list of approved candidates is Alexei Navalny. The prominent Putin critic was convicted of embezzlement in a politically-motivated trial and barred from running. Not dissuaded from making his voice heard, he led protests calling for a boycott of the election and was subsequently detained. However, his efforts and those of his supporters across Russia are unlikely to change the ultimate outcome: a façade of democratic choice, followed by six more years of Putin.
- Putin’s Popularity Outweighs Problems
Russia’s global and domestic situation is tenuous. The sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community following its illegal occupation of Crimea, coupled with existing structural issues, mean that Russians face a dismal economic situation. Russia’s retaliatory import bans have made the situation even worse, limiting the food available to consumers. Firms face reduced access to foreign investment, financial services, and technology.
The effects of stagnation are not evenly distributed. Corruption remains rampant, and oligarchs have maintained their wealth and status. The situation recalls the Soviet-era distinction between the well-connected, powerful nomenklatura and the much-vaunted, but ultimately expendable, proletarian citizen. Orwell’s biting critique of authoritarian equality rings true now as then.
On the global stage, outcry against Russian meddling in European and American elections has led to the indictments of 13 Russians and proactive measures against hacking and propaganda. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine continues to cost lives, despite official disavowal: an estimated Russian military death toll reaches over 3,500.
Nonetheless, Putin remains popular among Russians, with 55 percent approving of his handling of the economy and 87 percent expressing confidence in his leadership in foreign affairs, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll. Putin’s fundamental selling point remains the guarantee of stability and “a vision of Russian history that promotes the strengthening of ‘patriotism, citizenship, national self-consciousness, and historical optimism'”—a vision of unity that only the consolidated state, led by Putin, can provide. Backed by a sophisticated propaganda machine and government-controlled media, Putin’s message appears to be outweighing Russia’s problems.
- Continued Global Disruption
Internationally, a Putin victory will likely mean continued support for authoritarian regimes and challenges to European and transatlantic relations. Russia’s political interference and propaganda has succeeded in spreading distrust and anxiety throughout the EU and NATO states, while Russia itself, like China, guards its “cyber sovereignty” through censorship, firewalls, and data localization regulations.
By playing “the disruptor” in Europe and the US, Russia has bolstered the position of authoritarians such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro through political, military, and financial support. Cooperation between China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union could not only provide China with a northern inroad into European markets, but also throw Russia an economic lifeline and a viable way to boost its geopolitical status in Central Asia.
Putin’s high-risk, high-visibility gambits abroad serve as a useful distraction from Russia’s internal political and economic problems, and thus help him maintain power. As the need for such distractions doesn’t seem likely to disappear, the rest of the world can expect more of the same for the next six years.
- Dissatisfaction and Prospects for Change
Robert Nisbet writes in Community and Power that “tranquility is a foremost goal of modern man and that he is prone to accept it as he finds it.” Up until now, Putin has offered Russians this sense of tranquility, while marginalizing the voices of the viable opposition and wrong-footing his democratic adversaries on the world stage.
But a more democratic future is not impossible. Many Russians are dissatisfied with the state of politics. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Russians in 2012 supported the idea that votes matter, an increase of nearly 10 percent since 1991. Similarly, between 2009 and 2012, the proportion of Russians who view liberal democratic keystones such as a fair judiciary, free speech, and religious freedom as very important increased.
The broadly-supported protests against the alleged rigging of the 2011 parliamentary elections marked a major outpouring of discontent and established a basis for opposition politics. Low turnout in the presidential election—expected to be between 53 percent and 55 percent, according to the Levada Center—could undermine the government’s claims that the election is a paragon of the democratic process. Putin’s victory in 2018 seems certain—but what will 2024 bring?