Analysis | Surprise at the Polls? Not in Russia

Analysis | Surprise at the Polls? Not in Russia

Taylor Valley

- Eastern European Affairs & Latin American Affairs Specialist
- Graduate Student in Russian, Eastern European, & Central Asian Studies at Harvard University

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With all of the talk of Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, it’s easy to forget that Russia will hold its own elections just next spring. While the U.S. election excited and divided the nation for well over a year, the upcoming Russian election is leaving much to be desired across the country. This may be because Vladimir Putin—in his third, non-consecutive term as president—is eligible for re-election in 2018. The title “Tsar Putin” is hardly a hyperbole considering the Russian leader has held high positions in government since the Clinton Administration. Although at the time of this writing Putin has not officially announced his candidacy, few suspect that the leader is dithering on the question. Even though many already take for granted a Putin victory in the upcoming elections, the contest for the presidency remains an important event in the country.

The Russian presidential elections are the most significant source of legitimacy for the leader and his political party. Lower oil prices, the events in Ukraine, and Russia’s active involvement in the Syrian conflict have put a sharp negative pressure on the Russian economy. Prices skyrocketed, ordinary Russians were working for less, and pensioners were left in agony waiting for their checks. With gradual economic recovery, the 2018 election will show whether the Russian people approve of Putin’s leadership during the past few years. While in the West it’s easy to cast off Putin as nothing more than an authoritarian leader, it’s worth looking deeper into the role of the Russian presidency, Russian society, and the upcoming elections, to understand how Putin stays in power.

Has the Russian presidency always been so powerful?
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the fledgling Russian state rebuilt a system of government that sought to protect against tyranny by creating a strong parliamentary system to act as a check against the executive authority. In the midst of these constitutional changes post-Soviet Russia was also struggling to transfer from a centrally planned economy to an integrated market model. To facilitate this process, Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, initiated an economic reform program known as “shock therapy.” This entailed ending state subsidies, privatizing large state enterprises, and the sudden release of price and currency controls. This “shock” to the economy led to rampant inflation and caused food shortages in major cities.

Even though many already take for granted a Putin victory in the upcoming elections, the contest for the presidency remains an important event in the country.

The Russian people were understandably upset by the new economic model and many began to long for the stability of the Soviet era. Yeltsin, the champion of the people and sometimes credited with breaking up the Soviet Union, lost many of his supporters in government. The State Duma—Russia’s lower house of parliament—worked to reject Yeltsin’s economic decrees and tried to assert itself as the most powerful body of the Russian government. Tension grew as the economic situation worsened.

In the meantime, Yeltsin was in the midst of trying to pass a new Russian Constitution. During the interim period in 1992 the president was granted a special set of powers that were set to expire by the end of the year when a new Constitution was supposed to come into law. The parliament felt that Yeltsin was overstepping his presidential authority and proposed a constitution, in which the legislative branch reigned supreme. Yeltsin, naturally, was against this and actively worked to dissolve the parliament.

By September 1993, the conflict became so heated that actual military force was employed. On September 21st, President Yeltsin ordered the military to siege the parliament building, known as the White House in Russia. In the next week and a half, both pro- and anti-Yeltsin forces convened in front of the White House and violent clashes ensued. The conflict culminated in the military shelling the White House with many members still inside. In the end, over 100 people (both government officials and citizens) were killed in the violence and the parliamentarians leading the resistance were arrested.

In the aftermath of the conflict, Yeltsin was able to swiftly dissolve the government, postpone the upcoming presidential elections, and craft a constitution that made the President the ultimate source of authority in Russia.

How did Putin come into power?
The most powerful man in Russia today, came from humble beginnings and began his career in the KGB (the Soviet-era Committee for State Security) rather than in politics. It wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Putin resigned from service to pursue a political career in his home city, St. Petersburg. During the 1990s, a young Vladimir Putin worked in the Foreign Relations Committee and then directly under the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, who also happened to be his former law professor. Sobchak was defeated in the 1996 mayoral election and instead of working under the new mayor, Putin chose to relocate himself and his family to Moscow to work in president Yeltsin’s government.

By the end of the 1990s, President Yeltsin’s health was failing, his popularity was declining due to the second Chechen War, and he was entangled in an international money laundering scheme that threatened to end his political career. In short, Yeltsin’s days in office were numbered and he needed to plan for retirement. Putin, a relatively unknown figure in Russia at the time, had a clean record and stood out for his loyalty to his country and to those he worked under. Many speculate that Yeltsin appointed Putin as Prime Minister to make Putin a strong presidential candidate and one that would protect Yeltsin after his term ended.

Yeltsin stepped down from office in December 1999 and Putin was swiftly elected president in spring 2000. One of Putin’s first orders of business was to pardon Yeltsin, giving him “immunity from criminal or administrative investigations, including protection of his papers, residence and other possessions from search and seizure” (Business Insider).

Is Putin Popular in Russia?
Yes, he really is. Despite international criticism, Putin’s approval rating at home remains high. While international observers have a reasonable amount of skepticism for polls conducted by the Russian state, many independent polling agencies are in agreement that the overwhelming majority of Russians really do exhibit a healthy amount of support for Putin. According to a Pew Research Poll, a full 87% of Russians expressed either “some” or “a lot” of confidence in Vladimir Putin’s handling of world affairs, more specifically, 63% have confidence in his handling of relations with Ukraine and 73% have confidence in his handling of relations with the United States.

In short, Putin’s popularity rests merely on his image as a president.

Putin’s popularity, however, does not directly translate to approval for the Russian government as a whole. According to a Levada Center poll, 58% of Russians believe that government officials primarily seek to preserve and strengthen their own power and 47% claim that they do not feel protected by the law. A 2016 Gallup survey highlights another apparent disconnect between Putin and the reality on the ground: "Putin's unfaltering popularity has been remarkable because it appears to be untied to his country's recent economic troubles." Putin’s won’t-back-down approach on Ukraine gave him a popularity boost, while the economic crisis that followed was blamed on the corrupt, self-serving government and not on the strapping leader. In short, Putin’s popularity rests merely on his image as a president, while the Kremlin bureaucratic machine and the West have become the scapegoats for Russia’s quotidian woes.

What is Putin’s Party Platform?
President Putin is supported by the ruling party United Russia, which has dominated national politics for near a decade. United Russia formed as an offshoot of a larger political coalition in an attempt to concentrate elite power near the center of the political system. Today, United Russia is seen as a centrist conservative party and promotes traditional values based on orthodoxy as well as a strong Russian nationalist identity. The party often cites the economic hardship and uncertainty of the 1990s in its narrative to advocate for socio-economic stability and international dominance. Today, in the State Duma, United Russia holds 340 of the 450 available seats.

Who Else is Running in the Elections?
Alexei Navalny… maybe. Putin’s loudest source of opposition is anti-corruption activist and blogger Alexei Navalny. Although Navalny has a gained a considerable fan base since he announced his bid for presidency last year, it’s unclear whether he will be allowed to run. Do a quick search on Navalny and you will probably find a host of headlines listing all of the times the leader was arrested or recently released from jail. Navalny is known for his disruptive tactics such as hosting counter-protests or rallies in large public spaces. Meetings of this nature are heavily regulated in Russia and Navalny can’t seem to escape punishment for “inciting violence” or “unlawful assembly.” Just last June, Navalny called for encouraging protests during a historical reenactment put on for the national holiday Russia Day. Thousands showed up to one of Moscow’s busiest streets with signs and shouted “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin!” Navalny was arrested that morning in his apartment before he even had a chance to join in with the protests.

Does Navalny stand a chance against Putin?
While Alexei Navalny gets a lot of international press coverage, his popularity in Russia is hotly debated. In his crusade against corruption, Navalny has set out to dispel the official statistic that over 80% of Russians support President Putin. Navalny, also known for his anti-establishment stance, claims that this number is a Kremlin propagated myth. While Navalny has been able to gather a fierce, vocal following, these Russians are generally considered to be a part of the political minority.

When Navalny comes to protest, he is oftentimes met with hostility. Last spring, the leader incurred a series of attacks in which anti-Navalny protesters assaulted the activist with a brilliant green dye, known in Russian as zelyonka. In one such attack Navalny claimed that the green liquid nearly blinded his left eye. So does Navalny stand a chance against the regime? Even if he manages to stay out of jail long enough to make it the polls, hope remains slim that a political outcast like Navalny could take the presidency this spring.

Are Russian elections even legitimate?
After the 2016 parliamentary race, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights stated that: “The 18 September State Duma elections in the Russian Federation were transparently administered by the Central Election Commission, but challenges to democratic commitments remain.” Some of these challenges include lack of secrecy in voting, unequal treatment of opposition contestants by the local authorities in certain regions, low thresholds for freedom of political speech, lack of transparency in tabulation, as well as video recorded evidence of ballot stuffing and carousel voting (a particularly Russian quirk in which busloads of voters are driven across a region to cast ballots multiple times).

Putin’s third election to the presidency faced a different set of criticisms from the OSCE in 2012. While the instances of ballot stuffing and other blatant forms of corruption were at a minimum, the OSCE claimed that Putin benefited from exorbitant government spending on his campaign and that there was no real challenge for him at the polls.

In short, the largest source of illegitimacy in Russian elections is not corruption at the polls, but rather pressure on opposition parties and the lack of resources to effectively reach Russian voters. So next spring when Russians head out to the polls, it will not be too difficult to imagine the most popular face in Russian politics returning once more to his spot at the helm.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Banner Photo Credit: Bogomolov.PL - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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