Photo by user Evgeniy Isaev
Europe / Russian Presidential Election

And the Winner Is… Putin (Again)

Incumbent President Vladimir Putin clinched a resounding victory in the 2018 Russian presidential election earlier this year on March 18th, winning 77% of the vote. Unsurprising to experts and observers around the world, Putin’s landslide victory ushers the nation into another 6-year term with an all-to familiar leader at the helm. This electoral feat makes President Putin the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin, as he has held the position of president or prime minister since 1999.

The campaign for the 2018 Russian presidential election was gripping and at times hysterical. Putin’s opposition candidates yelled, cried, and even berated one another during televised debates. There were seven main opposition candidates on the presidential ballot and one vocal figure familiar to the Western media, Alexei Navalny, who was not on the ticket.

Alexei Navalny, a passionate anti-corruption campaigner widely known in the West for his targeted expositions of Kremlin officials, including Putin, had already announced his bid for the 2018 presidential election. Navalny, however, was jailed for the third time in the fall of 2017 for alleged corruption. Mikhail Loginov of OpenDemocracy hailed Navalny as “the unifying figure for anti- government sentiment in Russia,” citing his aptitude at “Combining a patriotic appeal with new technology and Obama-style presentation.” Even after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Navalny was unfairly convicted by the Kremlin, he was barred from running in the election.

Garnering 12% of the vote, the highest proportion after Putin, was Pavel Grudinin. Ironically, Communist Party nominee Grudinin was a member of Putin’s affiliate party United Russia until 2010, and openly rejects basic communist dogma. An unapologetic strawberry-farmer millionaire, Grudinin was a surprising nominee for the Communist Party.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a right-wing populist known for his xenophobic outbursts, won 6% of the electorate vote, the next-highest outcome for an opposition candidate to Putin. In a declassified briefing for the Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, NSA and FBI jointly referred to Zhirinovsky as a “pro-Kremlin proxy.” His role as a candidate was to serve as a foil to Putin, diverting votes away from other competitors. In his sixth bid for president, Zhirinovsky won a piecemeal percentage and stirred up tension with the other candidates during the debates.

Another notable opposition candidate in the election was Ksenia Sobchak the former reality TV host, contemporary political journalist and daughter of Putin’s former mentor, the reformist mayor of St. Petersburg. Sobchak gained a lot of attention in the Western media for her optimistic goal of creating a new liberal party in Russia in opposition to the corrupt Kremlin of today. She won 2% of the vote. Frequently criticized for her privileged past as a socialite and TV star, Sobchak was discredited domestically but still managed to bring important talking-points to the table. In her February 8th talk at Columbia University, Sobchak began with a bold introduction, saying “I’m here to say that Putin is not Russia. Russia is a huge country with lots of young people who believe in other values and want things to change.” She proceeded by adding that her “message to the Kremlin and all Russians” is that, “A leader should not be afraid to speak openly about problems and threats…and he should not tell lies to his citizens.” Her unfiltered, direct criticisms of Putin are important, underscoring her concerted desire to make political and societal changes. With statements like, “Russia is a paradise for corrupt officials” and by espousing the notion of putting individuals above the state, Sobchak does not steer away from difficult conversations. Photographed on election day with Alexei Navalny at his workplace, her future role in politics is uncertain but unfinished.

The other presidential candidates, Grigory Yavlinsky, Boris Titor, Maxim Suryakin and Sergei Baburin each received 1% or less of the vote.

The presidential debates were like something out of a Bravo Real Housewives episode. Candidates talked over each other and exchanged profanities. After a lengthy televised altercation, Ksenia Sobchak dumped her water on Grigory Zhirinovsky. Separately, Maxim Suryakin threatened to break Gurinin’s jaw, adding, “you scum!” Notably absent from attendance was Putin, seeming to rise above the drama, keen to stand out as a steady and confident candidate.

With a reported voter turnout of 67% and a margin of victory of 76%, Putin concluded his victory speech with, “success awaits us.” Meanwhile, several news outlets reported the results of the election as nefarious. Golos, an election watchdog group, reported an inconsistency in the number of towns and cities reported and the obscuring of video feeds in some ballot-casting locations. There was even some speculation over forced voting as reports of people being bused in to ballot locations emerged. However, despite this evidence of fraud, it is highly possible that Putin won the popular vote in earnest, albeit not by such great margins.

Opposition figure Navalny had some strong words for the election result, posting the following on Twitter: “Now is the season of Lent. I took it upon myself never to get angry and not to raise my voice. Oh well, I’ll try again next year.” However, to most of the Russian public, like Gelena Zakharova, Putin’s victory was a positive outcome: “We have started to live much better under Putin, patriotism is spreading. It’s wonderful.” Her approval of Putin lies partly in her desire for Russia to be respected internationally, one of Putin’s main political objectives: “Russia has become a very powerful country. We’re rising from our knees. I really like it.” Another Moscow voter, Dmitry, indicated his support for Putin because of his intimidating reputation on the world stage: “He’s one of the most powerful politicians in the world; a real tough guy and that’s good.”

While the election is now over, its national and international implications will continue to play out in the years to come. Putin announced in his victory address his intention to improve the lives of Russians, indicating domestic issues were of “primary importance” in his new term as president. How will this manifest in the next six years? Will he keep to his promise and spend proportionately less on defense (as promised) and more on issues such as affordable housing, healthcare, and infrastructure?

Although winning only a small fraction of the popular vote, Sobchak and other non-traditional candidates, in addition to non-eligible candidate Navalny, brought important issues to the table and introduced more criticism of Kremlin corruption, which is essential to the development of Russian civil society.

Many wonder whether Putin will abolish the two-term presidential limit or extend the term again. If he does so, it will jeopardize some of his domestic support. If he does not extend the term limit, who will fill his large, familiar shoes? When asked about a bid for presidency in 2024 Putin laughed and joked, “Do you think I will stay here until I am 100 years old? No!”

Internationally, responses to President Putin’s victory have been varied. President Xi Jinping remarked after his congratulatory call with Putin that Sino-Russian relations were “at their best level in history, which sets an example for building a new type of international relations.” In response, several pro-Kremlin news sources have projected an end to the Western order, in articles such as one titled, “Putin, as living legend, reserves place in history as leader who ended Western domination.” This gesture by President Xi, and its implication of Chinese and Russian cooperation, carries notable implications for US interests in the region. A closer partnership between these two nations would jeopardize the United States’ position in Asia.

In the United States, President Trump’s most recent call with Putin has elicited an antagonistic reaction. Reportedly ignoring strong instruction from his National Security Council to avoid explicit congratulation of President Putin, Trump offered his good wishes and avoided mention of the recent nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in London early this year. Dissenters have emerged pointing out a clear hypocrisy in Trump’s actions, the president on one hand condemning Iran, tweeting that its “rulers suppress their own citizens’ rights to free assembly, access to information, and equal opportunity,” while refusing to denounce Russian election fraud or societal suppression. This raises the question of US legitimacy in the world. Trump’s inconsistent stances on international governance discredits America’s reputation as a bastion of liberty and democracy. A democratic nation should, after all, lead by example in its behavior domestically and internationally.

With this electoral result, one thing is clear: there will not be any substantial changes in Russian leadership for at least six years. However, while the media turns away from Russian candidate coverage for the time being, it will be interesting to watch Ksenia Sobchak and her progress in promoting a liberal agenda in opposition to Putin’s Kremlin.