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  • Daniel Yates

Putin secures his third term: But what is going on under the surface?

Neither a PhD in Russian studies nor clairvoyant abilities were required to predict the outcome of the 2024 Russian election. Vladimir Putin has been elected with 87.8% of the vote, with a record 74% turnout and no serious opposition. This will see him remain as Russia’s leader until 2030 – the longest-serving leader in the Kremlin since Josef Stalin. However, he has faced increasing challenges with the discontent of civil society and a stalling war in Ukraine. So, how does Putin keep such tight control over the electorate and shape elections? How will this affect the War in Ukraine and the future of Russia? How does Putin view himself?

Putinism, a quasi-ideology involving a police state, kleptocracy and ultra-nationalism, has navigated Putin through nearly 30 years as President of Russia – almost continuously except for his brief stint as Prime Minister. Naturally, ruling for this long is far easier when you have removed all credible opposition. This has been seen explicitly twice in the last year with the suspicious deaths of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Alexei Navalny, but Putin has used more insidious means of assuring complete control. Those candidates who do make it onto the ballot sheet will be at the very least in line with Putin’s policies if not outwardly praising him. Some have seen Vladislav Dakanov, the candidate for the New People Party, as something of an ‘anti-war’ candidate, hoping for negotiations to bring peace (making him the most popular candidate for those who were voting outside of Russia according to think tank Vote Abroad). However, this is peace on Russia’s conditions and ‘without one step backwards’. The Russian political elite, therefore, has a ubiquitous view that Russia will not back out of Ukraine defeated and without the land that they have captured, land they claim is rightfully Russian. The second most popular candidate, the Communist Party’s Nikolai Kharitonov (with a staggering 4% of the total vote) had praised Putin before the election had begun for ‘trying to consolidate the nation for victory in all areas’. 

In his victory speech, Putin made it abundantly clear that Russia would not flag, fail or falter in its invasion of Ukraine. Instead, he pledged to prioritise resources in order to resolve tasks associated with the ‘special military operation’ that he would continue to strengthen. This increased burden on Russian state finances comes at the risk of destabilising the precarious social contract between the government and civil society. Therefore, Grant Schapp’s comments that Putin is a ‘modern-day Stalin’ is something of a misnomer. It could be more accurate to compare Putin to Leonid Brezhnev – the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982. Both presided over the failure of extensive military campaigns and increasing gerontocracy at the highest levels of government. Brezhnev’s rule was marked by economic stagnation, but Putin’s economy has been relatively resilient – the IMF has predicted it to grow by 2.6% in 2024. Putin has undermined his social contract, however, through the increasing reach of the state into Russians’ personal lives through the partial mobilisation. 

‘Putin cannot dampen their resolve, and it will continue to grow and develop outside of Russia until one day it permeates domestic civil society and he cannot keep up the charade – sic semper tyrannis.’

Yet, despite this possible fracture, Putin’s media control has ensured enduring popularity among a large proportion of the Russian electorate. Eminent academic of Russian politics, Professor Mark Galeotti, estimates that a genuine election for Putin would result in 60% of the votes – a comfortable lead desired by any democratically elected leader in the West. This, therefore, leads us to consider to what extent Russians are ambivalent about democracy and the effects that this antipathy has on any opposition. With Navalny gone and the other candidates nodding along to Putin’s beat, opposition in Russia is modest – but its most ardent practitioners have proven steadfast, none more so than Navalny’s wife – Yulia Navalnaya. She has orchestrated the most formal act of Russian resistance in this election – Noon Against Putin on March 17th. This has proven most popular with Russians voting abroad, Navalnaya herself voting in Berlin. One may have doubts about the tangible impact of outside resistance, but what is clear is the magnitude. One voter in London claimed to queue for seven hours, voters queued in the rain in Paris, and long queues formed at consulates in Phuket and Istanbul. The message is clear – we will not be intimidated. There is a substantial sect of people who will not be deterred – including Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkov who was attacked with a hammer in Vilnius last week and who has continued to call for people to queue at polling stations at midday. Putin cannot dampen their resolve, and it will continue to grow and develop outside of Russia until one day it permeates domestic civil society and he cannot keep up the charade – sic semper tyrannis.

Image: Wikimedia Commons



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