Concern over slow economic growth and a costly intervention in Syria has had minimal impact on Vladimir Putin’s domestic popularity and control. Indeed, on March 18, Putin will be re-elected for his fourth nonconsecutive term as president of Russia. His victory is assured because Russia’s elections, unlike those in democratic states, lack uncertainty of outcome. Even so, both the Kremlin and the opposition have to decide on an electoral strategy. The Kremlin must ensure that the level of voter turnout is relatively high while the opposition must decide whether or not to boycott the vote.
To Vote or Not to Vote
Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption blogger who became one of the most famous leaders of the Russian opposition during the anti-electoral fraud protests of 2012, has been running a campaign for president for the past year. With offices around the country and over 200,000 volunteers, Navalny regularly met with voters and organized nomination rallies in 20 different cities to collect signatures for his registration. Despite this, in December Navalny was disqualified from participating in the election by the Central Electoral Commission. The Commission cited his conviction on a charge of embezzlement—in a trial that the European Court of Human Rights has called “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”—as the reason for his ineligibility. Navalny immediately called for a boycott of the election and for a series of protests, the first of which took place on January 28 in 100 cities across Russia.
In a speech to the Commission, and a pre-recorded video released shortly after the Commission’s decision, Navalny argued that the only candidates that are allowed to participate in the presidential election are hand-chosen by the Kremlin and do not present a real alternative to Putin. He said that Russian citizens must therefore boycott the vote in order to demonstrate that the election is illegitimate.
During previous elections, Navalny has urged people to show up and vote. In 2011, in advance of parliamentary elections, he debated two other prominent leaders of the opposition in an event called . During the debate, Boris Nemtsov, a former member of the State Duma and deputy prime minister who was gunned down in Moscow in 2015, urged Russians to spoil their ballots. Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, called for a boycott. Meanwhile Navalny advocated an “anyone but United Russia” strategy, arguing that people should vote for any other party listed on the ballot. In the end, Navalny’s strategy seemed to be most appealing to opposition voters. The number of seats subsequently won by United Russia in the December election was substantially less than expected.
This time, it is the supporters of Grigory Yavlinsky, the co-founder of Russia’s well-established liberal opposition party, Yabloko, that are urging voters to participate in the election. From their point of view, not voting in an election that is essentially a “referendum” on Putin’s presidency has the perverse effect of supporting Putin. Any calls for a boycott are thus irresponsible—those who do not vote, have no way to officially register their opposition.
In a way, Navalny’s redirected campaign of street protests in support of a boycott plays into the Kremlin’s caricature of the opposition. In December, when he was asked about why elections in Russia are uncompetitive, Vladimir Putin suggested that the opposition is unable to offer people a positive platform worth voting for, preferring instead to “make noise in the streets.”
The Kremlin’s Turnout Problem
While the opposition decides how best to express their dissent, the Kremlin faces a different problem. After years of demobilizing voters, it is now struggling to ensure that enough supporters show up to the polls in March. As elections in Russia have become less competitive, interest among voters has also decreased. The 2016 parliamentary election had a record low voter turnout. The Kremlin has a two-pronged approach to addressing this.
First, while banning Navalny, the Kremlin is allowing other “faux” opposition candidates on the ballot. Ksenia Sobchak, a television personality, socialite, and daughter of Putin’s late mentor Anatoly Sobchak, is running for president on a platform that can be best summarized as “against all.” While carefully avoiding criticism of Putin directly, Sobchak has been speaking out about social and economic problems in Russia more sharply than other candidates. She has called the 2014 annexation of Crimea “illegal” according to international law.
Although she was part of the opposition protests in 2011 and 2012, many are skeptical of Sobchak’s political credentials. There are questions about who is funding her campaign with suggestions that businesses with close links to the Kremlin are bankrolling her. Many see her as a spoiler candidate, whose participation is meant to lend credibility to the contest.
Second, the Kremlin, and regional elites loyal to the regime, will again use so-called “administrative resources” to generate voter turnout. Vulnerable voters—pensioners, state employees, recipients of social assistance—will be pressured to vote. News stories about plans for mobilizing voters in this way have already begun to emerge.
Putin, meanwhile, has been vague about what he plans to do during his next six years in office, recently saying that Russia should aim to make “strides” in education, health care, science, infrastructure, and technology. Since 2014, he has been mainly focused on foreign policy issues, while approval of domestic government policies is decreasing. Yet Putin’s personal popularity remains high and is, according to a recent academic study, genuine.
Ironically, the Kremlin and the opposition are facing the same problem: political apathy. Most Russians think, perhaps correctly, that the political situation in the country is unlikely to change any time soon. This will keep people away from both protests and the polls.
Yana Gorokhovskaia is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Russian Politics at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.