Christmas comes early for Russia’s Putin

Christmas came a little early for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin this year. Russia usually celebrates the holiday on January 7, but President Putin’s present arrived a month early when he announced his intention to remain in office via a national voting process. He has unofficially already won.

“Election” formalities are scheduled for March 18, 2018, and the legitimizing process will cost $300 million. The leading opposition candidates are already dead or disqualified. The handful of colorful and credible also-ran candidates will do their best, but be left in the dust. Putin losing the Russian presidential election is as likely as Siberian palm trees and banana plantations. Merry Christmas, Vlad.

If there is one global leader who has been winning so much he should be sick and tired of winning, it is Putin. He will enter his next term as the longest serving Russian head of state, winning his fourth non-consecutive six-year presidential term. Putin has already surpassed previous record holder Leonid Brezhnev’s 6,602 days in office, but unlike Brezhnev seems fit and in fighting form.

Political succession planning seems as far from Putin’s mind as it does from Xi Jinping’s or Donald Trump’s. Running this cycle as an independent rather than with his United Russia party, Putin also finally makes clear that the “election” is about the person, not the party. Politically, Putin is Russia and Russia Putin.

That is a sad comment on the world’s largest country by landmass. Russians across all eleven time zones are, after all, a deeply honorable and decent people living in an advanced, if unevenly developed nation. Civil society is proscribed and citizens are unjustly subjected to Putin’s power, control and iron will. Russians can vote, but their options have already been limited and defined. Protesting this surreality is possible, but often punishable. Tweeting, texting, trolling, and telephoning are tightly monitored, as Moscow-resident Edward Snowden could explain to the world if he was freely willing to squeal on his savior-captors.

Russia’s 2018 presidential “election” will have the look and feel of a competitive and exciting race. Billboards, ads, managed online discussions, a build-up and minor sense of uncertainty about the outcome will all be hallmarks of this staged event before the final vote count and Putin’s victory is announced at the end of a pseudo-suspenseful “election” watch.

Putin’s popularity is reportedly at 80 percent, an astronomical number trumpeted and deeply admired by President Trump, who hovers at 38 percent favorability. The Russian president’s numbers reflect popular support for his Crimean annexation and pride over the American intelligence community’s recognition of potentially successful Russian intervention in Trump’s election. Either despite or because of the daily economic difficulties brought on by international trade sanctions and dropping oil revenues, people have rallied around their leader. Putin’s personal all-around tough guy persona resonates with a briefly humiliated, but now once again proud Russian nation.

Polling may favor Putin, but a competitive field of unviable and under-resourced political opponents also engenders public apathy. Who wants to vote for a guy who has already won? Recent voting in the post-Soviet state attracted only around 40 percent of eligible voters to the polls. Engineering a dramatic narrative arc and building popular excitement during a short three-month campaign for an “election” with a preordained outcome is not easy. That is why Putin prepared the 70/70 plan.

Earlier this year, Kremlin electioneers decided that a convincing and credible “election” would have a 70 percent turnout with 70 percent voting for Vladimir Putin. That 70/70 formula could easily dispel criticism of both apathy or ballot box stuffing. 70 percent is perfect, reflecting both an overwhelming victory but avoiding a “dictator’s dilemma” – a situation faced by some former Soviet states’ needing to decide if their presidents should receive 95 or 99 percent of the popular “vote.” Ginned up voter engagement shows that gerrymandering and voter suppression are not an issue in either Russia or nearby Turkmenistan.

While the Russian presidential “election” outcome is guaranteed, the world's volatility, speed, and borderless information system hold a weak promise of uncertainty. It happens, things change, challenges appear. For a brief moment, it appeared his prime minister was in trouble. As controlling a system as Putin has put in place, his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was put in the spotlight and accused of fraudulently enriching himself, bringing tens of thousands into the streets in protests in dozens of Russia cities. A YouTube documentary earlier this year and viewed by millions alleged that Medvedev diverted $1 billion into a bogus charity where money was used for foreign homes, yachts, secret bank accounts, and high living. Putin was able to tamp down the outrage in Medvedev’s case, but an unexpected and viral election eve scandal could activate and energize unforeseen opposition to Putin. Maybe even bringing down his vote total to 60 percent.

Christmas was banned in the Soviet Union, but is now alive and well in Russia. A president’s “election’ by acclamation, however, is a Soviet tradition that dies hard.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.