By Jackson Oliver Webster
This article is part of a two-part pre- and post-election analysis of the Russian elections and their significance for the country and region going forward.
Russia’s elections have been crafted the same way a producer designs the season finale of a reality TV show finale: the illusion of suspense hides a pre-ordained outcome. This is why the Kremlin has allowed the Electoral Commission to grant a record eight candidates the right to run. Candidates range from the centrist urban opposition, to a reality TV presenter, to an oligarch-turned-communist, to a “liberal-democratic” nationalist who wants to outlaw the speaking of foreign languages in public.
Russian political life, unlike what many Western pundits may argue, is not defined by “dictatorship”. Politics in the Federation is better characterized, borrowing a phrase from Peter Pomerantsev, as “Reality TV Russia”. Modern Russia is a militarized kleptocracy whose political discourse is largely dominated by state-run TV stations, and by the producers and “political technologists” who create their content. Debate in Russia is far more open than in one-party states like China, or indeed in many of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. Diverse political opinions exist and are discussed, however they’re not given sufficient airtime to reach a general audience, nor are they permitted to converge into an organised, effective opposition. Permitted opposition candidates are generally caricatures. They include nostalgic communists, raving ultra-nationalists, and now, young reality TV presenters with no political experience. In this environment, Putin’s victories are understandable. He truly does represent the best amongst this motley crew, a group selected by the powers-that-be through a politicised Federal Electoral Commission.
There is much to be said about this field of fascinating personalities, about the dramas of the past few months, and the bizarre anecdotes of Russian political life. However, I shall limit my discussion to two figures — Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak — and finally, briefly, to the President himself and the system he represents.
The first is Alexei Navalny, a lawyer who gained political notoriety by running for Mayor of Moscow in 2013 and coming in a less-distant second than any previous opposition candidate. Navalny created the Fond Borby s Korruptsei (Anti-Corruption Foundation, FBK) in 2011 as a platform for his later political ventures. The Foundation has a popular YouTube channel which publishes video essays and documentaries chronicling the alleged corruption of prominent government officials. It is worth noting that, in contemporary Russia, one of the most effective ways to catalyze a political career, particularly at the local level, is by legitimizing oneself by denouncing corruption. Many of Russia’s more prominent local politicians have begun their campaigns through an anti-corruption platform — Yekaterinburg Mayor Evgeny Roizman provides another good example.
In a March 2017 video entitled “On Vam Ne Dimon” (Don’t Call Him Dimon), Navalny presented an in-depth open-source indictment of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s corrupt lifestyle, followed by a declaration of his own presidential candidacy. This video incited unsanctioned protests in major urban centers nationwide, and Navalny and hundreds of his supporters were arrested. Subsequent protests organized by Navalny — namely in reaction to the Electoral Commission’s rejection of his candidacy — have seen surprisingly innovative responses from Russian authorities. In one instance, the Saint Petersburg city government announced the day before a protest planned on Putin’s birthday that the selected park “needed urgent repairs” and that it would therefore block the protests out of concern for “public health and safety”. In Volgograd, journalists covering a protest were pushed into buses by police and moved away from the protesters, then were returned once the protest had finished.
Navalny’s most notable recent video, released in February 2018, is entitled “Yachts, Oligarchs, and Girls”. It tells the tale of Nastya Rybka, a Belorussian escort and lifestyle blogger. In 2016, Rybka posted a series of pictures of Norwegian villages on her Instagram, followed by a video showing her patron, oligarch Oleg Deripaska, discussing the American presidential elections with a man Navalny identifies as Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko, rumoured to be the most influential voice in foreign policy at the Kremlin. The video uses open-source findings and Rybka’s autobiography to assert that the two were meeting to arrange private briefings for Prikhodko with Paul Manafort, then-campaign manager for Donald Trump and former business partner of Deripaska. The accusations have made waves in Russia, with Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet censor, attempting to force YouTube to take down the videos (YouTube didn’t comply). Rybka is currently in jail in Thailand for illegally co-organizing a sex workshop. She has appealed to the “American media” asking for extradition in return for the “missing pieces of the puzzle” of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia.
While Navalny’s videos are highly viewed — the exposé on Deripaska has over four million views — the political impact of these videos is limited and highly concentrated. Navalny’s supporters are mostly young, educated liberals living in large cities like Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Volgograd. The viewers of his videos are likely to be these young Russians, their compatriots living abroad, and Western Russia-watchers (such as this author). This demographic does not normally vote in elections, and with Navalny’s calls to boycott they almost certainly won’t be turning out in droves on March 18. Contrast Navalny’s legal troubles with the President’s stable voter base, combined with the internal strife in Navalny’s Progress Party, and the candidate’s path to future electoral success seems far off if not entirely untenable. Moreover, the effects of these denunciations are likely to be more long-term than March’s election. Igor Eidman of Deutsche Welle suggested that the main reaction among Russians is to ask why a man like Deripaska could be so rich while also being so idiotic as to invite an unstable escort to his illegal private meetings with the Deputy Prime Minister.
Even if Navalny’s popularity and impact are difficult to measure, the perceived threat he poses to the Kremlin is obvious. Navalny and his parry do not represent a fully-fledged “opposition” to the extent that much of the Western media has argued. That said, the Kremlin has gone to rather unsubtle lengths to discredit and disqualify him from political office on multiple occasions, with 2018 constituting but the latest example.
Despite being presented via the Kremlin-approved press, as the opposition candidate, there isn’t much to say of her campaign. Her political views were vague-to-non-existent prior to the election, and her campaign hasn’t aggressively attacked Putin or United Russia directly, at least not with the same vigor as Navalny or the liberals of Yabloko. Moreover, the Sobchak family’s closeness to Putin is well-known — her father was the Mayor of Saint-Petersburg when Putin was Deputy Mayor, his first political post.
Sobchak’s most drastic departure from the Kremlin party line is her embrace of European-style liberal democracy as a model for political normalcy. She is one of two candidates opposing the annexation of Crimea, refusing to campaign there. This differentiates her from her communist and nationalist counterparts, notably Navalny himself, who positions himself as an ardent Russian patriot and maintains a hard stance against immigration and the influence of Western media in Russia.
In the opinion of some observers, Sobchak is a spoiler candidate. No candidate can present him or herself without at least tacit acceptance from the state hierarchy. Navalny’s constant legal troubles stem at least partly from the perceived threat he poses to at least some elements of the Kremlin elite. Sobchak, on the other hand, has been characterized as the “approved sparring partner” for President Putin. That said, there is no actual ‘sparring’, as the President has refused to participate in televised debates and is not actively campaigning. I would therefore take this discussion in a slightly different direction. Sobchak’s candidacy fits perfectly into the character of modern Russian political life. In a country dominated by state-owned mass television, a reality TV presenter as a presidential candidate seems more than fitting.
From an electoral standpoint, Sobchak’s candidacy indirectly combats Navalny’s call for a boycott. Her campaign plays to the same urban, progressive youth who Navalny is urging to boycott. By giving these individuals — ultimately a minority electorate — an ‘acceptable alternative’ to voting for Putin, perhaps Sobchak could raise the overall turnout. The counter to this argument comes from Sobchak herself, who acknowledges the charges of spoiling, denies them, and has gone so far as to frequently attack Navalny and his colleagues.
The central character of reality TV Russia is President Putin himself. Aside from being the head-of-state and the fulcrum of Russia’s kleptocracy, Putin casts himself as the physical embodiment of the nation. He’s a statesman, soldier, tough-guy, dog-lover, biker, patriot, and diplomat. But more importantly, he is above the tumultuous noise of modern society. The go-to word for Kremlin supporters is “stability”, and with his calm demeanor and straight-faced authority, Putin is the image of the stability his rule has provided.
For the President, “success” in this election is not defeating his divided and underwhelming opposition; it’s achieving high turnout. Or, at least high enough to give his new mandate an air of legitimacy. This election, Putin is running as an independent, not as a candidate of United Russia, the ruling party. The election is therefore a direct referendum on his presidency and on his popularity.
No one will wake up surprised on March 19. Even in the absence of fraud, Putin will probably enjoy a comfortable majority among likely voters, elevated by relative economic stability and his perceived foreign policy successes, as well as generous welfare provisions for pensioners. However Putin is not simply looking to win this election. He needs to dominate it. Should the incumbent President only be reelected by a plurality of eligible voters, this will have two negative consequences for him. The first is a loss of legitimacy, as he must undertake a difficult constitutional reform process in order to run again in 2024. The second is Navalny, who, as the most prominent figure calling for a boycott, could easily claim abstaining voters were effectively supporting him. As there is no polling data listing Navalny as a candidate, we do not know how his results would compare with overall abstention, were he allowed to run. Early voting prior to the time of writing has also highlighted the possibility that urban Navalny voters will shift to the Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin. This may be because politically engaged voters do not want to abstain, but also do not see Sobchak as a legitimate alternative to Putin given her family background and lack of experience. When I asked an academic contact in Russia why liberal Navalny supporters would vote for a communist candidate instead of Sobchak, he answered “people might want to cast a protest vote, but they’re not idiots.”
Jackson Webster is a graduate of the Department of War Studies, and is currently reading for a master’s in International Security at Sciences Po Paris. His research focuses on Russia, its relationship with Central Europe, and cybersecurity. He is currently working on cybersecurity issues with a legal tech consultancy in Paris.
Banner: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_presidential_election,_2018#/media/File:President_el_in_Russia_2018.png Official logo of the election (Credit Image: Wikimedia Commons)