Kremlin's puzzle: how to frame Putin's re-election?

This autumn marks the start of an insecure election year in Russia. On 18 march 2018 Putin will most likely be re-elected for his fourth presidential term. But what to do with the rallies of opposition leader Navalny? And can the Kremlin concoct a convincing election mode of its own? This is the first of a monthly column security expert Mark Galeotti starts for RaamopRusland. For the Kremlin the question is: 'Who is the bigger threat, apathy or Navalny?'

navalny in orenburg sept 2017Navalny campaigning in Orenburg. Putin officially didnot announce his candidacy yet. Photo: Twitter

by Mark Galeotti

The thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat suggests an experiment in which, until a box is opened, it is impossible to know if the cat inside it is dead or alive, so until that point, it is both dead and alive. In March 2018, Russia will elect a president, but for the moment, this is still Schrödinger’s Election, a campaign at once not yet begun, and well under way.

The campaign Navalny built

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is taking his candidacy and his message to the country, graduating from video exposés of corruption in Putin’s circle to rallies in the street. When he can, that is, as increasingly the state is trying to silence him. Most recently, on 29 September, he was detained heading to Nizhny Novgorod for a rally, and the square where his supporters had planned to gather was cordoned off by police and suddenly given over to a loud ‘patriotic event.’

The Central Electoral Commission has said that Navalny will not be allowed to stand, but the increasingly tough line being taken by the authorities indicates growing concern. The worry is that he will be able to use the campaign to raise his profile and build a national constituency for change. The Kremlin (rightly) fears that this is a wider, longer-term campaign and (also rightly) that any rigging of the elections, which will undoubtedly happen, might trigger another spate of public unrest, as in 2011-12.

So although Putin is used to being the alpha and the omega, the man who starts and ends campaigns, his decision is in many ways irrelevant. Simply by campaigning, Navalny has begun the campaign. The longer it takes Putin formally to allow himself to be nominated (in 2011, for example, United Russia put him forward by now), then the more incongruous his position looks.

The campaign already being fought

This is especially true because it is clear that the Kremlin is, whether it admits it or not, already in full campaign mode. September’s local and gubernatorial elections were in many ways a dummy run. The Kremlin is now reshuffling the governors – who are, after all, its key local proconsuls, fixers and ambassadors – both to remove weaker candidates and also to ‘test drive’ figures being assessed for future positions in the central government.

The governors will be key figures in the engineering of the 2018 elections, and September’s poll also suggests that the Kremlin is refining its techniques here, too. We can expect the usual ‘carousel voting’ (arranging for tame electors to cast multiple votes) and pressure put on cohorts such as army conscripts and factory and municipal workers to cast their ballots the ‘right’ way. However, Putin’s political technologists have realised that in the age of cellphone cameras and social media, it is hard to stop such blatant tactics from becoming public, and that this is exactly the kind of thing that angers people.

Instead, the aim is to run an election that looks enough like a real one to arouse some interest – as the regime needs a strong turnout to claim legitimacy – but not so real as to include genuinely subversive and critical voices. In the September elections, the ‘municipal filter’, a requirement that candidates be endorsed by 5-10% of local lawmakers, excluded figures such as Ekaterinburg’s maverick mayor Evgeny Roizman. The clearly-questionable conviction of Navalny on embezzlement charges is likewise clearly a way to keep him out of the running.

The campaign without people or ideas

However, it is easier to exclude candidates than to create excitement. So far only two of the time-worn usual suspects have formally declared their participation: 71-year-old caricature-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and token faux-socialist Sergei Mironov. Given that Zhirinovsky memorably sang the tsarist national anthem to Putin, and Mironov went into the 2004 presidential elections saying “we all want Vladimir Putin to be the next president,” we can expect little from either – and nor do most Russians.

The Communists toyed with nominating youthful firebrand Sergei Udaltsov, and after his recent release from prison, when he obliquely criticised Navalny, there was some thought he might stand and split the protest voters. However, it seems unlikely that he will be willing to be house trained by the power elite. Both the Kremlin and the Communist Party hierarchy, worried about the potential of uniting the Party’s national machine with an uncontrolled candidate, will likely default to their usual uninspired choice. Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who at 73 can by now probably stand for election in his sleep, and by the standards of his campaigns quite possibly does, represents a quintessentially safe choice, but not one to generate any passion for the poll.

To this end, Sergei Kirienko, first deputy head of the all-powerful Presidential Administration and head of its domestic political team, is reportedly hunting around for potential candidates who can add some star power or sex appeal to the campaign without posing any real danger. Low-key oppositionist and high-profile socialite Ksenia Sobchak’s name has been mentioned, with Navalny deriding her as a “caricature liberal candidate,” but she has denied any plans. More radical might be a candidate to channel the disgruntled nationalist opposition, such as monarchist ex-Crimean prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya. At present, though, these are no more than brainstorming ideas: the Kremlin appears to lack any clear sense of how to set the elections alight without risking burning itself.

After all – and this is perhaps the greatest indictment of the present regime – it lacks a narrative, a compelling story to tell. With the economy still sluggish, and resources having to be diverted to Crimea and the Donbas (and protecting oligarchs and interests hit by Western sanctions), there is no technocratic tale of life getting better. While Crimea is ‘nash’ (ours), the war in the Donbas and the intervention in Syria are not especially popular. In the most recent poll, 49% wanted Russian forces out of the Middle East. There is thus no imperial narrative that strikes a chord. The miseries of the 1990s have receded into history, so Putin can no longer meaningfully play the “not Yeltsin” card. All that is left is a strident call to arms, a claim that Russia is under political, economic and cultural siege by a decadent yet ruthless West, and that Putin is the only leader able to save the Motherland. This has some traction, to be sure, but not that much in an age when most Russians actually consider themselves European and seek integration more than isolation.

And hence Schrödinger’s Election. The Kremlin is already engaged in the campaign, but is trying to keep its existence unclear and undefined until it knows what election it will be fighting. Who is the bigger threat, apathy or Navalny? Can it afford to give the appearance of a real election – or can it afford not to? For what will it stand, other than “business as usual”? While it tries to answer these questions, March gets closer and closer, and someday the box will be opened and we’ll see if the cat is alive.

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