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2018 Russian Presidential Elections: The Last Season of Putin’s Era?

Sunday 18th March presidential elections will be held in the Russian Federation. Ever since 2000, (2008-2012 as prime minister), Vladimir Putin has been the man in charge in Russia (and maybe elsewhere?!). A remarkable achievement and internal political stability for a democracy. It can be explained by the continuous economic growth, an increase of attention for human rights standards, and positioning Russia as a reliable and cooperative partner. Yesterday’s KREMLIN TV news broadcast also gave an overview of the political environment and introduced Putin’s main opponents for his fourth elections to be the president.

All sarcasm aside, rarely anyone doubts of Putin’s victory in the Sunday’s election. It is more likely of Trump apologising than Putin losing the election. However, there has been a number of concerns and obstacles on the way of his fourth term as a president. Putin’s approval rating since he retook over as president in 2012 has grown by more than 10% and now is above 80%. Despite the popularity, there are fears in Kremlin’s cabinets that because of the declining approval of the Russian government and tendency of growing apathy for politics in the last few elections, Sunday’s turnout will indicate historically low turnout. Putin’s campaign has set an ambitious “70-70” goal – 70% of support for Putin with 70% of turnout. Such turnout was only registered once – in 1991 presidential elections (74,66%). One of the most obvious reasons for the lack of interest in politics is the economic downfall throughout Putin’s last term. The GDP per capita since the annexation of Crimea has fallen almost twofold ($15,543 in 2013 to $8,748 in 2016), and despite the massive size of land and population, the Russian economy is currently in the size of the state of New York in the U.S.

Even if Russian constitution does not require presidential elections meeting a certain electoral threshold, turnout is the main opponent for Putin. It will indicate the current strength of his office. In a regime that is practiced in Russia, elections have become an event of not political decision-making and competition of different candidates, but rather a measurement of Putin’s strength.

Established that the winner is more than clear, the other competing candidates are there to help to grasp the bigger picture. Alexei Navalny is the most vociferous opposition campaign leader. However, according to Kremlin perfectly understandable and reasonable legal justifications, he is banned to the ballot in the upcoming elections. Navalny only in 2017 was arrested three times for organizing unauthorised protests. Ever since 2008 protests he organised and participated received nationwide and Putin’s attention. ‘Crooks and Thieves’- his description of Putin’s party United Russia, became sort of a slogan for his movement. Even though being the opposition leader, he does have critics in the anti-Putin camp for having links to an ultranationalist movement and participating in their events. He considers himself a ‘nationalist democrat’.

With Navalny being out of the race, none of the other candidates offers an even close competition to Putin. The nearest opponent is Pavel Grudinin, member of Communist Party, who pools at around 6%. Behind him with 5.6% follows Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a right-wing populist, who often receives the spotlight for his controversies. He has several times threatened Poland and the Baltic states with ‘carpet bombing, dooming and wiping out all of them’, he suggested to “burn all Paris” and “sturm Berlin”, proposed building a border wall and banning Muslims from entering Russia (where have I heard that?), and regularly engaged in a fight during a TV debate or parliamentary session. Those are only a few of his greatest hits. Only recently in presidential debates, which Putin did not consider necessary to participate in, Zhirinovsky went off the rails and burst out on another candidate Ksenia Sobchak calling her stupid, dirty prostitute, to which the reply by Sobchak was a glass of water on his face.

Sobchak is a former reality TV host and journalist, who is often called the Russian Paris Hilton. Her main campaign slogan is “I am against” – against the old and stagnating Russian elites. However, she has never publicly specifically criticised Putin. There are pretty obvious ties between her and Putin. Her father, late mayor of St. Petersburg was Putin’s boss during 1990’s. Frankly, her candidacy has all the signs of a theatrical performance directed by Putin himself to show a wider diversity of candidates. Currently, she is pooling in the margins between 1-2%.

In the light of the current UK-Russia diplomatic crisis triggered by the murder of Russian double agent, and beforehand existing deterioration in the relations with West as a consequence of the annexation of Crimea, international politics now are on the brink of a new Cold War. Next six years under Putin will most likely to continue to hold the West in a sense of constant concern and uncertainty. What will follow after 2024 is no less of a foggy image. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the position and power of Russia on a global stage will rely not only Putin, but more importantly on the development in the triangle between US, UK, and the EU. The US with the current administration (job vacancies available) being the most unpredictable element, the others are left to make their own inventory and reconsider possible options.

While with no great enthusiasm or strive for change Russians will once again witness a parody of modern democracy, rest of the world is left with predictions and speculations about what to expect from Russia in next six years. Russian elections will bring no surprises, but they will be the start of the new season of “Putin’s democracy”. Whether it will be the last season is too early to call.

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