To understand what the upcoming Russian elections are about, one needs only take a look at the ballot. It would be clear even to those who do not speak Russian. The candidate, who will win, is already marked clearly on the ballot.
This document presents almost perfect symmetry. Above President Vladimir Putin, there are three relatively “conservative” candidates; and below Putin – a group of relatively “liberal” candidates. Just one thing spoils that symmetry – the box with the name of communist candidate Maxim Suraykin – but he cannot be left out. He is the candidate of a second communist party, which had to be created because there had to be more than one party taking the votes of the pensioners, who by habit, vote for the communists. That sizeable vote had to be broken down. For these elections, candidates were carefully picked so that they cover all segments of society. There is the provocateur-populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; there’s the conservative “patriot” Sergey Baburin; two communists – Pavel Grudinin and Suraykin (what is funny is that both are “capistalist” owners of businesses); there’s the liberal Boris Titov, who is supposed to represent the interests of private business; and there are two “radical liberals” – for the older voters – Grigory Yavlinsky (who first ran as a president 22 years ago) and for the youth – Ksenia Sobchak (a controversial reality TV host and the daughter of Putin’s former boss).
As you might imagine, none of these candidates criticises Putin directly and generally, all of them avoid even saying his name. Earlier, the Kremlin used to experiment with “uncoopted” opposition representatives appearing on TV debates. For example, during the previous election season, Vyacheslav Maltsev, the candidate of PARNAS party, harshly criticised Putin on air. That ended with Maltsev having to flee abroad and some of his supporters facing criminal charges. Since then, they’ve not allowed anyone to directly criticise the president.
Paradoxically, this time, the biggest headache for the authorities, was not criticism from the opposition, but rather its absence, which resulted in many Russians losing interest in the elections. A few months ago, a poll conducted by Levada Center showed a possible turnout of 58 percent.
The only “uncoopted” candidate – Alexei Navalny – was barred from running (on the basis of a fraud conviction in a court case which the European Court on Human Rights ruled to be illegal). So the only “threat” to the regime right now is a low turnout, which would put in question the legitimacy of these elections. While the opposition called for a boycott of the elections, the Russian authorities have put great effort into bringing people to the polling stations.
One of the unexpected results of this situation is that the Kremlin tried to spark political tension. So, while in the past, the annexation of Crimea could only be discussed on state TV in a positive light, now one candidate – Sobchak – all of a sudden started questioning its legitimacy. For an outside observer, this might look like there is genuine political debate. But for those who’ve followed closely Russian politics, it is clear that this is just a show. Sobchak herself once called for the annexation and said Putin would go down in history for “bloodlessly taking back” Crimea. What is also interesting that she used to be blacklisted on state TV, but now all of a sudden she was given plenty of airtime.
The show turned especially dramatic in the days just before the elections. During the TV debates, Sobchak threw water on Zhirinovsky, who called her a “wh***”. Days later, Zhirinovsky was interrupting her constantly, after which she burst into tears and walked off. But scandalous performances on TV would not guarantee a higher turnout. So the authorities resorted to the good old methods – mobilising local administrations. That, of course, includes the organised transportation of state employees to the polling stations and the close monitoring of the number of votes. But this time, they are mobilising not only state institutions, but also large corporations – both public and private.Turnout anxiety is a new phenomenon in Russia. Earlier the Kremlin cared only about how many votes Putin got and did not pay attention to how many people turned up at the polls. But now, the old Soviet tradition of chasing turnout numbers is back.Formally, these elections don’t really matter. They would be concluded even if Putin were the only person to vote. But today, when Russia finds itself in international isolation, Putin should be proving to the world that he has domestic legitimacy. That, of course, wouldn’t have changed the way other countries see him, but would have allowed him to stabilise domestic affairs and show – both ordinary Russians and the elite – that the situation is under control.But as the Soviet experience demonstrates – having control could be an illusion and could quickly collapse in times of economic crisis. As long as the Russian reserve still has some funds, this illusion will continue to be maintained.