A Post-Putin Russia Begins with the 2018 Elections
When Russians go to the polls in March, the outcome is all but certain: Vladimir Putin will retain his position as president. Ever since his rise to power, Putin and his allied United Russia party have ruled Russia with elections used mainly as window dressing to preserve a veneer of democracy. March promises more of the same, except this time it will be Putin’s last chance to run as president. Constitutionally barred from running again the next term, in 2024, Russia will look at a possible future without Putin.
Putin has already ensured his victory this year. Alexei Navalny, the only possible candidate who could even put a small dent into Putin’s margin of victory, is barred from running. Outside opposition groups are prevented from organizing. Television media, the most commonly viewed among the Russian public, is strictly controlled. Recent reporting suggests that the Kremlin is hoping for a 70-percent turnout with a 70-percent margin of victory for Putin.
The high expectations of the Kremlin may be a bit too high. The Levada Center, the only independent polling operation and one that is also a declared “foreign-agent” by the Russian government, found that fewer than 60 percent of respondents were even likely to vote. As Mark Galeotti, a long-time Russia watcher, notes, the Kremlin appears to be struggling to drum up excitement ahead of the election, likely dampening potential turnout. Of course, 53 percent of likely voters said they will vote for Putin. No other possible candidate even polled higher than four percent, essentially guaranteeing his victory.
Putin’s primary mission in the new term will be to figure out the line of succession. Though six years is a long time, Putin will anoint a candidate to run in the next set of presidential elections. This will likely start early on in the new administration, with Putin selecting candidates for ministerial roles, just as he was made a prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin prior to his own presidency. This method was used again when Putin elevated Dmitry Medvedev to the role of prime minister ahead of the 2008 elections that saw Putin temporarily step down.
The goal, as has been the case since the chaos of the 1990s, is stability. Putin’s real and perceived popularity among the public is what has kept him in the place to dictate politics in Russia. No other politician, either opposition or among the elites in the administration, is even close in terms of public opinion. Putin will need to find a potential candidate that can be groomed to develop a popular public profile to play well to the public in elections and be acceptable to the elite class that dominates Russian politics. This is necessary to both prevent general domestic unrest and reassure the elites that the wealth that they have amassed over the years is protected.
Will the March elections provide any insight into this process? Navalny is openly calling for a boycott of the elections coupled with protests. The 2011 parliamentary elections are perhaps the best example of election surprise in Russia. United Russia’s continued dominance was followed by mass protests in Moscow prompted by blatant, almost comic, displays of election rigging and the announcement that Putin would again “run” for president after spending four years as prime minister. While the large protests were allowed to continue at the time, a crackdown soon followed that has dampened large-scale protests ever since.
Though it seems unlikely, with authorities already stifling protests ahead of the elections, a mass display of dissatisfaction could influence Putin into elevating hardline candidates. Throughout his presidency, he has famously elevated members of the security services to high-level positions. The threat of general unrest could push him to continue the trend.
On the other hand, a more mundane election process may allow the elevation of more reform minded elites. This would not be completely out of character, as the rise of Medvedev in 2008 was something of a surprise to Russia watchers who considered him too liberal and pro-West. An election with mediocre turnout that nevertheless delivers a victory to Putin may prompt him to find a candidate that has a greater appeal to the public. In particular, he may start to consider younger Russians who make up a sizable portion of Navalny’s supporters and for whom the instability of the 1990s is not a relevant or convincing basis for claiming legitimacy. A younger, relatively more liberal candidate may be what Putin searches for in order to drive up excitement for the next set of elections.
While Putin is likely already considering his successor, six years is a long time. The public’s opinion and the conflicts and positioning among elites will change over time, forcing Putin to alter his calculations. We may very well see a series of new ministers over the next term until Putin finds one that is a suitable candidate. The March elections will be just the first indicator of how that process will begin.