EVEN by the accepted standards of Russian presidential elections, today’s poll is the ultimate fait accompli. Vladimir Putin, the man who for several years Forbes Business magazine has named the “most powerful person in the world” will be returned for his fourth term in office as President of the Russian Federation.
Speaking in a televised address on Friday, Putin urged Russians to cast their ballots, saying the vote will shape the country’s future. “The will of the people, the will of each Russian citizen, will determine the path the country will take,” said Putin, whose approval ratings are said to top 80 per cent.
Such ratings most western leaders would die for, and in Putin’s case it is almost double what President Donald Trump has in the United States
Already the 65-year-old Putin has been in the Kremlin longer than anyone since Josef Stalin, and for now there is no obvious successor in the wings.
For Putin, the real concern today is not winning, but the optics of how the race is won. The Kremlin is clearly worried that low turnout would severely erode Putin’s legitimacy.
The other six candidates by turn have no chance of winning, and are merely decorations or political decoys, put there by Putin to provide the election with a facade of procedural legitimacy.
“Over the years, he’s learned how to enlist faux-competitors to play cameo roles in his grand productions, even ensuring funding for their campaigns, so that it looks more like a real contest,” observed Daniel E. Baer writing in the influential magazine Foreign Policy last week.
“All the while, anyone with any real democratic support is disqualified on technicalities and harassed, imprisoned, or killed,” Baer added.
The whole issue of the election turnout became highly politicised after charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for a boycott of the elections.
Navalny has been barred from running in today’s poll over what his supporters say is a trumped-up suspended prison sentence.
For Putin then, getting enough people out to vote to make his victory feel like a mandate is key to giving his fourth term the legitimacy he clearly craves.
The Kremlin has set an ambitious “70 at 70” target for the election. This means it wants Putin to win 70 per cent of the vote at 70 per cent turnout.
It’s a big ask given that turnout in a Russian presidential election has not hit 70 per cent since 1991, though it has come close a few times.
“Anything lower that 60 per cent is tricky, so there’s a big move to mobilise people,” one Western diplomat was quoted as saying last week to Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE.
Russian state television meanwhile has also been pulling out the stops, broadcasting a video produced by Alexander Kazakov, a pro-Putin consultant, to the effect that a poor turnout will result in anything from hyperinflation to Africans in the army. Already the video has gone viral and been viewed more than six million times.
In recent weeks too, everything from sponsored lotteries to free medical check-ups to food discounts have been used to lure Russians to the polls today.
But Putin’s appeal is also genuinely strong, with many people drawn to the narrative that he has restored Russia’s super-power status.
For this reason alone, even if the result of todays poll is predictable, this is an election worth watching, as its outcome will shape Russia at home and in terms of its influence overseas for years to come.
“There are many centres of power inside Russia,” says Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund a US public policy think tank. “The key challenge for Putin is to ensure that those centres of power keep supporting him. That is what defines his own agenda domestically and in foreign policy.”
Towards the end of 2017, the Levada Centre, an independent research organisation, released a poll that found that 72 per cent of Russians think their country is “a great power.” In March 1999, only 31 per cent of Russians thought so.
Few doubt that such a turnaround in attitude is down to Putin’s assertive foreign policy. In the last four years, Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine, meddled in a US election and helped turn the tide of the Syrian war in the favour of the country’s leader Bashar al-Assad.
Only yesterday barely hours before the polls opened in Russia the Kremlin was busy expelling 23 British diplomats in the latest round of its spat with the UK over Moscow’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.
In the past week UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson accused Russia of “ripping up the international rulebook.”
It’s an accusation likely to be music to Putin’s ears, given that polls show his popularity tends to spike when Russia confronts the West. Nevertheless tearing up the international rule book is what many analysts see as becoming the norm in the worrying global times ahead after today’s election re-endorses Putin as president.
“We can expect relations to remain confrontational, we can expect it to be more unpredictable, dysfunctional and more dangerous for the foreseeable future,” predicts Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund.
Many diplomatic analysts point to Putin’s growing appetite for power beyond his country’s own borders as having the potential to create future flashpoints. They worry too at the way Russia is beginning to fill the void in parts of the world where the US and other Western powers once wielded influence.
THE LONG REACH OF THE RUSSIAN BEAR
ON a whole raft of international levels Putin’s Russia is beginning to make its presence felt and it’s expected this will continue to be the case perhaps even more assertively after his coronation as president today.
In countering western influence Moscow’s hand has been played everywhere from Venezuela to the Balkans. Last year Russia’s finance ministry came to the aid of crisis-hit Venezuela with a deal to restructure sovereign debt, making Moscow the primary foreign backer of President Nicolas Maduro. In return Venezuela awarded licences to a unit of Rosneft, Russia’s state-controlled oil company, to develop offshore gas fields.
Meanwhile closer to home in the Balkans, under Putin’s orders the Kremlin is using Russia’s historical and cultural ties there to counter Nato expansion in the region.
Just last year officials in Montenegro alleged that the Russian security services were involved in a plot to overthrow the government after Montenegro was formally invited to join Nato. Russia as it increasingly does, denies such allegations. Ties too between Moscow and non-Nato eastern European nations have been boosted, among them Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia. Just like Nato, the European Union (EU) is also facing up to the fact the Putin’s Russia is somehow connected to, or implicated in, all its strategic problems.
“Whether you’re talking about Yemen, Iran, the frozen conflicts in Georgia, Transnistria, Ukraine, and Syria they’re players and we have to engage with them on a rational, reasonable basis,” one EU diplomat said of Russia’s growing global influence. “In Bosnia, where there is a Nato presence and an EU force, the Russian fingerprints are all over the place.”
There are other places too into which the Kremlin is extending Russia’s hand. It’s always worth remembering that roughly half of the European Union’s natural gas still comes from Russia, making it difficult for the EU to impose sanctions.
This no doubt would have been a factor on the UK government’s mind last week as it sought to garner European support in response to the Skripal poisoning outrage.
In terms of global energy markets meanwhile Russian state oil company Rosneft has signed contracts to gain control of the main pipeline in Iraq’s Kurdistan region boosting influence there.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Putin has insured that Syria has felt the force of a vastly modernised and strengthened Russian military.
As Russian warplanes carried out countless sorties over Syrian territory, Moscow’s mercenaries and advisers on the ground have supported offensives to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Indeed Putin’s military campaign there has made the country a game-changing player in the complex multi-sided conflict giving Russia a much stronger foothold in the Middle East as a whole.
Then there is the international arms trade where Russia now stands as the second-biggest exporter of arms behind the US.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) the Kremlin under Putin has made considerable inroads into markets previously controlled by the Americans and other Western powers, notably in Asia.
In India the world’s largest importer of major arms between 2013 and 2017, Russia accounted for 62 per cent of India’s arms imports according to Sipri.
The same is true in Africa. While the EU maintains a training mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), Russia has just supplied the country’s military with a significant arms shipment, thanks to an exemption in the UN sanctions regime.
Diplomats remain concerned over what precisely the terms were and the lack of transparency and about whether Moscow is aiming to nurture similar influence in West African countries like Chad, Mali and other potential flashpoints. The message to the West could not be plainer.
This much was underlined in a speech to the Russian Federal Assembly this month when Putin vowed a new generation of “invincible” nuclear weapons.
“This was a clear message to the West,” says Bruno Lete. “I am here to stay, I will win the elections, take me seriously. Otherwise I will make your life difficult.”
And so as Russians go to the polls today they do so knowing for certain that their president for the next six years will continue to bolster their country’s influence abroad.
Be it the ‘reunification’ with Crimea, or the fight against Islamic State in Syria, State television is always there to remind ordinary Russian viewers of the foreign policy achievements they have to be proud of under the Putin presidency.
THE PROBLEMS FACING THE NEW TSAR
BUT while foreign policy adventures and muscle flexing is one thing, it’s on the domestic front that Putin will perhaps face some of his biggest political challenges. While Russia has bounced back relatively well from economic hiccups, the country is currently settling into what some say is a prolonged period of post-recession stagnation that is reverberating across the country.
According to analysts from Stratfor an independent US-based geopolitical intelligence platform, poverty levels in Russia are rising at their fastest pace in two decades, and its minimum wage is below subsistence levels. Average Russians are spending half of their pay cheques on food, and more than 25 per cent report regular interruptions or cuts to their salaries.
It’s against this domestic backdrop that Putin will have to work out a plan as he manoeuvres varying chess pieces for Russia’s long term political game and what happens when his next term expires in 2024. Will he anoint a friendly successor or invent a scheme that allows him to keep holding the levers of power?
“In the Soviet period, Kremlin watchers studied the order of seating in the Politburo’s boxes at the Bolshoi Ballet to gauge prominence and favour among the elites.
Today, Kremlinologists watch Putin’s hockey matches on Red Square or video of the elites’ macho antics, such as footage from October that showed regional officials diving from cliffs,” says Lauren Goodrich, Stratfor’s Senior Eurasia Analyst.
“The appointments and exhibitions are Putin’s way of tutoring this next generation for fitness for office and public appeal. It’s unlikely Putin will choose a sole successor, but he may attempt to turn the personalised system into more of a collective, much like a latter-day Soviet Politburo,” Goodrich observes.
Whatever happens in 2024, for the moment Vladimir Putin is firmly in control of Russia. That fact alone means uncompromising and turbulent times still lie ahead as the Kremlin reaches out beyond Russia’s borders.
Source : HeraldScotland