18th March 2018 – The date marks the voting day for Russians and quite ironically, the anniversary of the day Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Though the voting day is meant to mark Russia’s democratic system, by systematically eliminating all opposition, the very credibility of the elections is in danger.
Following a federal system, Russians are supposed to elect a President for a period of 6 years and one President can only serve two consecutive terms. However, one might wonder how Putin has managed being in power since ruling since 1999, when Boris Yeltsin transferred power to him. While he took charge in 1999, Putin took over as the President of Russia from 2000, serving two terms till 2008 (Russian Presidents had a four year term which was later changed in 2008 to a 6 year term) and he then served Prime Minister from 2008-2012- placing a trusted Dimitri Medvedev in his office-before returning as the President.
Since Putin took over in 2000, Russia witnessed a reversal of the democratic wave. Post the disintegration of the USSR, Russia’s image has consistently oscillated between being an authoritarian state or an alternative option to the West. The ruling elite in Russia have exploited both images to their advantage. Russia currently ticks all the requirements of a Presidential authoritarian state – unprecedented powers to the President and centralized control. With the recent announcement of China’s leader, Xi Jinping to extend the length of his term to lifetime, Russia’s elections have further come under scrutiny.
The elections are also significant since the event will define Russian state’s identity for years to come. Russia as a state has suffered in the international arena due to a crisis of identity which was essentially a direct result of disintegration of the multi-ethnic states in 1989. Each leader has attempted to project his personal aspirations onto Russia, with Yeltsin being pro-Europe and attempting to move Russia closer to Europe and Putin seeing Russia as a ‘besieged fortress’, propagating a new mix of Stalinism, nationalism and orthodoxy as an integral part of Russian culture. Ethnic self-awareness is suddenly on the rise and talk of Russia’s ‘golden past’ has resurfaced with attempts to cover their long periods of totalitarian rule as victory over fascism. But, with the state propaganda and surveillance that thrives on political passivity on part of the native population, how is one supposed to differentiate the Russian state from a fascist state?
Regardless, one must remember that Putin, despite his weakness enjoys a lot of popularity in Russia. Entertaining as it may be, this popularity is not manifested in memes or Trump’s love for Putin. Instead it flows from an image of a strong ‘Russian man’. Levada, an independent think tank in Russia, has repeatedly assessed his popularity levels to be very high. In fact, after the Ukraine crisis in 2014, his ratings shot up to an all-time high of 89% even though Russia faced economic sanctions. Putin’s constant portrayal as a ‘real man’ who is a source of stability for Russia and can take on the global superpower- USA- actually works in his favour. The state portrayal of a western conspiracy makes the population deemphasize corruption and nepotism as minor problems. This is also representative of Russia’s patriarchal culture which rewards a totalitarian regime as long as it can maintain Russia’s ‘honour’ and ‘pride’.
It is surprising to see that a majority of Russians have more faith in Putin than in the Russian state. Thus, Putinism provides an ideal atmosphere for a neo-patrimonial authoritarian state built on the foundations of artificial traditionalism. Suppression of the civil society is a key feature and the propaganda imposed political passivity of the citizens contributes further to stagnation of the polity.
Public functions are already suffering and people are often asked to compromise, in lieu of fulfilling certain goals against the West. Russia has been on the shift to a totalitarian state since quite long, and elections have acted as a mere façade of democracy. The 2007 legislative elections were denounced to be rigged by several European institutions and Amnesty International and Freedom house agreed. The 2011 elections were again thought to be rigged, however the pre-poll results prove that there were no mass falsifications, only minor adjustments.
For the election on Sunday, it is not just important for Putin to win, but to conquer with an overwhelming majority. With the effective elimination of all opposition, namely Alexi Navalny through a rejection of his candidacy based on a technicality, the winner of the elections is already clear. What will impact the international sphere of politics is the voter turnout, which seems to be a major concern for the Kremlin as Navanly has called for a boycott. With a low voter turnout, Putin’s popularity is bound to take a hit and with a high turnout, the Western powers will have to reformulate their policies towards Russia.
In any case, the results of this election have to be seen in light of the Trump-Putin friendship and the sustainability of Putinism. While there is no doubt about the state’s move towards totalitarianism, these elections will be a voice of the people – and answer the big question, contrary to popular opinion, if the people want to have a voice at all or not.
About The Author
Annapurna Menon is a history graduate from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, India and currently pursuing her masters in International Relations from the University of Westminister, United Kingdom.