This week’s roundup will be slightly shorter than usual. We are focusing on the results of the March 18 elections—the key takeaways, outlooks for Vladimir Putin’s next presidential term, and lessons for the democratic opposition.

 

Russia’s Vladimir Putin wins his fourth (or de facto fifth) presidential term. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS.

 

  1. Key Takeaways

Vladimir Putin predictably won a fourth term with a record high 76.69 percent of the vote. While these results were anticipated in a country with no real political competition and state-controlled media, experts point to signs of the regime’s decline. 

  • “Depolitization of politics” has been effectively implemented in Russia. In a sense, the latest elections show that “if everyone is for Putin, it could just as well mean that no one is for Putin personally”—people just show support for authority and certain ideas floated by the Kremlin, i.e. Crimea (Oleg Kashin, Republic)
  • These were “the usual authoritarian elections” whose only purpose is demonstration of loyalty. But while the turnout was sufficiently high (67.5 percent), in Russia it never reaches the ridiculous 90-plus percent, as happens in other authoritarian countries. The reason is because Russia went through a genuine democratic experiment in the nineties and preserves a certain “democratic inertia.” These elections also revealed the vanishing of the “visible stability” and the effects of the “voters’ strike.” (Grigory Golosov, Republic)
  • Since 1991 the Russian regime, or Sistema, has undergone several iterations resulting in a peculiar statehood synthesis:
    • The constitution no longer determines the constructs of statehood. The secular nature of the state has been hijacked and is largely ignored.
    • The concept of an immoral fact has vanished, while managed moral outrage has been turned into a popular instrument.
    • The concept of a non-alternative candidate has been established.
    • A small group of about 100 people emerged around the president—a unique entity with covert interests that is often called “Putin’s court,” which will not survive without Putin.
    • Russia’s European path has been rejected, but no replacement has been offered instead.
    • There is an illusion of discipline and Putin’s total control, while in reality there is an “orgy of non-state private and staff improvisations.” (Gleb Pavlovsky, Carnegie.ru)

 

  1. Lessons for the Opposition

  • With a high turnout at the elections and overwhelming support for Putin, a question has been raised: does it mean that the opposition failed? Fyodor Krasheninnikov writes that only those elements that believed that elections meant something in the current political system can be considered failed—not Alexei Navalny’s supporters. (New Times).
    • Within this vein, how can success be defined for the opposition? Under the current circumstances it would be creating maximum pressure on the authorities, creating maximum problems for them, and discrediting their institutions and mechanisms. It would be also maintaining the resolve and continuing the good fight.
  • Those who claim that Navalny’s calls for a “voters’ strike” failed are likely wrong. Navalny offered his supporters an actual model of political participation—to act as observers during the vote. That mobilized people and brought bring them back from the usual political apathy (Kirill Martynov, Novaya Gazeta).
    • Navalny also played the role of a political alternative not just to Putin but to the entire electoral apparatus created by the government;
    • Appealing to those who didn’t vote, Navalny can now explore opportunities for the potential expansion of his support base.

 

  1. What Will the New Political Cycle Look Like?

  • The key challenge for Putin’s fourth term is the imminent pension reform. This sensitive issue has been postponed many times, while Pension Fund pressure on the budget continues to build up.
  • The main conflict will unravel between two camps—the “industrialists” and the “liberals.” These two camps represent two fundamentally different schools of thought that have been competing in the Russian government since 1991. The first camp (Anton Vaino, Andrei Belousov, Igor Shuvalov, Andrei Klepach) views the economy in terms of industrial machines, the second (Aleksei Kudrin, Anton Siluanov, Elvira Nabiullina) in terms of money. A coalition between them is impossible.
  • The key issue will be the so-called “interferers” who fought in Ukraine and Syria on behalf of the Kremlin and who likely messed with the U.S. elections. Like Putin, they will need lifelong security guarantees, which will only be possible if Putin himself remains president for life (Konstantin Gaaze, Carnegie.ru
  • Political scientist Kirill Rogov argues that political cycles in Russia have their biggest impact on the economy. Putin’s new term will face three fundamental challenges: extremely low growth or economic stagnation, the international isolation of Russia as a result of conflict with the West, and the need to solve the “problem of 2024”—that is what Putin will do next.
    • The first two problems are largely outside of the control of the Kremlin, which hopes for a natural recovery, and the constraints of the constitution are only structural—Putin will retain formal political power beyond his fifth term.
  • Brookings Institution’s Sergey Aleksashenko believes that although the Russian economy will be weak, it will remain stable, and therefore will save Putin from having to implement real reforms. Technocratic reforms are likely, though their effectiveness will be low. Overall, the greatest risk to Russia is a global recession, but that is unlikely.
  • Ivan Krastev of the Center for Liberal Strategies writes that Russia’s desire to oppose the U.S. condemns it to an alliance with China in which Russia will play a subordinate role. Krastev predicts that U.S.-Russian tensions will lose their global structural significance, giving way to the U.S.-Chinese rivalry. Russia will also most likely continue to exploit internal tensions in Europe.
  • Political scientist Yekaterina Schulman highlights the fact that Putin is no longer in full control over the network of political power—on the periphery, a variety of proxy agents are active. The problem is that the regime will either have to create a pact that appeals to the expansive political elite, or a war of everyone against everyone else could spark off—especially because as the economic situation fails to improve, left-wing opposition will intensify.
  • Nikolai Petrov of the Higher School of Economics sees the continuation of the Kremlin’s agenda to decentralize power away from regional elites. But the re-federalization of Russia is long overdue, and without it there is no way out from economic stagnation.
  • Grigory Golosov believes that in the new term, social and political conditions will be more favorable for the opposition, but its success will depend on its ability to integrate and harmonize the values of democracy, nationalism and justice.
  • In contrast, Sergei Parkhomenko of the Dissernet project believes that civil society will have to implement new survival tactics, relying increasingly on foreign legal institutions to reduce their vulnerability to attacks by security forces. It will also have to restrict its scope of activity to the level of city or microdistrict to be effective.
  • Andrei Soldatov of Agentura.ru posits that although the Kremlin seeks to integrate a new education class in the state infrastructure, it will continue to view technological development through the lens of its potential to threaten the power structure—a perspective that is both Soviet and backward. It will continue to nationalize the Internet and communications industry, putting the FSB and the military-industrial complex at the helm.
  • See more at “Fifth Term,” InLiberty.

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian):

  

Every Friday, we release a comprehensive digest of the most compelling articles related to Russia.

If you are interested in getting a rare insight into what Russia is really about; what the Russian government and the Russian people are really thinking; what the Russian expert community is really discussing; subscribe to our weekly newsletter below or by letting us know at info@imrussia.org.

Truly yours,

IMR team

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.