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'A Spectacle, A Farce, A Rigged Clown Show': Russia Watches As Putin Cruises Toward A Fifth Term

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual news conference in Moscow on December 14.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual news conference in Moscow on December 14.

Many Kremlin-watchers expected President Vladimir Putin’s December 14 question-and-answer marathon to be the launching point for a drive to secure a fifth term in office in a poll set for March 15-17. Instead, he made the announcement in a seemingly offhanded way on December 8.

And the televised four-hour event six days later passed with barely a mention of the fact that the 71-year-old Putin is poised to become the longest-serving Russian leader since tsarist times.

Aside from a brief mention at the start, the most direct reference to the upcoming campaign came from a young journalist from the Far Eastern city of Magadan, who prefaced his question by saying: “We all support your decision to run for president next year.”

“Because, as long as I can remember, you have always been at the helm, so to speak,” the journalist said to Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since Boris Yeltsin stepped aside on New Year’s Eve 1999.

'A New Level…No Illusions'

Russia has been trending toward authoritarianism since the beginning of Putin’s tenure. But since its last presidential election in 2018, that trend has been more firmly entrenched than ever.

The already marginalized opposition has been crushed. Leading opposition figures Aleksei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Ilya Yashin have been handed long prison terms.

A raft of constitutional amendments imposed in 2020 have enabled Putin to seek two additional six-year terms and, conceivably, hold power until 2036.

Draconian laws restricting free speech have been adopted since Moscow’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and, together with laws on “foreign agents” and “extremism,” have been used to quash dissent.

“The 2018 election was absolutely tyrannical,” said Dozhd TV journalist Mikhail Fishman. “It was the election of a dictator that can hardly be called an ‘election.’ But now we are at a new level where there are obviously no illusions about what this process is.”

Economist and political scientist Kirill Rogov said Russia has entered a state of “mature authoritarianism.”

“Its main characteristic is that the opposition has insufficient resources to exercise any significant influence on the results of the voting or the election,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

In addition, said sociologist Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center research group, the level of anxiety in Russian society at large is “very high” and “has a chronic nature.” In addition to “concrete” concerns about issues such as wages and inflation, there is a “second type” of anxiety.

“It is a vague, diffuse anxiety tied to the fact that people do not have the ability to influence decisions made by the authorities,” he said. “And [people feel] there are no institutions that can guarantee their future for any foreseeable period.”

“All this, naturally, leads to the fragmentation of society, to what we call ‘the passive adaptation to the state,’” he added.

'A War President'

Russia is a country at war, although it is illegal to say so there.

The war will hang over the campaign, but it will not be an issue, despite rising discontent and justifiable fears that a new mobilization will come as soon as Putin takes another oath of office. Even slight or perceived criticism of the war has been criminalized as “discrediting the armed forces.”

Screens in a shop broadcast Vladimir Putin's annual press conference on the streets of Saint Petersburg.
Screens in a shop broadcast Vladimir Putin's annual press conference on the streets of Saint Petersburg.

“Putin’s new term will be a war term,” said sociologist Igor Eidman, noting that given the indeterminate economic costs of the war, it will be difficult for Putin to make populist gestures. “He cannot seriously offer voters anything new…. Voters are interested in wages, pensions, housing, and so on. But Putin can’t offer anything in these areas of greatest interest.”

“Judging by the start of the campaign, the presidential administration will stress Putin as a war president, as a ‘victorious’ president around whom everyone must rally,” Eidman added. “One can’t change horses in mid-stream and so on.”

Controlling the messaging on the war will be central to the next few months, Fishman said.

“The war that will be presented [in Putin’s campaign] will not be the war we see in the trenches,” he said. “It will be a ‘parade war.’ A war of medals on lapels, a war of annexed territory…. It will be a reincarnation of the victory in World War II and will ignore the blood and death that this war is really bringing. There won’t be any blood or death in this election.”

Operation 'Operetta'

Within hours of Putin’s announcement that he wanted another term – a desire that surprised no one -- the ruling United Russia party and the pro-Putin All-Russia Popular Front (ONF) announced the formation of an “initiative group” to organize the campaign. United Russia secretary Andrei Turchak told state media that the party, which controls executive and legislative bodies across the country, would provide all necessary resources for the effort.

According to Russian media reports, the Kremlin has ordered local officials to produce results along the lines of 80 percent for Putin – higher than ever before -- with a turnout of about 70 percent.

“Of course, they can present any result they want,” Eidman said, noting that such factors as expanded electronic voting, the elimination of independent election monitoring, a three-day voting period, and voting in the partially occupied regions of Ukraine offer ample opportunities for falsification.

Kremlin aides “have to conduct this election, this spectacle, this farce, this rigged clown show they are calling an ‘election,’ in such a way that the public will applaud and call for an encore – so that everything goes off without a hitch,” he added.

Putin “is the main spectator of this operetta,” Eidman said, and his political operatives must make sure he is convinced that a large portion of the population supports him.

“It is hard to say exactly why, but he has always been very sensitive about his popularity,” he said.

The Opposition’s Dilemma

In a social-media post on December 7, imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny called on Russians to “come out to the polls and vote against Vladimir Putin” by voting for “any other candidate.”

Acknowledging that “a parody of the election process awaits us,” Navalny argued that, at a moment when people are thinking at all about the country’s leadership and future, it is the obligation of the opposition to do anything it can to feed the public’s doubts.

“Anyone who is afraid of losing their freedom if they hang a flyer in their building or send a link to a friend or make a couple of phone calls should stop and think about what they really need freedom for,” Navalny wrote.

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Much of Russia’s organized political opposition has been driven abroad by the government’s repression, which intensified following the 2018 election and has accelerated steadily since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Unable to participate in or influence Putin’s election, many opposition figures are searching for ways to prevent the Kremlin from using the poll to boost its perceived legitimacy.

“The delegitimization of the election is the basic topic for the opposition in this situation,” Rogov said.

"The results of the voting will be falsified, but our task is to make sure it's clear to everyone, even without [genuine results], that Russia no longer needs Putin," Russia Without Putin, an online campaign supported by Navalny, said on its website.

Opposition activist and former State Duma deputy Igor Yakovenko argued that the opposition must keep its focus on undermining Putin without getting caught up in the March election.

“I support a broad ‘No Putin’ campaign, but I don’t see any sense in the opposition carrying out any actions connected with the thing that is planned for next March 17,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

“Delegitimization comes when we proclaim that this is a ritualistic event that has no electoral significance,” Yakovenko added. “Any attempt to organize flash mobs or a campaign to destroy ballots would mean that we consider this process somehow connected with the expression of our will. This process is an internal matter for the presidential administration and has nothing to do with the population of Russia.”

“I think any effort to draw the people into this process would be a very serious mistake,” he concluded.

Rogov predicted the March vote will “leave some traces” on Russian society. After listening to the Kremlin’s voting and turnout results, he said, Russians “will sit down and think: So what?”

“They will feel somehow let down,” he said. “The aftertaste will be unpleasant: Six more years of this?”

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson with reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

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