Lev Gudkov*: Presidential Election 2018 in Russia: Context and Consequences.


The March "election" of V. Putin did not arouse much interest among Russians due to its predetermined outcome and deteriorated economic situation. During the autumn and winter of 2017-2018, only 17-18% of polled kept an eye on the course of the election campaign, others were indifferent. 51% of Russians believed that the upcoming election was an imitation of a political struggle a month before the voting day, only 35% called it "serious". The most skeptical towards the election were Muscovites and residents of megacities, a more informed and educated audience (here the share of skeptics rose to 69% versus 13% who considered the election a real political competition).

Sociologically, we are not dealing with "election", and not even with a plebiscite, but with "acclamation," i.e., public expression of the approval of a  non-alternative figure of a dictator. We are not speaking about "honest" or "dishonest" elections, but about organizing forced consensus, political, media, and police technologies to coerce to demonstrate loyalty to the power by "voting for V. Putin."

In accordance with this, the electoral campaign was organized, namely: information policy (glorification and mobilization of mass support for the main figure), selection of candidates (and support group members), determination of the composition of election commissions (appointed by the regional administration, and thus acquitted from participation political parties and public control), as well as the involvement of the police, which suppresses unauthorized actions of the opposition and civilian observers.¹ Selection of the participants of the "Electoral Democracy" performance was carefully considered to create the impression of the presence of all political forces at the stage, on the one hand, and their total failure as serious politicians and aspirants for governing the country, on the other. Not G. Zyuganov was nominated from the Communists (under the pressure of the Presidential Administration), who could receive his usual 15-18% of the vote, but previously practically unknown P. Grudinin, businessman and not even the CPRF member, which caused a diverse reaction in the more conservative part of this party electorate. From the LDPR – it was political brawler and provocateur V. Zhirinovsky, provoking general rejection. From liberals - K.Sobchak, daughter of the mayor of St. Petersburg, former chief of V. Putin. It was a win-win move to discredit the Democrats, those who participated in anti-Putin rallies and demonstrations in 2011-2017. Ksenia Sobchak - a famous anchor of a scandalous youth TV show, a rich lady with the manners of a society lioness, was supposed to make an extremely negative impression on the voters of a poor and depressed province. And she actually made it: about 35 to 51% of respondents (it was even more than for V. Zhirinovsky) expressed negative attitude towards her, confirming the image of the Russian opposition that was formed due to propaganda: West oriented, antipatriotic, immoral, cynical (her rather radical anti-Putin speeches therefore did not receive any feedback). The negative attitude towards the democrats was confirmed by the participation of G. Yavlinsky, who proved himself to be an old demagogue, incapable of political actions. Almost no one in Russia knew anything about three other persons involved in the election - B. Titov, S. Baburin, M. Suraikin, except for political scientists and officials. (They received together 2% of the vote and 1% got G. Yavlinsky). The only politician who could pose a serious threat to V. Putin was A. Navalny. But he was deprived of the right to participate in the election long before the start of the election campaign. The popularity of A. Navalny surpasses the fame of any Russian politician (except for V. Putin, G. Zyuganov, V. Zhirinovsky and S. Shoigu), any minister or public figure. His slogan "United Russia is the party of crooks and thieves" in 2011-2012 was approved and supported by 40 to 45%. The activities of the Anti-Corruption Foundation established by him provoked an acute reaction from the Kremlin, the government and high-ranking officials who became the object of his investigations. A criminal case was brought against him, which actually collapsed in the court; nevertheless, he was put on probation for three years, only in order to have an excuse to refuse him to participate in the presidential election and discredit him as a criminal and a fraudster. A. Navalny, even if allowed to take part in the election, could not defeat V. Putin (or create a precedent for the second round of voting), but he would have received an opportunity to openly criticize V. Putin's policies, which would make V. Putin's chances for unconditional success as a non-alternative national leader rather problematic. A. Navalny could have expected to receive 18-20% of the vote (which was comparable to the chances of all opponents of V. Putin together). The election turned into a royal ballet without his participation, where V. Putin's opponents, exposed helpless, comic, or repulsive characters, were assigned the role of the corps de ballet. Therefore, the result of the election was predetermined in advance - all 7 official "rivals" of V. Putin received slightly more than 22% of the vote.

It is hardly necessary to emphasize that the candidates were in an obviously unequal position. The real electoral campaign of V. Putin began last summer, when none of his potential opponents had the right to make public their programme statements. "The retinue makes the king." The Kremlin's complete information monopoly on TV and in the mainstream media provided him with dominance in public opinion. V. Putin held up to 75-80% of the airtime news and propaganda programmes on TV. There are no free media in Russia, there are editions alternative to the official media. 20 of the existing 22 all-Russian TV channels are integrated into three media holdings controlled by the Administration of the President and carrying out an agreed policy. All together they form a single extremely powerful and very efficient machine of total propaganda. These media holdings control the press, which has the largest audience, radio, Internet portals, conduct a very aggressive policy in the field of youth information and ideological consumption. The share of all presumably "independent" editions is not more than 6-7% of the audience of consumers of information. Participants in the debate (and V. Putin was not there) were allotted 2 minutes of airtime, which looked like an outright mockery. But even this is not the main thing: the entire establishment, all journalists, all politicians, MPs of the current Duma and regional legislative assemblies, officials, regardless of party affiliation, broadcasted, persuaded the population, and campaigned for V. Putin. The general tone is expressed by the formula of the speaker of the State Duma V.Volodin: "Putin is Russia, if there is no Putin - there is no Russia". No criticism, no negative judgments with regard to V. Putin could penetrate the public information space.

The supposed participation in the election ("turnout") of voters should have been the lowest for all presidential electoral campaigns. The 70/70 task put by the Putin administration to the governors seemed to be quite unreal because of the probability of low participation rate in the vote.² According to our polls, in autumn, 2017, in January and February, 2018, 56-58% expressed readiness to come to polling stations. Refusal to participate in the election of those who opposed V. Putin, were dissatisfied with his regime or were indifferent to politics and the upcoming election, increased the estimated percentage of votes for V. Putin. In such conditions, V. Putin was to receive from 72 to 75% of the vote. But such a result did not suit the Kremlin administration. Its goal was not in the victory of V. Putin, nobody doubted it, but in the demonstration, like in the Soviet times, of "universal popular support" of V. Putin and confidence in him as a "true national leader", as the expression of the solidarity of absolute majority of citizens with his course. A low turnout did not allow that, since in this case V. Putin would be elected by an absolute minority (42-45% of voters included in the list of eligible voters). And the goal of the Administration of the President was 51% (the Central Election Commission showed as a result the total of 52%).

The last month before the election, administrative pressure on potential voters sharply increased, which led to an increase in turnout.³ Putin's social base is a conservative and depressed province, employees of governmental enterprises, bureaucrats, retired persons, low-income and low-educated sectors of the population. The object of "total corporate mobilization" and "full state inclusion"⁴ was in that election campaign the categories of the population that previously evaded participation in the elections: educated and wealthy groups of the middle class, residents of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other megacities that demonstrated the lowest participation (20-22%) at the latest election in September, 2017. The main work of political technologists was aimed at them - intimidation, persuasion, provision of various bonuses and privileges for participation, total electioneering at the place of residence and work. Especially sensitive to this were the elderly people (of pre-retirement age, highly qualified, concerned about the possibility of losing their jobs).

Nevertheless, the absolute majority of Russians (69%) regard the election as more or less "honest" (only 19% think that they were "dishonest", although there are relatively more officials and educated specialists among them - 24%) and are satisfied with their results - 74%).

Putin's popularity cannot be considered outside the context of the Crimean mobilization.

The rating of approval or trust to V. Putin, which reached its maximum (87-88%) at every moment of revenge, militaristic and chauvinistic campaigns (in 1999, 2004, 2008, 2014), decreased to 60-63% by the end of 2013 (against the background of mass anti-Putin demonstrations of protest.) Fig.1 and Fig.2). At the end of 2013, 47% of respondents said they would not like to see V. Putin at the next presidential election, 61% said they were tired of expecting for him to fulfill his election promises. But after the Kyiv Maidan and the expulsion of Yanukovych, after the annexation of the Crimea, the approval index again rose to its maximum (87%) and has never fallen below 80% of approval and support. Irritation and social discontent are channeled to other levels and branches of power; there is an old mechanism ("a good king and evil boyars") - the transfer of responsibility for the situation within the country from a national leader embodying in his status symbolic values of greatness and might of the "Russian Nation", to the prime minister or the government, the Duma, governors, etc.  (Fig. 3, 4, 5)

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

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Fig. 5

The period of "patriotic" mobilization and euphoria (2014-2016), caused by chauvinistic anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian propaganda, is over, but the consequences of those events will remain for a long time. V. Putin's main achievement is the restoration of Russia's international authority, giving it back the status of a "Great Power" (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6

Social consequences of the events of 2014-2016 boil down not only to a sharp increase in the influence of the institutions of violence on the mass consciousness. The Crimean wave of mobilization consolidated the cycle of institutional changes in 2012-2017, a response to massive anti-Putin protests in major cities and the weakening of Putin's legitimacy. After 2012, there are constantly expanding reasons for censorship on the Internet (extrajudicial closure of websites, initiation of criminal cases against bloggers, etc.). These changes meant a legal nullity of the Constitution of the Russian Federation - more than 50 out of 137 of its main articles do not work, primarily those that determine the procedure for the formation of power, freedom and human rights, and the control of society over authorities.

Tougher legislation, judicial and law enforcement practices are directed against any form of self-organization of society, suppression of public initiatives and independent non-commercial organizationss that are not controlled by the Kremlin or regional authorities. The expansion of the powers of the political police (the "special services", even earlier endowed with "extraordinary rights" to act outside the framework of the Constitution and laws) was combined with the tightening of censorship (Roskomnadzor – Russian Supervision Committee) and manipulation of mass consciousness based on the latest developments of social sciences.

Russian Guards were established, the strength of which is comparable to all the Army of Russia, to fight "riots" - actions of discontented citizens. They may use any means, including permission to shoot people. This is a reflection of the paranoia of the regime, which is afraid because of the threat of the repetition of "colour revolutions", "Maydans" in Russia after the mass protests of 2011-2012.

The order of "managed democracy" or the manipulation of electoral processes (full control over vertical mobility and selection to power), that resulted from four or five elective cycles (1999-2016), led to the formation of a closed corrupt political class that provides an exclusive character of institutional domination, immunity to any attempts of public control over power, the subordination of the economy to the interests of enriching the ruling class. This kleptocratic authoritarian regime received its ideological justification during the last 3-4 years, although some theses and provisions of the new ideology sounded already in early 2000s, but with complete clarity - only after the Munich speech of V. Putin in February, 2007, when he proclaimed a new political course of confrontation with Western countries, "stability", "managed" or "sovereign democracy", inadmissibility of "colour revolutions" in Russia. The new moment was the rejection of the values of the rule of law, democracy, human rights and free market economy, as alien to Russian culture, the need for stability and state protection.

The Russian population soberly assesses the nature of the Russian power: in the opinion of most Russians, V. Putin relies on the law enforcing agencies (primarily the political police, special agencies, generals), oligarchs, the highest bureaucracy and expresses the interests of these institutions. The picture of mass views of Russians as for the structure of power institutions is a synthesis of repressive structures and oligarchs. (Fig. 7)

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

The growing mythology of the "Great People" destroys every thought of social and cultural heterogeneity of the population, the need to represent group social interests, and thus the very idea of "society", democracy, respectively, the responsibility of the authorities for its actions and policies, and control over "society". The ideology of the "Greatness of the Power" abolishes the very question of the social structure and social differentiation, replacing them with arguments about a single mystical Russia. Confrontation with the West and anti-Western policies - the rhetoric of the enemy, war, militarism, the heroic glory of the Russian Empire and its colonial wars, the discrediting of Western values and models - displaces from the mass consciousness the notion of inalienable human rights, the need for participation in public life and politics, and opposition to state arbitrariness. Hence, there is almost complete reluctance to participate in politics and the lack of interest to it (Fig. 10)

Fig. 10

The concept of the enemy - almost according to K. Schmitt - becomes constitutive for understanding the nature of the state and political activities. If in 1994 (before the beginning of the first Chechen war), 41% believed that Russia had enemies, then in 2003 (on a new wave of anti-Americanism), there were 77%, in the spring of 2014 - 84%, then, as far as the mobilization declined, that indicator began to decline gradually, reaching in December, 2017 - 66%. The function of maintaining the population in a state of chronic arousal and mobilization readiness is not only to dislodge liberal, democratic or legal views from public opinion, but also to form defensive isolationism ("Russia is a specific civilization," transcending the West in its spirituality and morality, "we have a special way "," Western democracy does not suit us, "etc.). These views began to be shared by absolute majority of Russians as the regime of V. Putin grew stronger. Being included in the system of education and socialization of the younger generation, they destroy the idea of the history of the country, sterilizing the knowledge of Stalinism and terror and replacing it with Orthodox traditionalism.

Alienation from developed countries was achieved through the imposition of ideas that the West (developed democracies) treat Russia with contempt and fear (the latter is allegedly caused by Russia's "growing might"). Propaganda raised a long layer of ressentimental stereotypes and myths deeply rooted in the Russian culture: the notion of their own backwardness from Europe, barbarism, and serfdom. Cultivated patriotic pride for the "reviving Russia" drives off or neutralizes the depressing consciousness of shame for the state of affairs within the country, a clear understanding of the corrupt state, selfishness and greed of the ruling class. The train of thought of most Russians is roughly the following: yes, the State Duma is not a parliament, yes - the judicial system is completely dependent on the president, there is no justice in the country, an ordinary person is not able to achieve justice and protect his or her rights and interests. Yes, power belongs to immoral people. Hopes for the democrats turned into false illusions. But this is life and we cannot change its order. There is no particular respect and confidence in the political class, but there is no indignation either. The ideals of democracy and the rule of law were rejected and discredited, they were replaced by the "stability", "special path" of Russia, special spiritual values and traditions of Russians, in other words the renewed doctrine of the "moral and political unity of the Party and the people" of the Soviet era.

Confronting the West and returning to imperial ideas allowed the Russian man in the street to feel significant. And that was expressed in the mass euphoria: "The Russian bear showed everyone teeth, we forced to respect ourselves." Collective excitement always leads to simplification of the picture of reality, to the rise of archaic, mythological notions of history and actors. In our case, this has led to an increase in the trust and authority of law enforcement agencies and politicians demonstrating their readiness for violence. The president, the army and the political police come to the forefront in mass views of the most significant and influential forces in Russia. (Fig. 7) In the mythology of the "thousand year old" Russia, emphasis is placed on the Greatness of the Nation, due to the selfless heroism of the armed forces and the population, on the absence of social differences and class conflicts, the selfishness of social group interests, i.e., on the "heroic symphony" of the tsar and the people.

It was this feeling that consolidated the population of Russia in the spring of 2014, indicating the vector of secondary, recurrent totalitarianism. In this context, the concept becomes understandable of non-commercial organizations or other forms of civil society, imposed by propaganda, as organizations conducting hidden commercial activities or acting as agents of countries hostile to Russia.

The reverse movement of the country should be seen as the reaction of the authoritarian regime to threats to its positions of domination stemming from the "export of colour revolutions" or a bad example given by the countries which used to be former Soviet republics or Eastern European socialist countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, etc.). Their desire to integrate into the structures of the European Union and the North Atlantic defence alliance is propagated as a conspiracy against Russia (and V. Putin personally). The desire to repeat this path by Georgia, and then by Ukraine, caused a sharp negative reaction among the ruling elite that replaced B.Yeltsin, which is different in its social composition and way of thinking. After 2004, the Baltic countries, Georgia, Poland, and then Ukraine and the United States turn out to be on the first positions in the list of "enemies". (Fig. 11)

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Fig. 14

The first outbursts of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Georgian propaganda fall on the peaks of electoral cycles in these countries. The defeat of Georgia in the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war led to the establishment of a Russian protectorate over a significant part of the Georgian territory (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), which made it impossible for Georgia to join NATO and become closer to the EU. Immediately after that anti-Georgian propaganda was reduced and later completely stopped (the idea of Georgia as Russia's enemy decreased from 62% in 2009 to 9% in 2017). This cannot be said about the Baltic republics, the hostility towards them has weakened over the same period, but nevertheless it remains approximately at the same level (as for Latvia: from 49% in 2005 to 23-25% in 2014-2017, as for Lithuania: from 42% to the same 24%, as for Estonia: from 60% in 2007 to 16% in 2017). (Fig. 12-14)

Signs of the return of the Putin regime to the institutional practices of the late USSR lie not only in the propensities of the ruling "class" in the preservation of the existing order similar to the late Brezhnev "stagnation", characterized by militarism, military and political adventures, support for leftist "revolutionist" or anti-Western movements in Europe and Latin America. The new ideology of "state patriotism" provides the masses with a narcotic sense of pride, their national exclusiveness and superiority, their belief in the leader, which, at least in part, compensates for the lack of economic growth and declining incomes. Illusions are the most durable material of the construction of despotism or dictatorship; they do not need substantiation, practical confirmation and argumentation if people are ready and want to believe in ennobling deception.

It is not yet possible to talk about a complete process of restoring totalitarianism, it is more about symptomatology of the reverse process. Anti-Western rhetoric is not able to completely destroy the importance of Western values (associated with modern culture, civilization, consumption), I think that it can only read about their temporary weakening (or bracketing). There are no other values for the development of the country, no ideas about the desired future of the society, except for the Western ones. Therefore, despite all the confrontation, most Russians have a desire to "normalize" relations with the world of developed countries, a willingness to approve any steps to ease confrontation and tensions in relations between Russia and the United States or the EU.

What can be expected after the election? There are several scenarios for the further development of the Putin regime:

1. Domestic policy - strengthening of repression against independent non-commercial organizations, opposition, tightening of censorship, persecution of opposition and regime critics, increase in expenses for modernization of armed forces; this is the most likely, in the opinion of most Russian experts, an inertial version of the upcoming governing. There is no reason to believe that V. Putin, having been sanctioned by the majority, will venture radical institutional reforms, as many politicians believe and hope (e.g., A. Kudrin). For his regime, democratic changes would be political suicide and completely contrary to his ideology and way of thinking. The current course, I believe, will continue with some minimal amendments. Any reforms in Russia can be conducted in conditions when the dictator is forced to carry them out, under the pressure of circumstances. Today there are no such conditions.

2. Foreign policy: continuation of the policy of confrontation with the leading world countries, blackmailing and provoking regional conflicts, maintaining chronic instability and tensions in Ukraine, the Middle East, attempts at secession and support for the right-wing, anti-democratic forces and movements in Europe; At the same time, the possibilities will be sought for easing sanctions, and breaking the increasing isolation of the regime. The Kremlin is ready for bargaining, but with mandatory condition of the preservation of the positions gained by the Kremlin, consideration of its claims to influence and participation in solving world problems. It is extremely important for V. Putin to maintain the significance of the symbolic status of the Great Power as the basis of its legitimacy.

3. But these assumptions are based on the premise that the current conditions are unchanged. The situation can dramatically change in two cases: a) the emergence of a new global economic crisis will have a much greater impact on Russia's weak economy than on the economies of other developed countries; a sharp or very long decline in the standard of living of the Russian population will undermine V. Putin's legitimacy; b) the unpredictable development of an accidental local conflict in a serious confrontation between Russia and the West would lead to a military and diplomatic defeat of Russia, which would have the most negative impact on the legitimacy and support of the regime.

4. In both cases - the weakening of legitimacy due to the prolonged decline in daily consumption or the hopes for an increase in the standard of living, military failure - it would be enough for any particular reason to play the role of a trigger for irreversible processes of regime erosion and its collapse. This could be a major technological or social disaster, or even some event, which would be sharply reacted to by public opinion. The development of events can become quick and uncontrolled only if it is accompanied by a split and weakening of the unity of the ruling groups that V. Putin is doing his best to prevent, by intensifying repressions against the top echelon of the leadership, as the growing trials against the elite show.



¹ I point out only one fact: from summer of 2017 to February 2018, more than 150 searches were held in Anti-Corruption Foundation premises, during which information materials, computers and other equipment were confiscated. The activists of A. Navalny were systematically arrested for a period from 15 to 30 days.

² Only once in the history of Russia the turnout was above 70%: in summer 1991, during the presidential election of Boris Yeltsin (almost 75%). Official data from the ballot paper processing complexes (devices for automatic reading and counting of ballots) reported two hours after the closure of the polling stations a turnout of 59.9% and 72% of the votes cast for V. Putin, which seemed very plausible and close to the pre-election polls. But a few hours after the "finalized manual ballot counting" the turnout rose to the final 67.5% and 77.6% of the votes cast for V. Putin. In addition, the total number of citizens of the Russian Federation included in the voters list changed during the day - it increased by 1.5 million votes.

³ The parameters of this compulsion cannot be determined due to multiple distortions of official data. The post-election poll conducted on 23-27 March by the Levada Centre showed that the data as for the participation of respondents in voting were 9% inflated compared to the Central Election Comission figures (76% of respondents said that they voted on 18 March). This figure can be viewed not so much as an indicator of the fear of the people, but as their habitual opportunism and the reflection of the administrative power of the authoritarian regime.

 О.Филина. Все за одно. На прошедших выборах власть отработала новые технологии мобилизации населения.  // Ogonek, № 11, 26 March, 2018, pp. 14-15.



* Information about the author:

Lev Gudkov - Director, Yury Levada Analytical Centre, Russia.

The article is prepared on the basis of address at the International Conference  «Presidential Elections in Russia: Conclusions and Forecasts».




23.04.2018 18:00:00