Vladimir Putin

How Vladimir Putin Engineered Russia’s Longest Rule Since Stalin

Author: Editors Desk Source: Bloomberg
March 4, 2024 at 23:23

WATCH: The power of Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin is on course to win his fifth term as Russia’s president in elections on March 17 that will extend his quarter-century rule and keep him in power until at least 2030. Already Russia’s longest-serving Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Putin faces no serious competition in the election that’s tightly controlled by the Kremlin. He’s extending his rule with Russia’s two-year war in Ukraine showing no sign of ending and as its economy continues to adapt to unprecedented international sanctions.


1. How is he able to run again?

Putin repeatedly insisted he wouldn’t change the constitution in order to keep power. But he did just that in 2020, overhauling the law to reset the presidential clock and allow himself potentially another two terms. That would take him to 2036, when he’d be 83. At the end of his second term in 2008, Putin stood down and installed Dmitry Medvedev as president to comply with term limits, while he continued to run the country as prime minister. This time, with a revised term limit, he has no need for such a maneuver.


2. Who’s running against him?

Only three other candidates will appear on the ballot, all Kremlin-controlled and representing loyal parties in the State Duma lower house of parliament. One of them, Leonid Slutsky, heads the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and is less popular than his late predecessor Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who received less than 6% of the vote in the 2018 election. The Communists are represented by Nikolai Kharitonov, a 75-year-old former Soviet-era collective farm manager who ran against Putin in 2004 and got 14% of the vote. Vladislav Davankov represents the New People, a party created in 2020. Polls in Russia show that none of them have more than 5% support. The ruling United Russia party is backing Putin, though he’s running as an independent candidate, as he did in 2018.


3. Why does Russia even hold an election if the result is pre-determined?

Some of Putin’s most ardent loyalists have argued there’s no need for an election and that he should simply rule for life, even though the constitution requires Russia to hold a vote. But the Kremlin regards the process as conferring an element of legitimacy on Putin, particularly in his relations with foreign leaders, and prefers to engineer a “decisive” victory that it presents as a referendum on his popularity at home. While Putin so far has avoided the 90%-plus margins that some autocrats award themselves in “elections,” critics say much of the vote for him is achieved by pressuring state workers and stuffing ballot boxes. But many Russians, fearful of political upheaval, also say they don’t see any other candidate to vote for and back Putin as a known quantity. The Kremlin ensures no genuine competitor emerges by harshly repressing independent opposition and controlling domestic media.

4. Did anyone else try to challenge Putin?

Yes, several, with Boris Nadezhdin of the Civic Initiative party the most prominent. He declared he was running to end Russia’s war in Ukraine, calling Putin’s invasion a “fatal mistake.” Candidates from non-parliamentary parties had to collect at least 100,000 signatures to qualify, and Russians lined up in freezing temperatures to sign petitions backing Nadezhdin. But the Central Election Commission rejected his candidacy, saying too many signatures were unverified. The Kremlin had seemed ready to allow him on the ballot but in the end was unwilling to risk a protest vote — none of those running against Putin are regarded as genuinely opposed to him. Russia hasn’t invited international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. The OSCE, which concluded the 2018 vote lacked “genuine competition,” said in January that it was “very unfortunate that democratic backsliding has reached such a critical point that we cannot be on the ground to observe” this year’s election.


5. Is the war in Ukraine the main campaign issue?

Yes and no. The Kremlin is determined to cast a Putin re-election as evidence that Russians fully support the war and are united behind his confrontation with the US and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, known as NATO. There’s no room for criticism of the invasion’s enormous cost in lives and destruction. At the same time, officials play down the impact of international sanctions and seek to paint an image of life continually improving under Putin. That’s even as Russia has increasingly been turned into a war economy, with the ruble propped up by capital controls and the government burning through its reserves to support defense spending and businesses. Putin has invoked nostalgia for the Soviet past and imperial sentiment to present himself as defending Russia’s traditional conservative and Orthodox values against a “liberal” West that’s out to destroy them. State media exhaustively cover every regional visit he makes to meet workers in defense factories or at schools and clinics, enabling them to sidestep limits on campaign coverage for individual candidates. Putin takes no part in election debates.

6. What can we expect from the election?

Putin received a record 77% of the national vote in 2018, and anything less this time risks being seen as an electoral snub for Russia’s wartime president. With the result a foregone conclusion and the campaign lacking dynamism, the Kremlin’s biggest worry is getting turnout to at least match the 67.5% reached last time. The death of Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, in an Arctic prison on the eve of the election campaign stirred fresh tensions with the West. The tragedy is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election, though, after years of harsh Kremlin repression of Russia’s opposition movement. Putin will continue to face deep political and military challenges in his new term, with fighting largely at a stalemate on the front line in Ukraine and relations with the US and its allies at a post-Cold War low. He’ll likely continue trying to sow division in the European Union to weaken support for Ukraine, while turning even more to China and the Global South to boost Russia’s economy. Putin will also be closely following the US presidential campaign amid rising Republican opposition to military aid for Ukraine and Republican candidate Donald Trump’s threat to abandon protection of NATO allies that don’t meet spending commitments on defense.

The Reference Shelf

  • This long read examines Putin’s evolution over his quarter-century rule.
  • Big Take on the battlefield in Ukraine.
  • Bloomberg News articles explaining the Wagner mutiny and its impact on Russia’s elite.
  • QuickTake looking at the impact of sanctions on Russia’s economy.
  • A look at Russia’s deepening ties with China.
  • Some Russian polling data.
  • reminder of what happened in the 2018 election.

— With assistance from Anthony Halpin

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