On March 18, Russia will hold its presidential election. The outcome is not in doubt: current President Vladimir Putin will be elected to a fourth term. Opposition candidates readily admit as much: one of Putin’s putative rivals in the contest, Ksenia Sobchak, said, “I’m quite realistic: [In a] casino, [the] casino always wins. In Russian elections, Putin always wins.” Though the Central Election Commission has approved seven other candidates to run, it barred Alexei Navalny, the only candidate seen as a genuine threat to the Kremlin, from campaigning. This primer does not include Putin’s platform, but rather highlights the positions of the candidates opposing him.
Despite the election being a “casino” with the odds stacked in favor of the house, there is still much to learn from studying the candidates opposing Putin in the election. Their platforms reflect vastly different visions of what Russia could be, ranging from a heavily centralized, Communist state to a Western-style democracy to an even more nationalist and conservative version of the current government. Furthermore, at least one candidate is already angling for a position in the post-election Putin government, suggesting that, in some cases, one may be able to get a preview of future Russian government policy by studying opposition platforms.
Above all, interpreting the candidates the Kremlin has fielded to run against Putin means interpreting an important signal from Putin himself, one intended for both the Russian people and onlookers abroad. The spectrum of ideas represented by the candidates delineates what Putin considers acceptable to have a public debate over (or at the very least, to give federal television airtime to) and what he does not. Thus, the platforms of the candidates contained in this primer should be taken seriously, but not literally. They offer a window into the political system the Kremlin wants people to believe exists in Russia; one that gives off the air of dissent, but in fact suppresses the issues the Kremlin feels truly vulnerable about.
There have not been any credible, recent, independent polls to gauge each candidate’s support. The Levada Center, Russia’s largest independent polling outfit, has refrained from publishing any politically relevant polling after the government labeled it as a “foreign agent.” Thus, to provide a sense of the relative popularity of each candidate, this primer relies on a state-backed polling firm, which obviously does not have the same incentive to provide unbiased results that Levada does.
Communist Candidate Pavel Grudinin
Pavel Grudinin is a candidate for the Communist Party in the 2018 election. The director of a farm that sends produce to Moscow, Grudinin was a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party when it formed in 2001. Grudinin’s selection as an election candidate came as a surprise because he was selected in December instead of veteran party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Broadly, the Financial Times described his platform as a mix of “classic Communist party demands . . . with calls to improve the business climate.” Opinion polling has found Grudinin to be the most popular non-Putin candidate as of mid-January 2018. One poll from a government-funded polling organization, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, found Grudinin had support from 7.2% of voters, ahead of all other non-Putin candidates included in the poll. Alexei Navalny was not included in the survey.
Grudinin’s platform places a heavy emphasis on nationalization as a tool to fight the power of the oligarchs, calling for a government takeover of state industries like ethyl alcohol production. He also calls for significant reforms to Russian banking; he supports reducing interest rates on bank loans to small- and medium-sized businesses and the return of rubles held in foreign banks to “Russian sovereignty.” His broad economic vision sees Russia reducing foreign direct investment, withdrawing from the World Trade Organization and increasing the size of its manufacturing sector from 15% to 70% of its economy.
Grudinin also supports a large expansion of the Russian social safety net. He wants to guarantee free gas, electricity, water, and sewage to those living in rural areas, price controls for medicine, transportation, and housing, a minimum wage of at least 25,000 rubles, state-covered treatment of the seriously ill, and guaranteed jobs for new university students.
Grudinin’s platform also addresses military and political issues. He advocates increasing military readiness and the prestige of service and guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary from law enforcement through the direct election of judges. He also calls for an overhaul in how key government institutions are run: Grudinin wants the cabinet to be approved by parliament and the Central Bank and Accounting Chamber to adopt transparency reforms.
Thus far, Grudinin’s candidacy has sparked a significant amount of interest. YouTube videos promoting his candidacy have been viewed millions of times and his campaign has been profiled in major foreign press outlets like the Washington Post. According to Kommersant, Grudinin was featured 19 times on Russian federal TV broadcasts from December 23-26, slightly less than rivals Ksenia Sobchak and Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Grudinin’s candidacy has also attracted controversy. Russian election officials announced in early March that he had 13 undisclosed bank accounts in Switzerland, which would be a violation of Russian election law and reason enough to remove him from the race. Grudinin denies the claims, and some claim the investigative focus on him is a result of his relatively robust polling numbers.
Liberal Democratic Candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky
Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a candidate for the Liberal Democrats, a far-right nationalist party, in the election. A veteran politician (and presidential candidate—this is his fifth time running), he has been a member of the State Duma since 1993. In the foreign press, he is best known for his xenophobic views and outlandish antics. Newsweek, for example, wrote that Zhirinovsky threatened to “shoot and hang lawmakers from [Putin’s] United Russia party,” in 2017 and the Washington Post listed him as one of five foreign political figures most similar to Donald Trump. He has been criticized by members of the opposition as being a pawn for Putin and is known for “rubberstamping Kremlin-backed legislation in Parliament.” A poll from the Kremlin-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center gave him 4.7% support in mid-January.
Zhirinovsky’s platform is extremely nationalistic. He calls for “protecting the Russian language” and restoring “the former greatness of the Russian empire.” He states directly that “any revolution is evil,” that perestroika should be condemned, and that more old Soviet archives should be published. He also wants to “protect traditional values” and restore old, patriotic names for streets, squares, and cities.
Zhirinovsky also has a vague vision of substantial legal reforms. Specifically, he wants to reform the “entire Judiciary,” update parts of the Criminal Code to “humanize” it, and make it easier to organize rallies.
Zhirinovsky has an ambitious plan for foreign policy and security affairs. He wants the U.S. and EU to lift their sanctions against Russia and simplify their visa processes. He also wants to form alliances with Iran, Turkey, and Syria, reclaim former Russian territories, and protect Christians across the world.
Economically, he wants to nationalize the tobacco, sugar, and alcohol industries. He also wants to withdraw Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves from American securities, reduce the interest rate on loans and small business regulation, and review the impacts of privatization on the Russian economy.
Given Zhirinovsky’s long history of failed campaigns and his political alignment with Vladimir Putin, his campaign has not received much attention in Western media outlets. According to Kommersant, Zhirinovsky was featured on 16 news broadcasts on federal channels between December 23 and 26, behind fellow candidates Pavel Grudinin and Ksenia Sobchak.
Civil Initiative Candidate Ksenia Sobchak
Ksenia Sobchak is the Civil Initiative Party presidential candidate in the election. Before running, she was an anchor on the independent Russian TV channel Dozhd, became famous after serving as the anchor for the reality TV show Dom-2, and is known in Russia for being a socialite. Her candidacy has raised concern amongst opposition figures because, despite her anti-Kremlin platform, her family has close ties to Vladimir Putin. When her dad, Anatoly Sobchak, served as mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin served as his deputy, and her mother is currently a politician in the upper house of the Russian parliament. She has received by far the most coverage in foreign press of any officially sanctioned candidate running against Putin. She has been written about in the New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC, and even held a press conference in Washington, D.C. in February to drum up interest in her candidacy. A mid-January poll conducted by the Kremlin-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center had her only at 1% support.
Sobchak’s platform is much more liberal (in the Western sense) than those of the other frontrunners. The first item of her party’s platform is that Russia should become a “European secular democratic federal state with a market economy that protects the rights and freedoms of citizens.” She also calls for dramatic expansion of freedom in Russian political life, calling for the abolition of “all laws or by-laws that somehow restrict the rights of people depending on their political or religious views, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, professional activity or place of residence”.
Sobchak’s political reforms would reshape the role of government in Russia. She calls for constitutional reform, as well as reforms and oversight for Russia’s powerful law enforcement and security agencies. She would also rebalance Russia’s separation of powers, giving parliament the ultimate authority to appoint key officials such as the governor of the central bank and foreign minister.
She also promises to reform the Russian judicial system. She wants to expand significantly the use of jury trials and liberalize the Russian criminal code to ensure suspects get access to timely and fair trials.
Sobchak also proposes a market-focused view of the economy. She states directly that the government “should not control, but regulate the economy” and that large monopolies and state-owned firms should be privatized to increase efficiency.
Finally, her foreign policy platform is based on her view that Russia is a fundamentally “European” country. She wants to reduce Russia’s diplomatic isolation and believes “the main threat to Russia’s national security lies . . . in Russia’s own technological backwardness.” Sobchak also promised to end Russian propaganda efforts and its support of “hybrid wars” such as the one in eastern Ukraine.
Overall, Sobchak has been received more as an oddity than a serious threat to Putin in Western media. While giving her credit for drawing attention to the cause of detained Chechen human rights activist Oyub Tetiev, the New Yorker, in an article representative of the many others that had been written about her candidacy, ultimately labeled her as a “curious” candidate working inside of Putin’s system, rather than as an outsider attempting to other throw it. Sobchak received 1% of the vote in a poll conducted by a state-funded firm in mid-January.
Russian United Democratic Candidate Grigory Yavlinsky
Grigory Yavlinsky is running for president as a candidate of the Russian United Democratic Party. An economist by training, he is best known for his 500 Days Program, a proposal right before the Soviet Union’s collapse to transform the Communist state into a market economy. He previously attempted to run in the 2012 presidential election, but was banned by the electoral commission after some signatures in support of his attempt to get on the ballet were deemed inauthentic. He is running on a platform of broadly liberal policies, such as withdrawing Russian troops from Syria and Ukraine and privatization-based economic reform. Yavlinsky’s candidacy has not attracted much attention in foreign press, but he did receive a profile in the Times of Israel, highlighting his Jewish faith and calling him the “main opposition challenger to Putin.”
Yavlinsky’s platform covers an array of topics relevant to Russian life, but its main focus is on economic and social reform. In his first 100 days in office, he says he would substantially reshape Russian commitments abroad, away from “inciting hatred . . . and war propaganda” against Ukraine and towards a normalization of relations with the U.S. and EU. Economically, he calls for a universal basic income funded from natural resource exports, unconditionally inviolable private property rights, and increased privatization of land resources.
Yavlinsky’s candidacy, like those of the other candidates running against Putin, is not seen as a threat to Putin’s rule. Radio Free Europe (RFE), for example, noted that Yavlinsky said in November 2017 that Putin had offered him the role of “point man” on Ukraine, which should be surprising given that both men have starkly different views on what Russia’s role in the conflict should be. RFE suggests that the move could be a signal to Russian liberals that Putin might embrace a post-election “thaw,” or it could suggest that there is some degree of quid pro quo guiding Yavlinsky’s campaign. Yavlinsky received 0.6% support in a mid-January poll from a Kremlin-funded polling firm.
Party of Growth Candidate Boris Titov
Boris Titov is running for president as the candidate of the Party of Growth. He currently serves as Russia’s “ombudsman for entrepreneurs’ rights,” a job he was appointed to by Vladimir Putin, and is the co-owner of a popular Russian champagne brand. He is known for being supportive of business interests and is running on a pro-growth platform developed by the Stolypin Club, a group of connected business people who have worked with the government to improve business conditions. Given his close ties to Putin, he is not seen as a serious contender for president. The Moscow Times speculated that his inclusion in the race could be because the Kremlin wants to boost “business voter” turnout in a bid to increase the elections’ legitimacy in the eyes of domestic Russians and the international community.
Titov’s platform is focused on improving Russian living standards. He calls for improving the quality of education, healthcare, and social security as well as boosting economic growth and creating an “intelligent and modern ‘state for man.’” Geopolitically, he calls for Russia to become Eurasia’s transport, infrastructure, and financial hub. He also says that economic development should be an explicit goal of Russian foreign policy.
Titov’s candidacy has not garnered much attention in foreign press. He made headlines in cryptocurrency-focused outlets after he spoke positively about the potential for integrating blockchain technology into the Russian economy. Other than that, however, coverage has been sparse and focused on his place at the fringes of Russian politics. Titov received 0.3% support in a mid-January poll by a Kremlin-funded firm.
Barred from Running: Alexei Navalny
Alexei Navalny is a Russian opposition activist who has been barred from running in the upcoming presidential election. Despite having amassed a reported 200,000 signatures and opening 81 campaign offices nationwide, he was ruled ineligible to run by the Russian election commission due to a suspended prison sentence that has been criticized as unsubstantiated. Navalny has a history of opposing the Kremlin: he has served three prison terms for protesting and was targeted last year in a chemical attack by a Putin supporter. Abroad, Navalny is seen as a figure who genuinely opposes the Kremlin: in December, the U.S. State Department criticized his ballot ineligibility. His campaign and subsequent legal obstacles has been a regular subject in the foreign press and has been commented on by the EU in addition to the U.S.
Navalny’s platform focuses on three key areas: the economy, corruption, and foreign policy. Economically, he wants to raise Russian living standards and reduce income inequality. To accomplish this goal, he suggests increasing the minimum wage to 25,000 rubles, reducing mortgage interest rates, de-monopolizing the construction market, and using revenue from state assets to fund the Russian pension system.
To tackle corruption, he proposes unconditionally ratifying the UN Convention Against Corruption, taking public control of state-owned firms and increasing transparency about their compensation schemes, creating a special, independent anti-corruption law enforcement unit, and recovering money stashed abroad that was acquired by corruption.
Navalny also proposes a dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy. In his words, his primary task would be “to reduce tensions in relations with the EU, the US and Ukraine.” He would redirect money spent to sustain Russia’s presence in Syria and Ukraine towards domestic projects, unconditionally fulfill Russia’s commitments to previously ratified international treaties, let Crimea independently decide its geopolitical status, and develop a visa regime with the countries of Central Asia and Transcaucasia. He would also require labor migrants to have work visas.
Navalny’s candidacy has revealed much about his opposition. Putin has pointedly refused to mention him by name; during a press conference in December, he responded to a question about Navalny by referring to him as “those individuals you have mentioned.” Ksenia Sobchak, a candidate who has been running on a similarly liberal platform, has been surprisingly critical of Navalny. In January, she criticized Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s would-be campaign manager, after Navalny said Sobchak was “an unelectable ‘caricature liberal candidate’ whose candidacy the Kremlin is using to project the illusion of an open electoral process while simultaneously discrediting true opposition candidates.“
Because Navalny has been barred from running, there are no credible, recent polls on what his standing would be in the race.