Russia’s election under unprecedent control

Even for seasoned observers of Russian presidential elections, the 2024 iteration stands out as particularly peculiar. This peculiarity is largely attributed to President Putin’s conduct, who notably restrained his party, United Russia, from actively campaigning—a departure from previous practices. Instead, he has personally immersed himself in the electoral process, assuming the role of both incumbent and candidate, while refusing pre-election debates with his rivals. His engagement has spanned various official rituals, including his annual televised address to the nation, his traditional end of the year speech to parliament, and even New Year’s greetings, all delivered with the demeanor of a candidate rather than a sitting president. Notably, he recently participated in a surprising interview with American journalist Carlson and engaged in a televised discussion with Russian journalist Solovev on February 13th. Additionally, he made an unexpected video address just two days before the election. Concurrently, he has conducted a series of regional visits and meetings with specific social groups, meticulously tailored to address popular or regional concerns ranging from the price of eggs to erratic local telephone services. Moreover, he has met wives and mothers of soldiers and distributed decorations at military hospitals.

Tension Mounts

The content of Putin’s March 13th video address provides insight into the power dynamics within contemporary Russia, epitomising Putin’s entrenched defensive stance of “us against all.” This reflects his fixation on control and a worldview portraying of the West as seeking a second Cold War victory by undermining or dismantling Russia which can be traced back to the mass demonstrations of 2011-2012. During this period, thousands protested against fraudulent legislative election results and subsequently rallied against Putin’s return as a presidential candidate. Since then, any opposition has been construed as part of a foreign conspiracy, reliant on Russian “traitors” and “foreign agents” to orchestrate regime change akin to the colored revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. The recent deterioration of relations between the West and Russia due to the conflict in Ukraine has only reinforced this narrative.

Consequently, Putin’s decision to make a last-minute video appeal as “presidential candidate Putin” just two days before the election came as a surprise. However, its core message was consistent: participation in the electoral process symbolizes patriotism and love for the motherland. It also signifies national unity, extending to Russian citizens involved in the “special operation” and the populations of Crimea and Novorossia, where polling stations will be open. In their case, participation reaffirms their desire to join the Russian Federation, as expressed in the 2014 referendums.

Turnout Concerns

This address, combined with other elements of the implicit campaign, underscores the Kremlin’s profound concern regarding voter turnout. The participation rate is perceived by Russian leadership as a stamp of approval and legitimacy. Simply by casting a ballot, Russian voters signal personal trust in a candidate to fulfill their electoral promises. Unsurprisingly, Putin has pledged to bolster the economy to ensure a high quality of life for the population. However, due to the “special operation,” domestic policy cannot be divorced from international considerations. In this regard, Putin’s message is predictable: he seeks to reassure Russians of their country’s status as a nuclear superpower, second only to the United States, prepared to retaliate if national security is threatened. Additionally, he reiterates that Russia is the target of a meticulously planned offensive by the Western anti-Russian bloc, which will be deterred through national unity, economic modernisation, and military preparedness. Once again, the conflict in Ukraine is framed within the broader context of Western aggression, with no acknowledgment of Russian troop involvement in Ukraine.

The persistence of this mindset, exacerbated by the electoral campaign and international scrutiny, may appear baffling or repugnant to Western observers. Nonetheless, it provides the backdrop against which Russia’s political landscape must be evaluated, for better or for worse. It also indicates that, despite its disdain for the liberal opposition, the Kremlin has taken note of calls from exiled opposition figures, particularly the widow of Alexei Navalny. They have urged voters to arrive at polling stations at noon as an indirect form of protest, or to write Navalny’s name on their ballot, or simply invalidate it. Authorities have warned that any public demonstrations will be forcibly dispersed, reinforcing the argument of Russian opposition analysts who eschew the term “election” in favor of “electoral process”.

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