Four things you won’t see in Russia’s presidential elections

Four things you won’t see in Russia’s presidential elections
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This Sunday, Russian people will elect their president. It may sound like an oxymoron given that Vladimir Putin has been at the helm of power for nearly two decades and his win in this election is a foregone conclusion. The entire electoral process, lacking genuine political competition, is a vote of confidence for the leader, rather than a referendum on the future of Russia.

Here are four glaring absences from this year’s campaign:

Putin’s program

When the other seven candidates attempt to outdistance each other in vainly promoting their political agendas, Putin keeps calm. There is no official document presenting his vision of the country — not that one is truly required. After 18 years of power, the elections are but a ritual serving to confirm his popularity and warn would-be challengers to stay away.

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It is his popularity that holds the regime together. Putin remains the system’s keystone, as well as its protector and largest beneficiary. Under his rule, Russia has become a hybrid democracy that utilizes propaganda, censorship and selective repressions to consolidate the power of the ruling clans. Amid this background, elections lose all meaning.

 

The social contract in Russia is based on the concept of loyalty. In return for being faithful to those in charge, citizens receive relative domestic stability and a license to dream of great power status for their country once again. This constitutes the essence of the unnamed Putin’s program: internal status quo for free hand in foreign policy.

Alexei Navalny

Russia's buoyant opposition leader Navalny has been largely invisible in the electoral campaign. Barred from running for president, he continues his mission through engaging social media followers and sparking public protest. Putin and his acolytes understand that Navalny poses a threat to the regime and allowing him to participate in the presidential race would have earned him greater recognition.

But Navalny is not a problem that will simply disappear; his approach is long term. Navalny’s strong performance in Moscow’s 2013 mayoral elections proved that Russians can go against the political current and vote for an alternative option.

Today, it is impossible to imagine anyone but Putin as Russia’s leader. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian Duma, has even coined the phrase: “Putin is Russia.” The Kremlin’s tenant embodies Russia itself, and opposing him is tantamount to betraying your country.

Alexei Navalny’s quest to broaden the electorate’s minds no doubt will continue. So will the Kremlin’s mission to place every possible administrative obstacle in his way.

Curbing corruption

Russia was ranked 135th in the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, four positions lower than the year before. Worse still, Russian citizens seem to have accepted rampant corruption as a way of life. It is hardly surprising that an in-depth discussion on this topic has been absent from the 2018 campaign trail.

Corruption in Russia is vertical in its nature and central in its organization. The center of power in Moscow manages state funds, which are redistributed across the regions, but also supervises the system of governmental tenders. Shares from both areas are returned to Moscow administrators, filling the pockets of everybody in their way — from low-rank regional clerks to high-level generals and officials in the capital.

The Russian state’s battle against corruption has seen few bullets fly, save for a few hand-picked scapegoats. These rarely resemble true corruption barons, and often are figures deemed to be inconvenient by the Kremlin.  

Meaningful change

The upcoming elections will change little in Russia. The longer president Putin, 65, stays in charge, the fewer exit options he will have and the less likely he will be to alter his policies and behavior.

With Putin in place for the next six years, one can expect the country’s economic stagnation and external disruptions to continue. The best outcome may be the maintenance of the domestic status quo and capitalism à la russe — where power equals possession.

Public expectations in Russia concerning citizens’ own well-being and the need for an efficient state never were high. Yet the majority of Russians, according to polls, recognize that without change the country will not move forward.

This desire, however, comes with caveats. Russians are reluctant to sacrifice and bear the personal costs of reform — with 70 percent opposing higher retirement age and the loss of social benefits and 66 percent against partial payment for medical services.  

Since there is no immense enthusiasm among Russians for change, the government has no incentive to provide it. This would needlessly contradict the economic interests and self-survival instincts of those in charge.

The main question beyond the 2018 elections should be: Is Russia doomed to perpetually drift without addressing her gaping domestic shortcomings, while at the same time being overly aggressive toward the outside world as an attempt to cover over them?  

Michał Romanowski is a Eurasia expert with The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw.