The Kremlin is already seeking to control an upcoming Russian presidential election – not the imminent election of 2018, but instead that of 2024.
On Wednesday February 8th, a district court in the Russian city of Kirov re-convicted Alexei Navalny – one of Russia’s most prominent anti-Kremlin activists – for defrauding a state company. Importantly, the conviction bars Navalny from running in any future election, including the 2018 Russian presidential election – something that Navalny had stated he planned to do. Under Russian law, no one with a criminal conviction can seek elected office.
The conviction last week followed a previous conviction, on the same charges, in 2013. This, however, was later overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, causing the Russian Constitutional Court to order a retrial. The Kremlin, which exerts extensive control over the judiciary, made clear its intention to convict Navalny when the case was given back to the same court and even the same judge for retrial. On February 8th, the judge read a sentence that was almost verbatim of the 2013 sentence, including some of the very same grammatical mistakes.
The decision is significant because Navalny is the most prominent opposition leader within Russia. In 2013, he shocked the Kremlin when he received nearly 30 percent of the vote in the mayoral election. Many analysts, both within Russia and abroad, see Navalny as the only significant threat to President Vladimir Putin’s re-election campaign in the 2018 presidential election, and have speculated that Navalny’s conviction demonstrates Putin’s growing concern about losing the 2018 election.
The general consensus among most Russian observers, including Michael McFaul, the former US Ambassador to Russia, is that Putin is worried that Navalny poses a threat for the upcoming 2018 presidential election. That’s only partially true.
While Navalny is a source of major concern for the Kremlin, it is not for the 2018 election but rather the 2024 election, in which, according to the current term limits in the Russian constitution, Putin would be unable to run for reelection. This potentially seismic election is already being anticipated by millions within Russia, including those inside the Kremlin.
It is in that light that the banning of Navalny as a presidential candidate for any upcoming election should be viewed. The first, but certainly not the last, shot has been fired in a presidential election that, although still seven years away, could potentially rival the instability and uncertainty of the perestroika period.
United we stand, divided we fall
The Russian opposition is currently so fractured that it does not pose a significant threat to Putin in the upcoming election. In the 2016 Parliamentary elections, Putin’s governing party United Russia gained control of 76% of the seats, a significant number because it conceivably gives him the required two-thirds majority to change the constitution if he were to seek yet another term in power. Three other parties control the remaining 104 seats, and all three – the Communists, the far-right nationalists of the Liberal Democratic party, and A Just Russia – are largely supportive of the Putin government. Meanwhile, the opposition parties of Yabloko and Parnas failed to gain representation in the Duma.
While the gain of over 100 parliamentary seats was certainly a win for United Russia, the low turnout is clear sign that Russians increasingly do not see their government as a way to voice their opinions. The 47 percent turnout was a record low, with only 28 percent of voters in Moscow attending. Many no longer see the elections or their government as responsive or representative to their concerns.
Navalny never stood a chance
There are three primary reasons why Navalny is not a concern for the Kremlin in 2018 but for 2024. In much the same tactics as the Duma elections in September, Putin’s method to stay in power is to divide the opposition. While Navalny could potentially unite the opposition parties in the future, he currently only has support in Moscow and St. Petersburg. While these represent over 15% of Russia’s population, Putin’s stronghold of the rest of the country guarantees him a major victory. Unless he can broaden his appeal outside the west of the country, Navalny stands little chance of unseating Putin. Indeed, on sheer numbers alone, Navalny has practically no chance of defeating Putin in 2018. Instead, Navalny’s court case highlights Moscow’s rapidly growing concern about the increasing levels of disenchantment felt by millions of Russian citizens.
Second, Putin is genuinely popular amongst Russians. Putin’s approval rating is at almost an all-time high, much higher than it was leading up to the 2012 presidential election. Even amidst an economic downturn, widespread corruption, and a decreasing standard of living, a significant majority of Russians still see him as their best choice of leader. That popularity won’t disappear in the face of Navalny. While it may be worrisome in the long-term that the educated elites of the urban centers support Navalny, it isn’t of true concern for Putin – yet. However, Navalny’s prospects would be greatly increased in 2024 if he were to not have to face Putin.
The Russian government does not enjoy anywhere near the same level of support that Putin does. Widespread allegations of corruption and abuse of power, coupled with a decreasing standard of living, have led millions of Russians to become fed up with their government. The question will become who, if anyone, is able to replace the 72-year-old Putin. Navalny, who would be not yet be 50, is currently the most likely candidate to garner a significant portion of the Russian electorate.
Finally, as Putin approaches his term limits in 2024, he is well aware of the almost-guaranteed chaos that will result from those jockeying to take over power. Russia, and the Soviet Union, has largely consisted on a cult of personality – when there is a strong leader, Russia is a strong country. Weak leaders who have failed to unite the massive country have caused chaos and confusion. Putin knows this, which is why he is already taking steps to minimize chaos in 2024.
Without him as the strong leader to hold everything together, Putin fears that the entire system could collapse, or at least be subject to the wave of populist nationalism currently sweeping through the United States and many parts of Europe. This stark contrast between Putin’s personal popularity and the significant mistrust of the government at-large is the real reason behind the Kremlin’s attempt to silence Navalny.
The continued popularity of the populist Navalny, coupled with the increasing lack of participation in elections on the part of a growing percentage of Russians, portend significant troubles leading up to the 2024 election.
Where does Russia go from here?
There are two credible options for the way the Kremlin would like the 2024 election to progress: either Putin reworks the constitution to remain in power, or he takes control from behind the scenes (similar to the 2008 arrangement when he pulled the strings as Prime Minister). However, if that were to happen, there would likely be massive protests – something which greatly worries Putin.
More likely, Putin will try to prevent the opposition from unifying behind one candidate – Navalny – and instead seek to have his chosen successor run against an uncoordinated list of opposition leaders, something which has worked successfully in various mayoral and parliamentary elections over the last few years. While Putin is unlikely to anoint a chosen successor for a number of years, he is likely to try and decimate any chance of the nationalist populism, as seen taking place in Europe and the US, from taking root in Russia.
This is simply the first action in seeking to influence the 2024 election. As it draws nearer, the Kremlin and Putin are increasingly likely to lash out and destabilize anything and everything in their attempt to retain power. Beginning now, both at home and abroad, the 2024 elections are bound to drastically shake Russia’s stability.