Russia goes to the polls tonight to elect a president; if no candidate wins a majority, a second round will be held on 8 April. But there is not the slightest chance of that provision being required. Incumbent Vladimir Putin will win a majority on the first round, and a large one.
The president serves a six-year term, with a maximum of two to be served consecutively. Putin previously served two terms (then only four years) from 2000 to 2008; Dmitry Medvedev then served a single term, during which Putin was prime minister. In 2012 the two swapped positions, and Medvedev remains prime minister.
In theory, Russia is governed under a French-style semi-presidential system, where power is shared between the president and a government that rests on a legislative majority. In practice, Putin is an autocrat, and the other organs of government follow his dictates.
At the last election, Putin won 63.6% of the vote against four opponents, only one of whom – independent Mikhail Prokhorov, who placed third with 8.0% – could be regarded as opposing the Putin system, and even his opposition was somewhat equivocal. This year Putin has seven challengers, including two genuine anti-Putinist liberals, Ksenia Sobchak of Civic Initiative and veteran Grigory Yavlinsky of Yabloko.
But while in that sense this could be seen as a more genuine contest, in every other respect things have gone backwards. Russia is clearly a more authoritarian state than it was six years ago; the scope for independent media and for genuine opposition activity, while not completely extinguished, is much more restricted.
That is reflected in the opinion polls, although opinion polling under authoritarian regimes has its own problems. Putin’s support consistently hovers around the two-thirds mark; none of his opponents reach double figures, and the leaders among them are the tamest ones, communist Pavel Grudinin and long-time far right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Sobchak and Yavlinsky will be lucky to record 3% between them.
A more serious opponent, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, was prevented from running due to a conviction for embezzlement, widely regarded as manufactured for the occasion. He and other opposition figures have advocated a boycott of the election.
In short, this is in no sense a real exercise of democracy. The fix is in for Putin, and there is considerable evidence that even if voters were to oppose him in significant numbers, results would be falsified to deny them any effect.
Yet having said that, it is worth noting that the institutions of Russian democracy, although betrayed in substance, remain in place; this is not a case like China or Vietnam, where a single party holds a legal monopoly of office. The option is there for a post-Putin leader to permit competitive politics if they so choose.
In that context, it’s worth reading an analysis from earlier this year by Andreas Umland at the Kennan Institute.* Umland looks afresh at the collapse of Soviet Union, and blames the west for failing to embrace and assist the new democratic Russia. He argues for the importance of not making the same mistake again, and calls for the formulation of a “vision of how a future nonimperialist and democratic Russia could gradually be integrated into the Western community of states.”
Umland maintains (I think correctly) that “Russian cultural affinity with, and geopolitical orientation toward, Europe will not only remain latent but, sooner or later, will prevail once more.” It doesn’t follow, of course, that anything like the same opportunities will present themselves as did in the early 1990s.
But it surely makes sense to be prepared in case they do, particularly since the very acts of preparation may assist the democratic and pro-European forces in Russia. Putin will not be around for ever, and what happens to Russia after he is gone will be a vital geopolitical question in the decades to come.
* Thanks to Michael Warby for drawing this piece to my attention.