Why There’s So Little Suspense Ahead of Russia’s March Presidential Elections

Why There’s So Little Suspense Ahead of Russia’s March Presidential Elections

Why There’s So Little Suspense Ahead of Russia’s March Presidential Elections

It’s widely assumed Putin will win. The real question is what will happen in six years, and whether the authoritarian system first established by Boris Yeltsin will persist.


After a year in which the news cycle brought a constant series of shocks and outrages, perhaps the least surprising development of 2017 was the announcement, on December 14, that Vladimir Putin would be running for the Russian presidency once again in March 2018. Since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012, there has been little doubt that Putin would seek another six-year term in office. There can be little doubt, too, that he will win. So far, the other contenders include some of the usual suspects—the social-liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, the nationalist provocateur Vladimir Zhirinovsky—as well as a few novelties: TV personality Ksenia Sobchak is standing for the liberal Civic Initiative party; Boris Titov, the Putin government’s commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights, is running for the neoliberal Party of Growth; and the Communist Party has this time decided to put up Pavel Grudinin, an agronomist and manager of a successful produce farm near Moscow, instead of its perennial losing candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.

All lag far behind Putin in terms of popular support, while the anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny—the Putin opponent who has received the most media exposure outside Russia—was officially excluded from the race on December 25 by the country’s electoral commission. Navalny has called for a boycott of the March vote, and for street protests in the meantime—perhaps hoping for a rerun of the demonstrations that accompanied Putin’s return to power in 2012. But even if they materialize on the same scale as before, they are unlikely to have much impact on the course of the election itself.

Barring an outlandish turn of events, then, Putin will stroll to victory, extending his hold on the Kremlin to 2024. What does this prolongation of his power mean, both for Russia itself and for its relations with the West, which have reached new lows amid accusations of election hacking in the United States and collusion with the Trump presidential campaign? Putin has already been at the helm for 18 years, matching Brezhnev’s tenure as Soviet leader. If he makes it to the end of a fourth term, Putin will have ruled his country for almost a quarter-century. This lengthy dominance in itself partly explains the overwhelming tendency to identify Putin with post-Soviet Russia as a whole: The fortunes of the country have become fused, especially in Western media coverage, with his character and personality.

But what is the nature of the political system over which Putin has presided for so long, and how much does it actually owe to his personal whims and preferences? Much Western commentary on Russia is wedded to the idea that there is a fundamental difference between the way the country was run in the 1990s and how it was run in the 2000s—the idea being that a period of chaotic freedoms was followed by a closing of horizons, the dynamism of free markets stifled by the return of the state’s heavy hand. According to this line of thinking, Putin has overseen a strange combination of regressions, sliding back into the authoritarian habits of the Soviet era while at the same time reviving the autocratic practices of czarist times. (Hence, for example, Putin is either The New Tsar, the title of Steven Lee Myers’s 2015 book, or a sinister KGB agent, as he is characterized in Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, the 2013 study by National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill and her co-author, Clifford Gaddy.) But what is today referred to in Russia as the “Putin system” is neither neo-Soviet nor retro-imperial; rather, it is something more distinctively post-Soviet that took shape in the early 1990s, and was then consolidated and continued by Putin himself after 2000.

The foundations for this system were laid by Boris Yeltsin. From the start, there was an ugly flaw built into Russia’s post-Soviet political architecture: Though the country was now formally a democracy, whenever the will of the electorate ran up against the imperatives of free-market reform, democracy always came second. Much of the key legislation that dismantled the Soviet command economy was enacted by presidential decree rather than submitted to scrutiny by the country’s elected representatives. Even so, Yeltsin faced early opposition to his program of “shock therapy.” In October 1993, he dealt with it by sending tanks to shell the recalcitrant parliament into submission, and then pushing through a new constitution—approved that December after a rigged referendum. The result was a new, ultra-presidential system that gave the executive branch vastly greater powers than the country’s legislative institutions. In 1996, a hugely unpopular Yeltsin was reelected amid widespread vote rigging, and with covert assistance from the Clinton White House—“meddling” or “hacking,” if you will. After this tainted triumph, Yeltsin adviser Anatoly Chubais crowed that “Russian democracy is irrevocable, private ownership in Russia is irrevocable, market reforms in the Russian state are irrevocable”—the list making clear what he thought the key ingredients of “democracy” were.

Thus, long before Putin came to power at century’s end, there was a critical gap between the Russian people’s democratic aspirations and the Kremlin’s priorities. The system that developed in the early 1990s was what Russian political scientist Dmitri Furman called an “imitation democracy”: It had all the outward appearances of a democracy—regular elections, a parliament with rival political parties, a seemingly free press—but little of the substance. Putin inherited this system and prolonged its life span. The market reforms of the 1990s have not been reversed, and though select oligarchs and companies have certainly been targeted for expropriation—most famously Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his oil company, Yukos—the principle of private profit has hardly been undermined: Russia now boasts 96 billionaires, according to the 2017 Forbes list. This is, notably, 96 more than it had when Putin came to power.

This larger system, in place throughout Putin’s almost two decades in power, will certainly survive well beyond the 2018 presidential contest. But there is a strange temporal quirk built into this year’s electoral calendar. Since the outcome of the March vote is scarcely in doubt, the main question being debated among media commentators and political analysts in Russia is what will happen in six years’ time, when Putin will once again have reached the constitutional two-term limit. Paradoxically, the very likelihood that Putin will be in the Kremlin for at least another half-decade is already encouraging people to think about who or what comes after him. Can the system over which he presides adapt to his departure from office in 2024?

A lot of ink is being spilled now in Russia about whether Putin will in fact leave power when his term is up. Among the scenarios recently floated by Russian pundits are constitutional reforms that would shunt some of the powers of the presidency to the parliament. This could also involve a boost in the authority of the prime minister’s office relative to the Kremlin, creating another power center to counterbalance it. Might Putin sidestep once more into that role, as he did from 2008 to 2012—and this time stay there? While certainly possible, such an outcome seems unlikely—especially if the recent past is any guide. A decade ago, when Putin’s second presidential term was nearing its end, there was similar speculation that he would either amend the Constitution to do away with term limits altogether, or engineer a shift to a kind of parliamentary system. In the end, he did neither, handpicking Dmitry Medvedev as his successor and then returning to the Kremlin in 2012, with the length of presidential terms now conveniently extended to six years instead of four.

What Putin does in 2024 depends to some extent on how safe he feels his retirement will be. Here, the record for Russia’s Soviet and post-Soviet leaders suggests he shouldn’t face many difficulties. To be sure, Khrushchev lived out a miserable few years after being ejected from power in 1964. (The question didn’t come up for Brezhnev and his immediate successors, who died in office—Brezhnev in 1982, Andropov in 1984, Chernenko in 1985; there was a running joke in the mid-1980s about Kremlin funerals becoming so frequent that it was worth getting a season ticket.) Although Gorbachev’s political influence has all but vanished since the collapse of the USSR, he has been left to his own devices by the authorities. Yeltsin, too, was able to enjoy his retirement in peace, largely thanks to Putin himself. Back in 1999, Putin’s first move as acting president, after Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year’s Eve, was to grant his predecessor immunity from prosecution. Can he find someone who will do him the same favor—and, more importantly, who will be able to make it stick?

This personal predicament of Putin’s is tied up with the larger question of how much the system is dependent on him personally. Much of the Russian elite’s nervousness about what will happen in 2024 is premised on the idea that the country’s governing structures might all collapse without this particular individual at their center. In one version of this argument, it’s because of Putin’s uncanny charismatic authority, which gives him a dictatorial power that brooks no challenge. In another version, it is Putin’s ability to balance different interests against each other that has kept him in power—a kind of anti-charisma that has made him an empty center around which various Kremlin factions revolve.

But both lines of reasoning overlook the extent to which Putin has maintained a pre-existing system rather than created a new one. There are, in fact, any number of potential successors who would probably run the “imitation democracy” in much the same way, from Medvedev (again) to close Putin ally Vyacheslav Volodin to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Indeed, the central issue at stake over the next few years is not whether “imitation democracy” can function with a different figure at its summit—it clearly can, as Putin showed when he took over from Yeltsin. The question, rather, is whether it will be able to function at all. The crucial factor is that the “Putin system”—with or without Putin himself—now has to operate in a much more difficult environment than before.

In the early 2000s, Russia experienced a burst of economic growth thanks to high oil prices, enabling it to recover from the deep depression of the 1990s. The petro boom allowed Putin to pay off the country’s debts and to pay wages and pensions on time. There was clearly an obvious material basis for his sustained popularity. Yet for some years now, the economic picture has been far less favorable. Russia was hit hard by the 2008 global crisis, experiencing the sharpest contraction among the G-8 countries, and had barely begun to recover when it was battered again by tumbling oil prices and Western sanctions in 2014. Oil prices have partially recovered since then, and some sectors of the Russian economy—notably agriculture—have done relatively well amid the sanctions, thanks largely to the dwindling competition from imports. But overall, the economy remains sluggish. Since 2012, Russia has posted annual GDP growth figures that are either negative or less than 2 percent, and OECD forecasts suggest this trend is likely to continue for at least the next couple of years. This will considerably restrict the Kremlin’s domestic room to maneuver—even as it faces increased difficulties on the international stage.

To be sure, rising tensions with the United States over the past few years have to some extent offset Russia’s economic woes. Anti-Russia sentiment abroad has a way of bolstering domestic support for the Kremlin, and in that sense the “election hacking” narrative has done Putin more favors on the home front than its promoters might like. But this trade-off won’t continue indefinitely. It’s frighteningly possible that the animosity toward Russia in US policy-making circles will harden into a consensus in favor of out-and-out regime change—in which case the world would be headed for another disaster to add to the epochal devastation of the Middle East. But it’s also possible that the current levels of geopolitical loathing won’t be sustained, in which case Putin might well outlast them. Here, the very fact of Putin’s stubborn persistence in power may affect Washington’s calculations.

In the meantime, the Kremlin will clearly be looking for ways out of the dilemmas presented by the combination of tightening economic constraints and an adverse international climate. Developing closer trade ties with China may be one part of the solution, reducing Russia’s dependence on oil and gas exports to Europe. But even after a significant recent expansion in trade, China barely overtook the Netherlands as a destination for Russian exports last year, and there is some way to go before Beijing alone can counterbalance slowdowns in trade elsewhere.

For now, Putin’s next term seems not to promise any radical departures. The most widely publicized projects floated for Russia’s economic future involve no substantive changes in the underlying model. The “left-nationalist” Putin adviser Sergei Glazyev called for quantitative easing to spur growth, while Aleksei Kudrin—a former finance minister who became a critic of the Kremlin after 2011, but again seems to have Putin’s ear—issued a plan a few months ago for a liberalization drive in 2018–24 that would involve a new round of privatizations. Regardless of whether either plan is adopted, there doesn’t seem to be any serious, large-scale commitment to improving basic public services, which are already hopelessly inadequate to Russia’s needs. If anything, there will be further moves to expand the steady commodification of education, housing, and health care that has taken place under Yeltsin and Putin alike, extending the reach of private capital even as the state cuts back social spending. Military spending, for its part, is already the object of a tug-of-war between different elite factions. After increasing from 3.2 to 4.4 percent of GDP between 2014 and 2016, it was recently trimmed; but if confrontation with the West continues, there will be pressure to ramp it up again—which may well come at the expense of already shrinking social budgets. Either way, it seems likely that Putin’s fourth term will have regressive consequences for most of Russian society.

The system of “imitation democracy,” then, seems unable to imagine its future except as a continuation of the recent past, as the regime enters what political scientist Yekaterina Schulmann has called “calorie-conservation mode.” This seems at best like a recipe for a long, Brezhnev-style stagnation, and at worst for entropic descent toward collapse. In either case, it inevitably raises the question of how and when the Putin system might end. Is it slated for a conflictual disintegration, like other authoritarian regimes before it, or might there be a peaceful transition toward a different model?

It’s still far too soon to venture any guesses on that front. But how events unfold will ultimately depend on two things: the attitude taken by Russia’s elites and the organizational strength and outlook of opposition movements. The system has so far been a nonstop bonanza for members of the elite, so there’s little reason to think they would desert it. Here, there is a crucial difference between today’s Russia and the USSR. As the Soviet system neared collapse, many of its elites were able to defect to the new national states that emerged, making off with property and power as they traded one flag for another; there is no equivalent set of structures they could migrate to now. For their part, Russia’s opposition movements remain electorally weak and are still vastly outmatched by the organizational power, financial resources, and territorial reach of Putin’s United Russia party. On this level, there would seem to be no immediate systemic threat to the current order.

Yet socially, the picture is less clear-cut. While the Kremlin still enjoys substantial popular support, especially among state-sector workers, the past few years have seen a surge of social activism across Russia, involving a variety of groups, that recalls the civic flowering of the perestroika years of the 1980s, ranging from anti-corruption campaigns to environmental protests, from housing struggles to embryonic labor movements. These developments remain small and geographically dispersed, making it difficult to forge lasting alliances and organizational connections. But it is from within this pluralistic, socially and ideologically varied terrain that any consequential alternatives to the Putin system would have to emerge—alternatives, that is, that would imagine substantively different ways of organizing Russia’s politics, economy, and society. There is a long way to go, though, before anything like this can take lasting form. Putin’s fourth term seems to be shaping up as a period of stasis for the ruling system itself, a time of inertial drifting. For those ranged against it, perhaps this is more of an opportunity than it might seem: an interval in which projects for other possible Russias can begin to coalesce.

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