Putin and then who?

One cannot take the Polish media seriously. Especially when they “debate” Russia.

A few days ago the TOK FM radio station in Poland featured a panel of political scientists and international affairs specialists discussing the upcoming presidential election in Russia. One of the panel confidently stated (this is the gist of her statement, not the exact words) that if Ksenia Sobchak – a potential challenger for the presidency – does not manage to collect the 300,000 signatures required by law to stand as a candidate, that will show the Kremlin does not allow free elections. On the other hand, the expert assured listeners, if Sobczak does get the required number of signatures, it will mean that she had the help of the Russian state and therefore her candidacy is a carefully prepared Kremlin plot to help Putin win.

Such is the miserable level on which the Polish media – almost without exception – are covering Russia’s upcoming presidential election. It is being presented as something not to be taken seriously.

And that’s a pity, because the wiser (unfortunately rapidly shrinking) sections of the Western elites have always carefully followed events in Russia. And they no doubt understand that the 2018 elections and the years immediately following may well decide the fate and shape of the world as a whole. So when we look at what is currently happening in Russia, and what will happen in just a few months, we need to do so without unnecessary emotion and irrational Russophobia. For Polish “specialists”, however, that is too difficult a task.

The Russian presidential election will take place in March 2018. Some basic information: every Russian citizen over 35 years old who has lived on the territory of the Russian Federation for at least the last 10 years has the right to run for president. In order to be eligible a candidate must also have a clean criminal record (going back 10 years) and cannot be a citizen of another country or have permanent residency there. Candidates must also provide details of their finances, biographical data, a statement of consent to running for office and confirmation of the bank account from which, after registration, election campaign expenses will be paid. Candidates nominated by a political party which is not represented in the Duma must in addition collect 100,000 signatures in order to register, and self-nominated candidates require 300,000 signatures.

We already know the winner

The current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who only recently announced that he will run in the election, is backed by the “United Russia” party, and his 500-strong electoral committee contains many front-page personalities.

So Putin will win. Many of the reasons for this are clear to outside observers, but there are also other factors which the West does not understand and probably won’t for a long time to come.

The simplest reasons for the popularity of the current president are nothing new. In contrast to 1990-2000, when Russia was shaken by the effects of predatory privatization and murderous, in the literal sense of the word, neoliberal reforms, Putin’s rule has meant a leap into a new, unprecedented reality. There is no need to quote all the figures that show Russia’s rapid progress under Putin. It is enough to know that inflation has fallen from 36% to around 4% and that gross national income has risen almost 14-fold over the years of Putin’s rule. People have started to get their wages paid on time, and, no less importantly for ordinary Russians, the state has started to function. Not, perhaps, as Europeans imagine it should, but certainly in way that is satisfactory for the vast majority of citizens. Just these things are enough for the current president to be comfortably confident of winning.

Russia without Putin

On 31 January we will know the final number of candidates, but currently more than 20 have applied to be on the ballot. This includes such exotic characters as the porn star Elena Berkova and the celebrity journalist Ekaterina Gordon. On the other hand, there are also serious candidates who do not threaten Putin now, but their names and faces are worth remembering. A closer look at them will also give us some insights into how the Russian system works.

As already stated there is no one who presents a real challenge to Putin. What is more, observers agree that if he were faced with anything but an overwhelming victory, the current president would be very hesitant about taking part in the election. Not due to fear; he can be accused of many things, but certainly not cowardice. The flip side is his ability to look at things as they are, without self-deception. If the outcome were in doubt he would simply conclude that the time had come for change in the country, including in relation to personnel. Actually, this variant is being aired in official information circles. In a February 2017 interview for strike.eu, one of Putin’s advisors, the editor-in-chief of the important journal Russia in Global Affairs stated: “If a man named Putin decides that he wants to get involved in something else outside of politics, then we will have to come to terms with it. And in my opinion he will make such a decision. Not now, but soon. Therefore, his next term in office should be devoted to preparing the next stage of Russia’s development, which will be without Putin.” And this is, in fact, the most important problem for the world. We will come back to that below.

Licensed opposition candidates

Despite the lack of competition, there are several people whose presence in the election will be significant. Until now, the only ones who have somehow counted in the presidential race have been the leaders of the parliamentary opposition parties what some call the licensed opposition i.e., the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Of course, there is some truth in the claim that the opposition is “licensed”. On the other hand, it has been some while since I have heard such substantive criticisms of Russia’s internal policy as came recently from the lips of Gennady Zyuganov, the CPRF leader, when he mercilessly attacked all Russia’s social ills: ongoing stratification, expanding areas of poverty (almost one in four Russians live below the social minimum), corruption, the excessive role of the oligarchs. Zyuganov came second in the last presidential election with 17.18% of the votes. Of course this is not much compared to the 63.30% for Vladimir Putin, but nonetheless it is a result worthy of respect. Almost every fifth voter voted for an elderly and not very media-savvy politician.

This support is something the CPRF can build on especially as during this election campaign they have surprised everyone by nominating Pavel Grudinin, director of the Lenin Sovhoz (state farm) near Moscow, as their presidential candidate. This move has created a sensation. The Lenin Sovhoz is a large and successful enterprise, run for many years by Grudinin, who is not formally associated with any party. Not only has he achieved gigantic profits, but he has also ensured fair remuneration and an extensive social program for his staff including schools and kindergartens, and free medical care. And so, in short, he has become a man with a reputation both as a manager and a left-wing activist. A further boost is the support he has received from some non-CPRF political activists such as Yury Boldyrev, co-founder of the opposition party “Yabloko” and well-known anti-corruption activist. Grudinin’s slogan, “For the people, not the oligarchs”, and his pro-social program promise an interesting pre-election fight, particularly given that Putin and his entourage will have no answer to Grudinin’s criticism of the deteriorating living standards experienced by parts of Russian society.

The second “serious” candidate is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of LDPR. He himself insists, as cited by RIA Novosti, “Today, myself and Putin are the only serious candidates”. Zhirinovsky’s inflated ego (in the last election he achieved 6.2% of the vote) is as annoying as it is amusing. Nevertheless, his TV talk show appearances, which seem to be non-stop, are quite unamusing. The often extreme nationalist sauce with which he smothers every subject under discussion makes even the slender support he has received up to now rather disturbing. Of course, it may all be camouflage for the media, because outside the studio Zhirinovsky is, perhaps, a pleasant, reasonable, elderly gentleman, but when one hears his screaming and shouting, one half expects him to launch into “Russia, Russia über alles”.

Zhirinovsky does not, of course, pose a threat to Putin, but his result in the presidential race will be important for assessing the post-election situation in Russia as it will indicate how many voters share his views and his manner of expressing them.

Unlicensed political folklore

From among those we may call “unlicensed opposition candidates” the name Ksenia Sobchak is worth noting. She is a TV journalist and daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, Vladimir Putin’s long-term patron when the latter was in Leningrad at the beginning of his political career. Ms Sobchak, who enjoys celebrity status, initially declared that she would stand as an independent candidate, but the vision of collecting 300,000 signatures was presumably rather intimidating, as a few days ago she announced that she would register for the ballot with the support of the “Civic Initiative” party, thus reducing the number of signatures required to 100,000.

Sobchak has a high profile and is popular. But her chances of getting a decent result in the presidential poll were effectively ruined when she declared that that Crimea is Ukrainian and Russia should return the peninsula. Like it or not, the issue of Crimea is a litmus test for the vast majority of Russians, regardless of their political views, and determines whether a politician is perceived as someone who wishes Russia well, or is treated as a renegade who should remain outside of all discourse and political life altogether.

Grigory Yavlinsky, co-founder and leader of the extra-parliamentary opposition party “Yabloko”, also shot himself in the foot with his statement that the future of Crimea should be determined by a referendum, preceded by an international conference between Russia, Ukraine, the EU, Britain, the USA, Turkey and representatives of Crimea. This proposal does not make sense to the average Russian voter, as there has already been a referendum to which there are no objections in Russia. In addition, in the current situation, the Russian public considers it simply unacceptable for a local politician to call on Britain, the USA and the EU to help determine the future of a part of Russia.

Although these two politicians will get as much media coverage as more serious candidates, opinion polls indicate that their result in the election will be no more than one percent of the vote each.

The Navalny case

There is also a third politician who wants to be on the ballot: Alexei Navalny, the world’s best-known Russian opposition figure. On the day that this article was written, his electoral committee submitted documents to the Central Election Commission. But Navalny will not be registered because he has a criminal conviction on his record. He will be, as the Polish media will surely say, “the Missing Factor” in the election. Actually that is not true. He will be neither a factor nor missing.

Navalny, who is portrayed as an uncompromising anti-corruption politician, rose to fame on the back of his campaign to expose the corruption of the Russian prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev. And he did have the chance to be a significant factor. He was able to repeatedly lead thousands of his followers onto the streets of Russian cities. However, when, in the summer of last year he urged those as young as their mid-teens to take to the streets and participate in anti-Putin demonstrations, he squandered his potential.

Tapping into youth who have no knowledge of any other Russia than Putin’s was a brilliant move, in terms of political technology. Anyone familiar with recent events would have remembered that the Ukrainian Maidan began with the brutal beating of youth by Berkut. The next day, hundreds of thousands of outraged people came out onto the streets and events took their course. Such a scenario was greatly feared in Moscow.

Navalny and his advisors were also very much counting on events developing in this way. They did not, however, and official propaganda made sure that the dishonorable aspect of Navalny’s decisions would reach a wide audience. The use of young people who are susceptible to manipulation and the fact that he took so little trouble to mask this strategy greatly weakened the portrait of Navalny as a responsible man, whose only concern is the good of people.

Nor will Navalny be missing from the presidential campaign. The Western media will make sure of that, and in the era of the Internet it does not matter if the official media report on his activities or not. He will have no problem getting his message out to his supporters and will be able to present his program widely: a highly paid professional army, an increase in the minimum wage and a reduction in taxes on business, a reduction in mortgage rates and a Crimea referendum. And, of course, the fight against corruption. But on the financial issues Navalny’s proposals are mutually contradictory, a reduction in the size and strength of the army will find no widespread support in Russian society, and I have already dealt with the Crimea question.

The only socially useful thing that Navalny can do is to put indirect pressure on Putin to pay more attention to social and economic questions during the campaign. This will be forced on Putin not only by Navalny’s program and but also by the CPRF candidate discussed earlier.

Why Putin?

Official state public opinion polls, and the independent Levada Centre leave no room for doubt – the election will be won by Vladimir Putin.

The reason for this is not only his successes, of which he has many, and the simple fact that he is a good politician. There is something else that, as mentioned above, the West does not understand: Putin has given the Russian people a sense of dignity and greatness. For Russians the Yeltsin epoch was an unforgettable trauma, which lingers on as their worst nightmare. Polish and European readers may be convinced by repetition ad nauseum that it was a time of democracy, but Russians find that incomprehensible. A democracy which came at the price of such great loss and the demolition of Russia, was worthless to its beneficiaries. Russians are ready to sacrifice much of their well-being, material status, and even a sense of security, if they can have the conviction they are citizens of a great power. The emotional factor in Russian politics is what frustrates all Western calculations. The West cannot understand that in dealing with Russia not everything can be reduced to a commercial transaction.

On 19 March 2018, the day after the election, the next and most important question will appear: what next? A six-year presidential term is not as long as it may seem.

Some say that day will mark the beginning of a ruthless struggle for Putin’s legacy and for Russia itself. Of course there will be conflicts between individual clans, cliques and interest groups, but I do not think Putin and his circle would allow them to develop in such a way as to weaken Russia’s position in the world and its internal stability.

One thing seems to be beyond doubt: there will be no return to Yeltsin’s Russia. The West cannot count on once again having a continually drunk leader in charge of the local great power and a government which in practice is a puppet of American capital and neoliberal think tanks, and which consents to everything they put forward for signature.

Russia after Putin

And if that is so, the question is: who will be Putin’s successor? Or will anyone succeed him at all? After all, one possible variant is for Putin to remain as leader of the Russian Federation for years to come without violating the constitution. It would be enough to change it in such a way that, for example, a greater role in the exercise of power is given to the legislative authority i.e. the Duma, and Putin is elected leader of that body. Or the office of vice-president could be introduced into the constitution, which could then conferred on the current president.

In discussion concerning a successor, the name of Dmitry Medvedev comes up. This variant has already worked once, but I think Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign has too strongly undermined the position of the current prime minister for this option to be seriously considered.

Alexey Dyumin, the current Governor of Tula Oblast, is also mentioned. But it is not the position he has now which has put him high up in the ranking of potential successors. First and foremost, Dyumin is the former chief of Russia’s Special Operations Forces with the rank of General. He directed the operation to transfer Crimea to Russia in 2014, which in the opinion of military specialists around the world was one of the best organized undertakings of this type in the last half-century. Secondly, rumour has it, he once saved Putin from a bear which tried to enter a house where the president was staying.

Yet I would not focus on the various names of potential successors to President Putin. Six years in today’s turbulent times is too long for events to be anticipated with a high degree of probability. Anything could happen. I do believe, however, that if Vladimir Putin leaves Russian politics, he will be succeeded by someone who has been carefully prepared for the role, and is able to successfully govern Russia just as the current president has done.
The worst variant would be if in six years the Kremlin is taken over by someone who makes the whole world yearn for the educated, predictable, world-class politician we will then realize Putin to have been.

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