On 18 March 2018, with 77% of the vote, Vladimir Putin won his fourth election and a new six-year term as President of Russia. Now what? The following are extracts of an analysis by Andrei Kolesnikov, the Head of the Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. The full report can be found at http://carnegie.ru/commentary/75859
How do you see the results of this election? The result was predictable, but was there anything that surprised you?
The high level of support for Putin was unexpected. It was, in fact, too high to be credible. The official high turnout was also surprising. But we should factor in here the massive propaganda focused on getting people to come to the polls and compelling them to vote — something which is a violation of Article 1 of Russia’s Presidential Election Law by the way.
In this election people were voting merely with the hope that things will not get worse. Sociological research shows that the country has lived by this logic ever since 2017. It is a kind of negative adaptation to what is happening in the economy. Russians want things to get better, of course, but they are realists and so they accept that it is better to live like this, with this president and in these circumstances, than with something new and unknown, and with the fear that things will get worse in the country. Putin received a serious mandate from the people. He is the president of all Russians. But this mandate is not a sign of active public support, but of indifference. It is a mandate for a continuation on the political path that Putin has been following for the past few years.
Is it worth waiting for radical reforms or a thaw during this presidential term?
Putin received a mandate for stagnation, which means there will be no serious, comprehensive reforms, there will be no liberalization. Putin understands perfectly that he can’t touch the political foundations of his system as everything will collapse. Six years is a very long period, which needs to be endured calmly, so that a model of succession or for preservation of power may be found. Some targeted economic reforms, administrative reforms, judicial reforms are possible, but they will not change the authoritarian essence of the regime. Putin will try to find support in the new bureaucracy. He has new mechanisms for identifying promising young officials such as the “Russian Leaders” program and the “cadre reserve”. I think that in his next term he will rely on young technocrats. Perhaps, people who will ensure the smooth transition to a new presidential term in 2024 will be recruited from out of their midst.
What new things has this campaign brought to the political landscape of Russia?
This campaign has made it clear to the West in particular, that Putin will not change his overall direction. And now, relying on this powerful mandate, he will act even more freely. When it comes to domestic policy, this mandate implies a continuation of the current economic policy, including the return of the state to a role of excessive presence in the economy, and a narrowing of space for public organizations, political parties and political leaders. A new figure who emerged from this election is, of course, Pavel Grudinin. The fact that Grudinin came in second shows that there is a demand for new faces and for a populist discourse of the leftist variety. Ksenia Sobchak and Grigory Yavlinsky revealed the deep divisions in the liberal camp, not to mention the split within the entire liberal-democratic opposition.
Is it possible to unite the opposition?
I don’t think so. It was never really possible. Now there is the legal opposition, approved of by the Kremlin, and there is the illegal opposition. And they will never join. This is evidenced by the serious conflicts that arise between Sobchak and Navalny. Even so, Sobchak can attract a significant part of the liberal electorate, which has given up waiting for Navalny to legally be allowed to participate in politics. The fact that there is no alternative opposition leader has contributed to the fact that a significant part of the urban elite supported Sobchak. But she did not manage to collect many votes, in fact, shockingly few in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Just over four percent among urban voters in Russia’s two main cities is not enough for a liberal candidate.