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Russian Elections: Competitive Polls or an Open Goal for Putin?
Feb 21, 2024
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On March 15, Russians will head to the polls for the seventh presidential election since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A look at the history of these polls and the candidates running this time gives some indication of whether the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

A Short History of Post-Soviet Presidential Elections

Russia held the first multi-candidate presidential election in its history on June 12, 1991. That was exactly one year after Russia’s Declaration of State Sovereignty, which marked the birth of the post-Soviet Russian Federation and the granting of far-reaching autonomy to former Soviet republics under the Perestroika “restructuring” program launched by the last president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Six candidates ran in these elections: Boris Yeltsin, Nikolai Ryzhkov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Aman Tuleyev, Albert Makashov, and Vadim Bakatin. All were former cadres of the Soviet Communist Party, with the exception of Zhirinovsky, who since 1988 had espoused a liberal-nationalist ideology.

A striking feature of this election, which was unprecedented at the time, was that it was almost an exact copy of American presidential polls: each candidate was required to choose a deputy to run on the same ticket, they took part in electoral debates - in which only Boris Yeltsin refused to participate - and each campaigns appealed to supporters for donations. The only difference was the presidential term, which was set at five years.

The elections were won by Yeltsin and his deputy, Alexander Rutskoy, with 57.3 percent of the vote. Ryzhkov and his deputy, Boris Gromov, came second with just shy of 17 percent, and turnout was 76.7 percent.

How Liberals Paved the Way for Autocracy

In 1993, an amendment was made to the Russian constitution, limiting presidential terms to four years instead of five and abolishing the position of Vice President. This followed the bloody 1993 Russian constitutional crisis pitting Yeltsin against parliament. Yelstin was backed by prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, while the other side was comprised of Rutskoy, parliament speaker Ruslan Umranovich Khasbulatov and the majority of deputies.

The crisis deteriorated into an armed conflict, which ended with forces loyal to Yeltsin attacking parliament with tanks. It resulted in Yeltsin being granted near-absolute powers, ending a system of power-sharing between the president, prime minister, and the bicameral Supreme Council of the Russian Federation.

At this stage, the main rivalry was between the pro-Western liberal camp and its opponents. The first wanted to push through a rapid capitalist transformation without any restrictions, swinging the country’s gates wide open and integrating with the West. The other camp saw the need for capitalist-democratic reforms, but wanted to implement them gradually, taking into account Russia’s interests and national security needs.

Pro-Western liberals and the new oligarchy saw this as obstructing the transformation process that was needed to lay the country’s Soviet legacy to rest, so they sided with President Yeltsin. After his victory over parliament, they granted him almost absolute powers in the hope that through this would enable them to control Russian policy from behind, through a man seen as weak, ill and almost constantly drunk.

Accordingly, they backed him in the 1996 elections, in which he scraped through in a run-off against Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov. The poll was marred by fraud and manipulation, according to American and later Russian reports, finally confirmed by Dimitri Medvedev. Yeltsin, indebted to his backers for helping him cling to power, handed them almost total control of the country. The “seven Jewish oligarchs,” as they were popularly called, thus became the de facto rulers of Russia.

However, after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 – thanks, ironically, to his selection by this pro-Western group - he sought to do away with the oligarchy. He did so by exploiting the very powers they had given his offce, which he now used to enshrine a system of autocratic rule. His erstwhile backers would later express deep regret for the amendments they made to the constitution, which paved the way to what they described as a “dictatorial” system.

Putin’s Five Elections

Putin has run in – and won - four elections, and is preparing to run in his fifth, out of seven presidential elections in the entire history of Russia. His first was in 2000, which he won with the backing of the oligarchy that had ruled from behind the scenes during Yeltsin’s presidency. Putin was then re-elected in 2004. The constitution only allowed the president to remain in power for a maximum of two presidential terms of four years each. But rather than amending it, Putin pushed his friend, fellow son of St Petersburg and first deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev to run for the presidency in 2008. After his victory, Medvedev changed the constitution to extend the term of his successor from four to six years, and appointed Putin as prime minister. These amendments also granted the president far-reaching power over judicial appointments.

In 2011, as per their deal, Medvedev announced that he would not run for the presidency, and that after “long consideration”, he had reached the conclusion that Putin was the best person for the job. He offered his backing and called on his supporters to follow suit. Indeed, Putin beat four other candidates to win with 63.6 percent of the vote, on a turnout just shy of three-quarters. His second and supposedly final term ended in 2014, but he went on to win again. In 2018 he beat six candidates to win 76.7 percent of the vote, on a slightly higher turnout.

In January 2020, Putin proposed a string of amendments to the Russian Constitution, adding several new clauses that would enhance the role of the state in providing social welfare to citizens, enshrine the Russian Federation as the legitimate heir to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and limit presidents to two terms in a lifetime. They would also grant former presidents legal immunity and lifetime membership of the upper chamber of parliament, as well as adding other articles inspired by religious conservatism.

At the last minute, the world’s first female astronaut, United Russia party member Valentina Tereshkova, proposed an additional amendment that would allow Putin to run for two presidential terms and retroactively exempt him from the other new articles, allowing him to remain in power - if elected - until 2036. Putin himself, who attended the session, said that while he did not “favor such an amendment”, he “would not object to it if deputies and then the people approve it”. That was indeed the case, with a popular referendum approving the amendments which entered into force on July 4, 2020.

The 2024 Candidates

On February 8, Russia’s Central Election Commission approved the names of candidates to participate in March’s presidential elections. The head of the board, Ella Pamfilova, announced that four candidates had been approved: Putin, Nikolai Kharitonov, Leonid Slutsky, and Vladislav Davankov, while three others had been rejected due to insufficient documents. Here are the approved candidates:

Vladimir Putin

The current President of the Russian Federation, aged 71, announced his candidacy after the Popular Front for Russia, an alliance of political and social movements and associations founded by Putin in 2011 when he was Prime Minister, issued a statement on December 16 urging him to run. The next day, the conservative United Russia party, also founded by Putin, announced its support for his candidacy, followed by the social-conservative “Just Russia for Truth” party on December 23. Putin is running in the elections as an independent, because, in his words, he prefers to be the “president of all Russians” rather than representing a specific party.

Nikolai Kharitonov

The candidate of the far-left Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Kharitonov is 75 years old, holds a doctorate in economics and has served as Chairman of the State Duma Committee for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic since October 2021. In 2023, Putin awarded him the state title of “Hero of Labor of the Russian Federation”. He is on the Western sanctions list.

Leonid Eduardovich Slutsky

Aged 56, Slutsky is the candidate of the nationalist far-right Russian Liberal Democratic Party, which he has headed since the death of its founder, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in 2022. Slutsky has been Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs since 2016, and holds a PhD in economics. He has repeatedly been accused of harassment, as well as accusations of corruption and bribery, and is on the Western sanctions list.

Vladislav Davankov

The candidate of the centrist New People party, Davankov is 39 years old, has a doctorate in sociology, has been a member of the State Duma since 2021, and is on the Western sanctions list.

Differences Between the Candidates

There are almost no major policy differences between Putin’s rivals. All of them supported the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, and as a result, all face collective sanctions from the West. They are all hostile towards the West and support the general thrust of Putin’s foreign policy. They do differ slightly on domestic policies, between those who demand greater capitalist liberalization (Davankov) and a greater role for the state in terms of social support and tackling corruption (Kharitonov). Slutsky is noted for his nationalist attitudes and particular hostility towards the West.

None of the candidates presents a serious alternative to Putin or offers a fundamentally different vision for Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. All three of his rivals are either too old (a tough sell to the Russia public, which suffered under the rule of the old men throughout the last three decades of the Soviet Union), too young and inexperienced to govern a patriarchal society, or marred by accusations of bribery, corruption and harassment. Therefore, Putin appears to be the most suitable candidate for the current mood of the Russian public, in the absence of a convincing and serious alternative capable of convincing voters that he could make their lives safer and more prosperous.

Conclusion

After the breakup of the USSR, Russia briefly enjoyed a balanced distribution of power, between the president, the prime minister, and the two chambers of parliament. As they attempted to build a “democracy” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russians were wary of giving too much power to any one office, mindful of the long history of tyranny both during the imperial era and under the Soviet system.

But the opportunism of the Russian liberals and the post-Soviet oligarchy, with their desire for exclusive power in their hands, along with the Western fears that the communists would return via the ballot box after the failure of Yeltsin’s “reforms”, spurred the creation of an alliance of both domestic and international players to destroy the Russian democratic experience in its infancy. They gave the president absolute powers, believing they could install a weak figure through whom they would rule the country from behind the scenes.

But Putin astutely took advantage of these same powers to neutralize rival power centers, deluding them into thinking that he was weak and could be controlled. He emerged as the country’s unchallenged ruler. The 2020 constitutional amendments mean that providing he remains alive and in good health, he could remain in power until 2036.

Given the current conflict between Russia and the West, along with harsh Western sanctions which have primarily impacted normal Russian citizens, voters no longer place high importance on democracy or elections. Rather, they have become mobilized against the West, a trend that is being strengthened by domestic propaganda, helping guarantees Putin an easy victory without real competition.

Russian sociologists have described the “character structure of the Russian people” as tending towards extremes in everything: either a relentless pursuit of stability, to the point of stagnation, or violent, almost permanent revolution. At the present time, given the absence of real differences between the presidential candidates, the dominance of the state apparatus over the public sphere, its subordination to the Kremlin, the country’s brain drain and the ageing of the population, the situation in Russia appears to be on the stable end of this spectrum. This means there is little room for any “revolutionary” movement or attempt to change the system via constitutional mechanisms.

In summary, the 2024 poll is little more than a procedural process for the sake of constitutional box-ticking, not a real election. Its results are as good as decided in advance: Putin will win and remain president of Russia until 2030, easily and without obstacles. His real challenge will come the day after Russia ceases its military actions in Ukraine and he has to deal with the consequences. Until that day comes, Russia is almost certainly headed towards another term of President Putin.

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