It is no surprise that Vladimir Putin has decided to run for re-election as Russian president. Nor will it be a surprise when he wins the race next spring. By the time he finishes his term in 2024, he will be 72 years old. By that time, he will have ruled Russia for a quarter century. Whether his reign will end at that point is anybody’s guess.
Only pseudo-challengers allowed
The Kremlin has constructed a rather artful system of electoral manipulation. Only those deemed unable to defeat Putin are allowed to challenge him — among them, political dinosaurs like right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the old communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, or the well-behaved liberal Grigory Yavlinsky. All bland and washed up figures, none of whom will excite voters.
Since a Putin victory over these members of the old guard of the 1990s seems even too profane for the Kremlin, they have pulled one younger challenger out of their hat: Ksenia Sobchak — a type of Russian Kim Kardashian. She is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s former boss. Putin has known the woman since she was a child: Thus, should her campaign rhetoric go too far, the president will take it with the generous heart of a magnanimous father figure. The Kremlin has everything under control.
The Kremlin has also silenced Putin’s only serious challenger, Alexei Navalny, using dubious court rulings to keep him from running. There is no need to overrate Navalny. For even if he were allowed to stand for election, the Kremlin-controlled media would take care of the issue. Nevertheless, Navalny exhibited his enormous political potential in Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, and could perhaps tarnish the impression of a total Putin victory. That is a risk that the Kremlin wants to avoid in 2018.
Demobilization versus acclaim
But the Kremlin’s current dilemma is another one altogether: To cement its power and hinder the start of any type of political opposition, the Kremlin has systematically pursued a course of political demobilization among Russian voters. It has used every means at its disposal to that end: Inclusion, exclusion and repression have been and continue to be employed. As a result, Russian society has been stricken with a paralyzing political apathy, which has in turn secured Putin’s rule and the country’s kleptocratic elite. Last year’s parliamentary elections showed where this leads: citizens — especially in the large cities — simply did not vote.
But extremely low voter turnout is exactly what the Kremlin now fears most. It would rob Putin’s presidency of its legitimacy and his rule of the aura of having been willed by the people — even if he should win the necessary two-thirds majority during the first round of voting.
Therefore, the challenge for the Kremlin over the coming months will be to mobilize apathetic voters in the short-term while at the same time avoiding the risk of letting a long-term opposition take root. All indications show that the political technocrats in the Kremlin have decided that the narrative of “Russia as a besieged fortress” is the answer to their problem. According to that narrative, Russia is under threat from “external enemies” — from liberals in the West, from Islamists to the South and East, from a conspiratorial International Olympic Committee all the way to foreign media outlets.
Therefore, it will come as no surprise should Moscow soon turn up its anti-Western rhetoric and take more aggressive global policy stances. The West would be well advised to remain calm and level-headed when that happens. It should not let itself be provoked by actions that are solely designed to temporarily awaken Russian voters from their torpor and serve to acclaim Vladimir Putin for yet another term in office.
Go back to sleep
After Putin is once again chosen to run the country in March 2018, the orchestrated resumption of a political demobilization of Russian society will be the first order of business. Russia’s anti-Western posturing will have to be wrapped up by the time the World Cup kicks off in the country in mid-June of next year. After that, Russia’s political elite will have to ask itself what the course of events will be after 2024: Will Putin groom a true successor, or will he remain at the helm himself? If the latter, then he will have to change the Russian constitution. Should he do so, it would be no surprise if he had himself crowned presidential czar for life. That would also relieve the Kremlin of the nagging problem of having to mobilize apathetic voters every six years.