Russia’s election year: What to expect from Putin 4.0

Russia’s election year: What to expect from Putin 4.0

Putin enters the Presidential election year of 2018 in arguably his strongest-ever position internationally – and the weakest (relatively speaking) he has been domestically. He will still win the 2018 presidential election, he will still be popular, it is very unlikely there will be a palace coup. But the pressure that he faces from the young and those living in cities will grow.

Putin has maintained his popularity with a very simple promise: “support me and your lives will never return to the chaos and uncertainty of the Yeltsin period”. In exchange, the electorate has tolerated the restriction of certain rights and looked the other way at the personal enrichment of his inner circle. As 2018 approaches, Putin is increasingly reliant on “symbolic” victories rather than being able to deliver freedom from uncertainty, and this has implications for what will very likely be his final term in power. GRI has previously identified 2020 as the horizon when the perfect storm of economic and social pressures could gather over Putin.

The presidential elections

Putin will win the 2018 Presidential election. This would be the case even without widespread vote fraud. The most recent polls by the Fund for Public Opinion (FOM) and the Levada Center currently have Putin at 68% and 53%, respectively. The roster of legitimate challengers to Putin is short, and this is unlikely to change before the election in 2018.

While the final list of candidates has yet to be decided – with Putin only formally declaring his candidacy on 6 December– there are certain also-rans that will invariably serve as foils. The two stalwarts in this category are the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the Liberal Democrat – who is neither a liberal nor a democrat – Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky is the more interesting foil, and not just because of the crazy statements he makes. To a large extent he acted as the public face of the desire Russians had to see Trump win the 2016 US Presidential election, with a video of him giving a toast to Trump’s victory doing the rounds on election day. In many ways he is the collective id to a large number of Putin supporters.

The opposition

Then there are those who truly wish to challenge Putin, but have no chance to actually do so. The most interesting in this category is unlikely to be allowed to run for the presidency, though his shadow candidature has the greatest potential to undermine Putin. Here I am speaking of the perennial whipping boy of Putin’s rigged legal system and former Moscow mayoral runner-up Aleksey Navalny. The Federal Electoral Commission has stated that he will not be allowed to run for the presidency, stemming from a past embezzlement conviction of dubious veracity.

Navalny’s influential anti-corruption videos and blog posts have done a great deal of damage to Putin and members of his inner circle, mainly through exposing the lavish wealth that they have garnered through serving as Putin’s boyars. One could make the argument that his influential video exposing the wealth that Medvedev has amassed when in power has completely delegitimized him as from serving in a high level government role after his term as Prime Minister ends in 2018. However, it is important to remember that Medvedev was already on the outs within Putin’s inner circle, and Navalny’s video appears to have simply hastened his demise. That being said, there is always the chance that Putin sticks with Medvedev in order to show his base that he is strong in standing up to the urban-based supporters of Navalny.  

Another interesting anti-Putin candidate is the opposition TV stalwart and former socialite Ksenia Sobchak. Interestingly for those students of Putin’s rise to power, Sobchak is the daughter of the former St. Petersburg mayor – Anatoliy Sobchak – who gave Putin his first non-intelligence government role; a role which he cut his teeth in the robber baron and mafia-infested immediate post-Soviet Russia. Ksenia was at times in the past compared to the famed US socialite Paris Hilton for her earlier lifestyle, a narrative which Kremlin-owned RT appears to be pushing again.

However, regular watchers of the opposition internet TV channel –  Dozhd – of which she is the figurehead will testify to the fact that she has come a long way since her socialite days, though the ability of the Putin-aligned TV stations to undermine her is virtually unlimited. She serves as a perfect foil for Putin if – as is predicted – the young and the city-dwellers move away from Putin in greater numbers than any previous election. Sobchak can be used as a stereotyped picture of the out of touch opposition, who can be presented as an out of touch cosmopolitan elite that do not understand the wants or needs of the “real Russian people.”

Risk of unrest

Unrest is unlikely to reach the level of the 2011 “Bolotnaya Protests” – the anti-corruption demonstrations across Russia in 2017, for all the – but the coverage around fraud in the 2017 legislative elections is likely to leave voters suspicious of any irregularities. Typically, this petty vote rigging is not done with such regularity in Presidential elections, as the popularity of Putin as strongman garners more votes than less well-known legislators.

With that being said, there is bound to be unrest in the big cities. There is a chance that growing support for anti-Putin liberals in Moscow’s local councils could turn into a 40%+ showing for an opposition candidate such as Navalny in Moscow, which could lead to legions of young Muscovites turning out onto the streets. There is also likely to be sporadic unrest in the regions, though it is too far out from the election at the moment to predict what issues will crystallise discontent.

Putin’s post-election priorities

Delivering pyrrhic victories

Putin’s next – and last – term as President is likely to see him attempt to cement a legacy, closely enmeshed with the idea of Russian power on the international stage.

Much like Trump’s famous “Make America Great Again”, if one were to sum up Putin’s goal as President it would be “Make Russia Great Again”.

Also like Trump, this return to greatness is, evidence suggests, a populist smokescreen for the enrichment of Putin and his inner circle. However, Putin did deliver what he promised, in terms of both global prestige and economic growth, until the war in Ukraine broke out.

By contrast, Putin’s domestic policy in the new year will be overly reliant on delivering the Russian people pyrrhic victories that help bolster their pride, while doing very little to actually provide the structural adjustments Russia so desperately needs. This will undoubtedly be made easier by the fact that Russia is hosting the world’s biggest cultural event, the FIFA World Cup.

As pointed out by Aaron Schwartzbaum, one of the key aspects of the election to watch is whom Putin chooses as his running mate in the coming months. Should he choose a reformer, such as former finance minister Aleksey Kudrin, it is a clear sign that he is looking to pass an olive branch to those who believe that the Russian economy needs a kick start through moving away from state subsidization of private industry and social spending. On the other hand, should he stick with Medvedev, it is clear that Putin thinks a show of force against the anti-corruption campaigners is the best means of going forward.

However, there is a third option where Putin does not aim for change or continuity, instead opting to aim for selecting a successor. While it is far more likely that Putin selects a stable hand going forward, there is always a chance that Putin plays a joker and picks a young up-and-coming Prime Minister that he can groom to keep his legacy after his next term ends in 2024. The most interesting potential candidate is the 37 year-old Nataliya Pokolonskaya, who currently serves as a Duma member from Crimea and was formerly the prosecutor for the region. While this selection remains highly unlikely, a wildcard selection of a young up and comer indicates that Putin is looking to select a successor that will continue his legacy.

International ambitions

Meanwhile, the international arena will continue to provide successes for Russia. Russia is increasing its portfolio of pragmatic allies in the Middle East, and is working to counterbalance the previously hegemonic role of the Sunni-led US-aligned monarchies in the region. While Russia’s recent cooperation with Tehran has always been pragmatic, the two sides will see ever more reason to work together to undermine the Sunni monarchies; especially as the Islamic State enters its post-territory holding phase. Cooperation with Turkey is similarly underpinned by pragmatism, but as Erdogan continues to move further away from the democratic promise of his earlier years in power, he and Putin will continue to see each other as useful allies.

In many ways the more interesting development is the new agreement the Russian armed forces have to use an airbase in Egypt. While it is unlikely 2018 will see a rebirth of the Nasser-era Soviet-Egyptian alliance, it is clear that Cairo is receptive to the role that Russia can play domestically.

Ultimately, Putin can call Sisi and ask, “would you rather work with the US and take 5 years to defeat an Islamic State-inspired insurgency in Sinai; or, hand over the reins to us and smother it out more quickly?”

While previously this may have been a difficult question to answer, with Trump in the White House Moscow is beginning to look like a more reliable partner in this fight, despite the human cost that always comes with Russian military assistance.

In 2018, Ukraine will be the wildcard in Russian foreign policy. Neither Kiev nor Moscow want to fund the cost of reconstructing the eastern portion or lose the symbolic significance of the conflict for domestic political gain. Ultimately, Putin’s Ukraine policy will remain the same barring a drastic change of the facts on the ground. With current domestic chaos in Ukraine and the developing Poroshenko-Saakashvili feud, there is always the possibility that Ukraine could enter into a new phase of domestic political crisis that Russia will look to exploit.

Russia’s economic outlook

The Russian economy will continue to oscillate between stagnation and nascent growth in 2018, which is better than things have been in a while. Since the imposition of Western sanctions, 2017 is the first year that the economy has not contracted. While a great deal of this growth is dependent on consumer debt, any growth should be seen as a positive sign for the Russian economy.

Moreover, the oil price looks to be stabilizing for the time being. This trend is likely to be helped by the fact that Russia and OPEC are now working together to control oil production numbers. It has allowed the Russian Treasury to begin stabilizing the Ruble through purchasing hard currency.

At the same time, the Kremlin budget remains strained and Western sanctions are hurting the Russian economy. The Russian government plays too large a role in running the private sector; whole industries would disappear overnight without vital cash from Kremlin coffers. The banking sector is a particular concern, needing capital injections to stay afloat. Moreover, the 2016-17 saga of privatizing the Russian oil giant Rosneft should be seen as the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the murky interplay between the state and private industry.

Categories: Europe, Politics, Power Brokers

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