I was seven years old and frolicking on a Soviet playground when Putin was first elected president. By the looks of it, he will still be in power when I’m 31. Funny story how that happened: some legal clerk responsible for drafting up the relevant part of constitution in 1993 wrote down “No person can be president for more than two terms in a row.” True to the letter of the law, a couple decades later Vladimir Putin was elected to a third term, after a four year vacation as prime minister. When journalists found the clerk and asked why in God’s name he added “in a row,” the guy said he didn’t mean anything by it and was just copying from the French constitution. On March 18, 2018, all assume Putin will find himself elected to his fourth (but second in a row) six-year term. It’s the humor that keeps you sane, they say.
This is five months from now, and what I find most striking is just how cricket-quiet Russia is. The event is never brought up on TV and the party websites contain no signs of campaigning. When Skyping with my dad the other day, I asked how often they talk election at work. “What election?” he responded.
Why the silence? One explanation is it just ain’t the exciting ride American elections are. It’s extremely unlikely that we will get a new president, and no amount of marketing can make the idea of maintaining the status quo sexy. Often this certainty of outcome is attributed to the nature of the authoritarian regime. But doing so is oversimplifying the issue beyond reason. Russia is still a democracy, albeit one of a dimly grey color, and public support is a crucial political factor.
What do I mean by grey? For one, they might not let you run for president by prosecuting you with trumped up charges. This is especially likely if your campaign platform is to prosecute everyone currently in power. The election process itself has become mostly transparent in big cities, but in remote regions it is common practice to skew results with fake ballots, adding 10 or 20 percent for the desired outcome. In Chechnya and couple other problematic regions, 99.9 percent of the eligible voters show up to the polls like a brigade and vote unanimously for Putin, just like in the good old Stalin days.
The only active campaign at the moment is an off-parliament party running on the platform of liberal values and pro-Western foreign policy. The campaign is constantly harassed by the government and the candidate is now under yet another bogus criminal investigation. It makes for a vivid Economist piece, but, unfair prosecutions aside, a pro-Western candidate has no chance of winning Russia even in a perfectly democratic process, at least for the moment, and proclaiming annexing Crimea a mistake is the equivalent of saying “I’m an atheist” in an American election — a political suicide.
There is nothing that prevents major parliamentary parties from running their own candidate with a serious campaign, based on any number of popular issues, such reviving the stagnated economy, nationalism or increased government spending. The best chance would be the Communist Party (their agenda nowadays is not nearly as radical as Lenin’s): 20 percent of the population are voting for communists out of nostalgia no matter what. With a new charismatic face, a few hundred million dollars and a year-long campaign, there is no reason why their candidate couldn’t win. And yet they don’t do it! Is this totalitarianism at work? I don’t think so. It seems to be just cowardice and acquired passivity of the party leaders, and maybe they are to blame for the failure of democracy.
Here’s another reason Putin is going to win that I personally find hard to face. He is good at what he does. He may in fact be one of the most qualified rulers Russia had since 1900, granted our track record for leaders has been subprime. He is smart, remarkably dedicated and most importantly he has mastered the balancing act that is Russian presidency.
A major chunk of Russian economy lies in the hands of oligarchs who acquired a voracious appetite for political power during the tumultuous 90s. There is the FSB (ex-KGB), a security agency with an agenda and opinion of its own; on the border with Georgia there is Chechnya, an essentially autonomous region threatening to re-ignite into a war if anyone tries to attend to their atrocious human rights record. Finally, are the remains of liberal elites that reformed Russia in the 90s, still striving to have a say in its course. Putin is able to navigate this terrain of contradictory interests and values with the grace of a Bolshoi ballerina, and the ease with which he does it can be deceptive.
For many, myself included, it is a dream to elect a president with zero tolerance for corruption, a better grasp on economics, someone who is free from the Cold War paranoia that drives most of modern Russia’s foreign policy. Yet the reality is that if such a candidate is unable to somehow appease Russia’s inner demons, they will tear it apart. And, when you discount for propaganda and unfairness of the election process, I think it is this justified fear for chaos that makes Russians vote Putin.
Some anonymous reports hint that Putin’s campaign won’t be announced until December, just three months before the election. I would submit that this almost conspiratorial silence speaks to the regime’s anxiety about how fragile and unpredictable our society might be. The less time people have to remember they have a choice, the likelier it is status quo will prevail, for better or worse.
Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected]. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.