BERLIN – The Russian presidential election that took place on Sunday was a fake one, but its outcome is real enough. It clearly demonstrated that a majority of Russians accept the rules imposed on them by President Vladimir Putin. That in itself is a kind of democratic choice, with clear implications for Putin’s enemies inside and outside Russia.
The election was fake because Putin’s most vocal and most politically talented rival, Alexei Navalny, wasn’t allowed to run because of a trumped-up criminal conviction. It was fake because the “opposing candidates” were hand-picked by the Kremlin and because the majority of Russian media are under direct or indirect Kremlin control. It was also fake because of a fierce administrative pressure on Russia’s millions of government-dependent voters — public servants, students, workers at state-controlled enterprises — to turn out, and because at many polling stations, especially those where the fragile Russian opposition had no observers, ballot boxes were stuffed.
There are, however, fewer reasons this time around than in several previous elections to describe the outcome as fake, too. Sergei Shpilkin, a physicist and electoral statistician who convincingly demonstrated irregularities in previous vote outcomes, noted that the vote falsification level was “likely at a record low” and close to what he’d seen back in 2004, during Putin’s second, conflict-free election. According to Shpilkin, up to 8 million votes may have been added to the actual count.
Even correcting the official data for that would yield a respectable 60 percent turnout and almost 74 percent for Putin. Without the correction, the turnout hit 67.4 percent, more than in 2004 and 2012, and Putin won 77.7 percent of the vote — his highest ever.
Given Russia’s restrictive political rules and the systematic suppression of political opposition and the media, the election was bound to turn into a referendum on Putin’s rule, with the turnout acquiring paramount importance. The Kremlin did its best to stimulate it, putting on a massive get-out-the-vote campaign and instructing regional authorities to strive for maximum voter participation. All sorts of giveaways — from discounted food to free movie tickets, from selfie contests to lotteries — were ubiquitous, according to Golos, a nongovernmental organization that monitors Russian elections. But none of that would have worked had Russians been unwilling to play Putin’s game: The enticements weren’t financially important and the pressure to turn out was gentle enough that most people could have resisted it.
In a way, Navalny, who called for a boycott of the election after being kept off the ballot, was the biggest loser on Sunday. The high turnout showed that Russians play happily by Putin’s rigged rules even if there isn’t much upside to playing along or much downside to ignoring the game.
Putin campaign spokesman Alexei Kondrashov thanked the United Kingdom for Putin’s landslide win, saying its vehement reaction to the poisoning in Britain of a former double agent helped rally Russians around the president. “Yet again they started pressuring us just when we needed to mobilize,” he said. “Every time Russia is accused of something groundlessly and without any proof, all the Russian people do is unite against the center of strength.” This theory would seem to provide a motive for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia, defying official Moscow’s line (Russia’s representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, recently insisted the Kremlin couldn’t benefit from such violence right before the election).
Putin didn’t run a campaign as such this time around: He never even published an election platform. What he did was stress defiance of U.S. hegemony in a major speech that showcased half a dozen new strategic weapons. The Skripal affair rounded off Putin’s minimalist vote-getting effort. Even if the selfie contests and the rest of it were ultimately more effective than the saber-rattling and the confrontational rhetoric on state TV — which I think might have been the case — Kremlin ideologues will now be convinced of the rallying effect of stepping up the new Cold War. It’ll be an added incentive to ignore any rules of interaction with “our Western partners,” as Putin likes to call them with a smirk. It’ll also be a pretext to continue delaying any economic change: Why upset the system if an external enemy keeps Russians united and willing to put up with hardship?
Though Kondrashov isn’t an important Kremlin insider, his remark sets the tone for Putin’s fourth term in power. There is no reason for the Kremlin to pull back from any of the numerous conflicts it has with the West today — over hacking, propaganda, disinformation, Ukraine, energy distribution channels, chemical weapons, Middle East wars and alliances. The vote results also strengthen the hawks in Putin’s entourage and weaken the technocrats who point out that the stagnating economy undermines the stability of the regime. An economic focus surely wouldn’t have been as rewarding politically as Putin’s defiance — and the defiance is easier to maintain.
I argued earlier this year that Putin’s real opponent in the election was a high abstention percentage. It would have signaled a certain readiness for change if popular leaders emerged to push for it. The next six years would have been a good time for alternatives to emerge since Putin, unwilling to change the constitution, must sit out the next election. (He scoffed on Sunday at the idea of running again in 2030: “Do the math. Am I going to sit here until I’m 100 years old? No.”)
But apathy has been vanquished as easily as Putin’s tame rivals. The likelihood of a smooth handover of power to a similarly hawkish successor has just increased, and the West must brace itself for an extended period with a tough, wily, hostile and uncompromising Russia. It would take a miracle to set the country on a different course.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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