A unified democratic opposition could send an important message to the ruling elites in Russia. However, the opposition is deeply divided over the question whether to boycott the elections or go to the ballot. While there is no correct answer to this question, splitting the already tiny democratic camp is definitely the wrong one.
A Comment by Anastasia Vishnevskaya
The date could not be more symbolic: the elections will take place on 18 March, the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. This date is so important to the ruling elites that they changed the legislation defining the election date. On the ballot are eight names, but the current president and de facto Russian ruler since 1999, Vladimir Putin can be confident to be re-elected for another six years until 2024. His popularity stems from diverse sources, most important of which is an interplay between an aggressive foreign policy and a well-functioning propaganda machine that spins positively even the most dramatic losses in Syria and Eastern Ukraine. Although the Russian economic outlook is getting grimmer by the day, Putin is sure to win. And not only because of the ridiculous political image of his contenders.
Who if not Putin?
Over the last three decades, while drifting from ‘partially free’ to a solid authoritarian regime, Russia has accumulated a variety of rubber-stamp institutions. The presidential elections are so predictable because the candidates representing the democratic opposition as well as the vocal critics of Putin are not even allowed to run. Those who do participate are either too radical to win, controlled by the Kremlin or they publicly admit to not challenge Putin.
For example Boris Titov, Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneurs’ Rights, claims to run only in order to promote his political parties’ programme, not to become president. Another such candidate is Sergei Baburin, the least prominent candidate of them all. His programme does not offer any concrete measures, but mostly bullies the current “neoliberal” government and promises wealth and social equality. The candidate for the Communist Party Pavel Grudinin, on the other hand, does not publicly praise Putin. Quoting Li Kuan Yew brought him the admiration of those Russians who are dissatisfied with the deteriorating economy but do not aspire democratic reforms and are not disturbed by Grudinin’s admiration for Stalin.
The radical camp is represented by the comparatively young hardcorel-left Stalin fan Maxim Suraykin and the Russian political veteran nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky who became famous for statements like “Russian soldiers will wash their boots in the Indian Ocean”. The later has been running for presidency since 1991, but never got more than 9 percent of votes. Zhirinovsky will most certainly compete with Grudinin for the second place as both are expected to get around 7 percent of votes.
Another veteran candidate is Grigory Yavlinsky who ran multiple times already. He is the head of the opposition “Yabloko” party and a tragic figure in Russian politics. As a member of the government he became a prominent politician in the 90s, but after Putin came into power he slowly started losing credibility and failed to join forces with other democratic movements. Yavlinsky is not expected to get many votes, proof for the Kremlin that the liberal democratic opposition has little support in Russia. If he represents anything at all than first and foremost all the things that are wrong with the Russian democratic opposition.
In fact they have always been weak. Sometimes as a result of the Kremlin’s engineering, but other times not even that was required. In the run up to this years’ elections, the opposition is divided as deeply as it has never been before over the question whether the people should go to the polls to vote for “anybody but Putin” or damage the ballots. The other camp says Russians should boycott the elections and not participate at all because the elections are illegitimate anyways.
What have the elections turned into?
The boycott was declared by Alexey Navalny. He is a prominent opposition leader and head of the the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a privately funded organisation aiming at making the most notorious corruption cases in Russian public. Since 2011, Navalny has faced several fabricated criminal charges and in 2013 he received a suspended sentence on charges related to his business activity. He ran as a candidate in the Moscow mayoral elections in 2013 and got 27 percent of votes. Though he started his presidential campaign in 2016, in November 2017 he would not get registered as he has not yet spent his complete conviction. His supporters argue that without him being able to run for president they will consider the elections to be illegitimate, and declare anybody who even goes to the polls supporters of Putin’s regime and condemn the farce the elections have turned into.
Other major opposition movements call for people not to stay at home and make the procedure more democratic by participating in it. This camp includes the eighth candidate, famous journalist and it-girl and Putin’s goddaughter Ksenia Sobchak who announced her candidacy only in autumn last year and is frequently accused of being a pro-Kremlin spoiler. The most important argument of the camp is that there is no minimum turn out in Russia and the elections will take place and be deemed legitimate anyways.
The percentage of voices cast for the winner is counted based on the number of all ballots cast, including those that were made invalid and could not be counted. Voting for other candidates would reduce the percentage of voices Putin will get. Silently staying at home does not give a voice to or empower the people opposing Putin, the argument goes. As the turnout is normally around 65 percent, those who will stay at home out of protest will remain indistinguishable from those who would not have voted anyways.
While Vladimir Putin will be re-elected in March 2018 with or without an electoral boycott, the Russian opposition will remain split for another term. What is impressive, however, is the contention in the tiny bubble of politically active Russian democrats about the role of institutions. A very prominent argument against the boycott is that the elections are fake, but without respect for democratic procedures a democratic regime cannot be established.
There is a small but well-educated political elite in Russia promoting their ideas using top-of-the-art PR technologies. Public intellectuals and university professors are advising them with prominent features in the very limited democratic media landscape. Before the economic situation in Russia gets even worse and people who are now supporting Vladimir Putin will take to the streets, he would be well-advised to hand over the power to those who promise him personal immunity in case of a transition, like Navalny does. But the democratic opposition remains split and powerless, and Putin will keep taking care of his immunity himself.
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