The plebiscite about Vladimir Putin and his course was endorsed by the election. However, it is clear that Putin must address a series of problems in his fourth presidential term from 2018-2024.
Vladimir Putin will be the Russian president for the next six years. This was the main message from the Russian presidential elections of 18 March 20181. This year’s election campaign was characterised by a very different atmosphere than that of 2012. The 2012 elections were overshadowed by a rather bumpy return for Vladimir Putin (from prime minister to president), a conservative turn in Russian politics, and were contextualised by the anti-governmental protests of the 2011/2012 winter.
This year’s election results were somewhat copying the pattern of the 2016 parliamentary elections. The presidential elections resulted in political hegemony too. Vladimir Putin emerged as the clear hegemon with 76 % support after the elections, while the party in power, United Russia, gained a constitutional majority in Duma in 2016. The key difference is that voter turnout was somewhat higher in the case of the presidential elections – 67 %, while during the Duma elections it was just 45.8 %, less than half.
The electoral campaign itself may be conceptualised as a typical election campaign in a “competitive authoritarian” regime, with several deformations in political competition.2 This kind of election is rather free, but not fair. The most visible expression of this situation was a two-track electoral campaign. The incumbent president had his own campaign, while all other candidates were campaigning on their own roads, somewhat separated from Putin whom they never faced on television or in public debates.
This also meant that the election had two different dimensions. The first was on the political field, in which seven different candidates were competing for presidency. The second was on the state dimension, in which Putin was perceived and presented as a statesman whose figure goes beyond political differences and programmatic political conflicts or critics.3 Putin’s electoral slogan reflected this quite precisely: “Strong president – strong Russia!” (meaning “Putin is the president”).
In the end, none of the competing candidates were able to situate as a viable alternative to such an image of Vladimir Putin. The election was therefore rather plebiscite with one crucial question: Are you for or against Putin? Indeed, the presidential elections offered a polarised result, with depoliticised Putin as the hegemon with approximately 76 % of support. Even in the metropolitan centres, such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Putin’s result was high, around 70 %. In de facto Russian Crimea, Putin’s electoral support was record high – over 90 % voted for him according to official results. It is also noteworthy that Putin was a clear winner of the elections held abroad in 99 electoral districts. The weakest support (just around 55 - 65 %) for Putin was in some regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East.
Putin’s seven competitors collected only 22.24 % of all votes, less than one third. Let’s take a quick look at the seven presidential candidates involved in the 2018 presidential race in Russia.
Pavel Grudinin was a surprising candidate for the Communist Party. Grudinin was chosen to replace Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is dealing with a leadership crisis after an unsuccessful parliamentary election in 2016. The party has been in a weak position since the Duma elections (in 2016, the party lost ca. 6 %) and Zyuganov did not want to risk his reputation and end up in third place as some public opinion research had suggested. Grudinin was a comfortable outsider for the Communist Party and for Zyuganov personally. As such, he was not a threat in the intraparty political fights. As an entrepreneur in the agricultural industry, Grudinin himself was interested in creating his own political profile, which would enable him to be a candidate in future gubernatorial elections in the Moscow region.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s role was traditional. He was a spoiler candidate for protest votes which would not support very weak liberal opposition in Russia. However, he was perceived as unfit for being president even by his party supporters, which was reflected in his final number. This was probably Zhirinovsky’s last presidential elections.
Ksenia Sobchak was the only woman among the candidates. She represented one of many voices of Russian liberal opposition. Sobchak used the election to rebrand herself from media personality to liberal politician.4 However, she was largely perceived as politically inexperienced, which was a disadvantage. The second problem was her liberal profile in general (and, in particular, her statements that Crimea is “occupied illegally”).
Liberal Grigory Yavlinsky and nationalist Sergey Baburin were both politicians from the past, with key political careers in the 1990s. This in itself is not a very good asset. Their result was marginal. Maxim Suraykin of Communists of Russia was mainly unknown to voters. Finally, pro-business politician Boris Titov was openly loyal to Putin in his campaign, which was a tactical disadvantage too.
Liberal Democratic Party
Party of Growth
Communists of Russia
Russian All-People’s Union
The plebiscite about Putin and his course was endorsed by the election. However, it is clear that Putin must address a series of problems in his fourth presidential term from 2018-2024. One of the key problems here is the fact that Putin’s electoral campaign was mobilising and based on the geopolitical agenda, while his real agenda for the next six years is largely domestic and socio-economic.
Let’s have a brief look at three interconnected areas of priority:
Vladimir Putin’s third presidency was characterised by the crisis of relations between Russia and the West. In 2014, the mutual relationship turned into one of increasing confrontation and competition, accompanied by a deep decline of trust. Russia presented herself as a conservative power vis-à-vis the West, emphasised the military dimension of its sovereignty and proclaimed to be ready to protect its national interests, not only in the post-Soviet space (Ukraine) but also in the strategically important region of the Near East (Syrian military campaign). This was all met in the West with fear of “Russian aggression” and with politics of containment of Russia. The result was not just confrontation but exclusion of Russia from the Euro-Atlantic space and, therefore, Russian disengagement with so-called “liberal order”, which the West as its hegemon aims to maintain.
Post-Soviet Russia is a great military power, but it also has many systemic weaknesses in terms of its economy, technological innovation and cultural prestige. Long and continuous confrontation with the West, deepening/sectoral enlargement of Western sanctions and the isolation of Russia is certainly not in Russia’s interests. Putin needs to keep confrontation at bay in order to maintain enough space to manoeuvre. Relations with the West are of significant importance for Russian development in the current financial and economic system, which, despite some signs of alternative architecture, is largely dominated by the USA and its Western allies.
Russian society has recently been passively engaged in its quest for the future. In fact, between 2009 and 2018, the Russian economy has been stagnant, with no growth or very modest growth, a decline in real incomes and sharpening social inequalities, while it has had to adjust to the new reality of cheap oil prices and militarisation of the state budget. As a result, Medvedev’s government introduced new and quite radical cuts to the budget in areas such as education, healthcare and the social sphere. In a country like Russia, this actually means abandoning human capital, which has already been devasted by its Soviet and post-Soviet past. An independent public opinion survey recently showed that Russian society desires changes even when its real design is not very specific. Nevertheless, it is clear that the social sphere, welfare, education and quality of life have got top priority, even when they are perceived predominantly through a paternalistic prism (i.e., it is expected that the state should care about people).
This trend or social moods were clearly addressed in Putin’s speech on 1st March. He said that political priority should be human capital and social development, since Russia is a stabilised society and its security is now guaranteed. This new narrative was meeting mass expectations, even when the second military part of the same speech somewhat blurred the message due to its mobilising (electoral) character (addressing geopolitical and security issues). But it is also something that fits in with his foreign policy ambitions. In short, Putin must answer the old-new question of how to continue being a great power with a weak economy and a society that is in social and demographic crisis/stagnation. Putin said that it is not an external enemy for Russia but Russian underdevelopment, lagging behind (Western) innovative societies, which represents the threat within.
There are two key tasks. The first is to change Russia’s economic model, which is still a type of “petrostate” that is dependent on the prices of oil and other commodities. Here, the crucial problem is the political economy of the regime, which was largely based on the redistribution of incomes from oil and gas revenues by the state and by means of the state among members of oligarchic elites. The second task is to fight the chronic lack of capital for investments, offshorisation and capital outflow, typical problems of peripheral economies.
Finally, Putin must be able to draw a fine line between stabilisation and stagnation as a next typical dilemma of Russian conservative policies as we know them from their Russian and Soviet past. His success will mainly be dependent on his ability to fulfil the paternalistic mass expectations of the majority in terms of socio-economic performance, state supports, pensions, etc.
The Russian political system is extremely personalised. It operates within a democratic blueprint which is, however, dominated by informal relations (“para-politics”) and authoritarian political culture. This means that the question of successor is a top problem. According to the current constitution, Putin cannot be re-elected in 2024.
In Russian and Soviet history, we can observe one pattern: succession is accompanied by severe political crisis or turmoil. It proved to be especially difficult when it was met with a change in the political-economic model, as in the 1700s or 1990s. Therefore, Putin’s task is to find a mechanism which allows for a smooth transition of power after 2024 or, more precisely, to prepare Russia for life and politics without Putin.
The succession problem is currently an open issue which cannot be easily predicted. But, in general, there are three possible scenarios (if I skip unpredictable possibilities, such as a regime change).
All three scenarios involve risks and will be dependent on many interconnected factors. Among them lie: a) perception of external and domestic threat (stability factor); b) relations within ruling elites and factions, and their perceptions of the status quo; and c) the socio-economic situation in the country.