Vladimir Putin , President of Russia departs from New Delhi after his 2-day visit to India, 2018. Photo: MEAphotogallery via flickr.com, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

A Plebiscite on the War: Russia Ahead of its Presidential Elections

The outcome of the upcoming elections in Russia is already clear. But against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the Russian regime has more at stake than scoring a simple victory.

The year 2024 will go down in history as the year of elections: According to a count by the Economist magazine, around 4.2 billion voters – half of humanity – will be called to cast their ballot in one form or another in 2024 – more than ever before in history. A vote will also be held in Russia, where Vladimir Putin wants to win a mandate for another six-year term in office from the Russian people from 15 to 17 March 2024. He wangled this opportunity for himself when he had the term limit lifted in 2020 as part of the constitutional reform in a typical last-minute coup.

To rule out any unpleasant surprises in the election, the Kremlin implemented a series of technical precautions. For example, the election was extended to last three days, as in the 2021 Duma elections, which makes manipulation easier. Meanwhile, independent election observation is near impossible: the Russian movement “Golos” has been registered as a “foreign agent” since 2021, and its chairman Grigory Melkoniaz was arrested in September 2023. Foreign election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were also denied access to the process. Invitations were only extended to organizations, parliaments and individuals who, according to the Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council, Konstantin Kosachev, “have maintained an objective, impartial position and are not under the control of the West”. This refers to allies such as Belarus or partisans from the right-wing populist spectrum in Europe.

Scant political resistance – and a well-planned landslide result

Of course, this “election” also has a few hand-picked opposition candidates on offer, even if they only serve as window dressing. For example, there is Leonid Sluzkij, who succeeds the legendary Vladimir Zhirinovsky as chairman of the right-wing populist LDPR party. However, Sluzkij does not want to “take votes away” from Putin, but instead emphasizes: “I will not call for people to vote against Putin!” The Communists of the KPRF are also back. This time, as in 2004, with Nikolai Kharitonov, who at 75 years of age is apparently supposed to be proof that age doesn’t matter. This is probably also because Putin, despite multiple Botox injections, can hardly hide the fact that he is older than 70. Another candidate from the obligatory economic camp is allowed to try his hand: the widely unknown deputy chairman of the State Duma, Vladislav Davankov, from the “New People” party.

In order to minimize the risk of mass protests in the light of all too obvious falsifications, the Russian state has deployed an impressive – and repressive – deterrent apparatus. Since 2022, this has effectively stifled expressions of dissent or forced critics into exile. Nevertheless, there remains a residual risk as well as a marked increase in nervousness. Despite all the precautions intended to guarantee the outcome of the election, the “right” result still has to emerge at the end of the day. And here the bar is set pretty high:  the weaker democracy has become in Russia since 2012, the stronger Putin’s election results have become – in a trend that under no circumstances should be broken this time round. In the 2012 election, Putin received 64.4 per cent of the vote (with a voter turnout of 65.3 per cent); in the 2018 election, the figure was 76.7 per cent (voter turnout: 67.5 per cent). In contrast, over the same period, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) recorded a decline in the democracy index from 5.35 to 4.55. Russia thus developed from a “severely defective democracy” to a “moderate autocracy”.

This decline has been sustained in recent years: in 2022, the BTI Democracy Index declined further to 4.40 and in the latest BTI 2024 (to be published in March 2024), which includes the war against Ukraine and the associated wave of repression, Russia ranks as a “hard autocracy” at 3.43. Against this backdrop, it’s little wonder that the Kremlin has set a target result of more than 80 per cent for its victory in the 2024 elections.

The “new normality” of war

Meanwhile, the election campaign is not to be understood as an election campaign, but rather as a kind of mobilization campaign to get the population rallying around the leader, the guarantor of the “unity” of the people and the “sovereignty” of the country. These are the two vital political concepts amid the ongoing war against Ukraine: without unity and sovereignty, Russia has no chance of survival, according to the official narrative. And these pillars of the state are allegedly threatened first and foremost from outside, by the collective West, which wants to eradicate Russia’s existence with the help of Ukraine.

Although the war in Ukraine is the focal point of Russian politics, it must not be at the center of the election campaign given the ambivalent prevailing mood among the general population. The aims of the election are therefore somewhat conflicting: on the one hand, it should act as a strong plebiscite in favor of the war, but on the other hand, it should ignore the war as far as possible. After all, any discussion of the conflict inevitably raises questions about when and how it can be ended – and even doubts about why it was started in the first place.

In view of the desolate course of the war in Ukraine, Putin also lacks a patriotic wave like the one his kindred spirit in Baku, Ilham Aliyev, is currently riding (which is why he unceremoniously brought forward his election by more than a year). Consequently, support must be fuelled by simulating an existential threat and spreading “alternative facts”. At the same time, Putin, with his wooden, bureaucratic rhetoric, is the opposite of a charismatic leader, unlike his Kiev opponent Volodymyr Zelensky. His charisma stands and falls with the walls of the Kremlin behind which he entrenches himself. This reflects a pattern seen during all key moments of his rule, starting with the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2000 and becoming particularly obvious during his display of power during the coronavirus pandemic, when his paranoia led to absurd quarantine regulations.

While stabilizing the country after the tumultuous 1990s was Putin’s trademark and recipe for success during his first two terms in office, political and economic stability is currently a prerequisite for his continued acceptance by the people. However, Putin has jeopardized his power with his reckless and criminal decision to go to war. If he wants to overcome this before the election, nothing must come between him and the “new normality” of the war in the neighboring country and the Western sanctions – the illusion of stability must be maintained. However, Ukraine’s repeated attacks on Crimea and Belgorod and other Russian cities in the border region show that slowly but surely the war is creeping closer to its instigator.


Translated from the German by Jess Smee

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