What Russians want

These elections were far from fair, but Putin remains popular with the public.

Mary Dejevsky

Topics Politics World

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Let’s start with the figures – the official Russian figures. In last week’s election, Vladimir Putin cruised to his fifth six-year term as president, with exit polls giving him 87 per cent of the vote, on a turnout of 77 per cent. Both scores are substantially higher than in the 2018 election (at 77 and 67.5 per cent respectively). Of the three other main parties on the ballot paper, none polled above five per cent. The Communist candidate came second, a low-key ‘peace’ candidate came third and the heir to the late Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist Liberal Democrat Party came fourth.

Russian state-media commentators hailed the result as a big victory and confirmation that Putin was on the right track. Putin made a brief speech at a lavish victory rally on Sunday. He followed that up with a half-hour press conference, by which time it was after midnight in Moscow. He repeatedly thanked Russian voters for their show of trust and support, promising to deliver on the pledges he had made in his state-of-the-nation address two weeks before – mainly about living standards and infrastructure projects. Top of his promises, though, was a successful conclusion to the ‘special military operation’ – ie, the war in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Western leaders have described the election as either rigged or illegitimate – largely on the basis that it had also been held in the occupied regions of Ukraine and that anti-war and pro-Western opposition figures had been barred. Western media agonised over whether the words ‘election’ and ‘victory’ should be enclosed in inverted commas. Much was made of protests at some Russian polling stations, but mostly abroad, and what was said to be the overwhelming anti-Putin vote among expatriate Russians casting their ballots outside the country. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky gave an excoriating condemnation of Putin, who he damned as ‘sick for power’.

Looking at both the Western coverage and how the election was being presented to Russians, I have to conclude that the gulf is wider than it has ever been. Here we can see two diametrically opposed, parallel perceptions and parallel worlds. The only – and not insignificant – point of convergence has been a grudging acceptance on the Western side that Putin is going to be the Russian leader that the West will have to deal with in the coming months, if not years.

Now that it is all over, there are two main conclusions I would draw. The first is about the validity of these elections. Two apparently contradictory things can both be true. Russia’s presidential election was illegitimate in that it was held not just within Russia’s internationally recognised borders, but also in part of someone else’s country – in illegally occupied territory in Ukraine. It was also a sham in that there was no real anti-regime opposition. An anti-war candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, was barred on a spurious technicality. Other leading political opposition figures were in exile or in prison. Most infamously, Alexei Navalny died in an Arctic prison camp last month.

But it is worth remembering that anti-regime, mostly Western-orientated opposition figures command little support in today’s Russia, and that is nothing new. There is genuine grassroots support for Putin, which has only grown in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Partly, this is due to the Kremlin’s projection of a beleaguered Russian nation fighting a ‘defensive’ battle. But the war has also led to the departure of many young people either opposed to the war or fearing conscription.

Putin would have won easily even if the most variegated opposition had been permitted to field candidates. For any other result, the whole system would have to change. Certainly, the Kremlin used all the means at its disposal to secure the result it wanted. It controls the media, for one thing. Turnout was encouraged by holding the proceedings over three days and facilitating e-voting in about a third of Russia’s regions. But what are called in Russian ‘administrative resources’ (aka the advantages of incumbency) are hardly unique to Russian elections.

There is a reasonable argument to be made that the West, primarily the English-speaking West, actually strengthened Putin’s position by trying, and failing, to isolate and impoverish Russia after the February 2022 invasion. By helping to create a climate of Russia against the rest, it only helped boost Putin’s vote.

Similarly, the form of the protest devised by the late Navalny and others risked rebounding. ‘Noon against Putin’, organised by Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was designed to overwhelm polling stations at midday on the last day of voting. This may have gone down well in the West, where the theatre of protest outside Russian embassies abroad confirmed the preconception that Putin is unpopular. And it will have emboldened some already brave Russians to join largely silent protests in Russia itself. But the official Russian media presented the sudden queues to vote as evidence of enthusiastic engagement in the political process. Putin, too, capitalised on the spectacle, putting it down to his eve-of-poll appeal to people to vote.

The election result was largely as foretold, although probably better for Putin than he might have feared. Low turnout had clearly been a concern, as had security. Despite the best efforts of Ukraine to disrupt life with incursions, as well as drone and missile attacks in the border areas, the election largely passed off smoothly, albeit with heightened precautions in some regions.

Then, though, we come to Putin’s post-election remarks, in what was – for him – a short victory speech and a subsequent, apparently unscripted, press conference. Here, there were notably kind words for China and the two countries’ burgeoning relations in the past two years. There was undisguised frustration with what Putin clearly saw as the politicking of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his suggestion that France and other EU countries might send troops to Ukraine (beyond the trainers and special forces already there).

Putin also made his first mention of Navalny by name, describing his death as ‘sad’, but ‘that’s life’. He confirmed that, a few days before Navalny died, he had been told of a plan to free him to a Western country in return for a Russian agent. He also said he approved this prisoner exchange, on condition that Navalny never return to Russia.

Most striking to a Russian audience, however, might have been his repeated thanks to Russian citizens, his stress on the result as a show of trust and support, and his insistence that he would do his utmost to fulfil Russian hopes. He insisted that he was willing to engage in talks with Ukraine about a ceasefire, but only if the other party to the talks was going to be ‘serious’ – an answer meaning, essentially, not with Zelensky. A questioner then invited him to contrast his own new electoral mandate with Zelensky’s cancellation of scheduled presidential elections – an entirely legal move, given Ukraine’s state of martial law.

Any policy changes, Putin made clear, were far more likely at home than abroad, and at home only with a view to achieving ‘the tasks ahead’ – to which end, there could be personnel changes in his administration, but not immediately. One of those changes, he hinted, could be at the top of the central bank, a position he mentioned twice, even as he said he was entirely satisfied with the performance of its head, who is widely acknowledged to have done a remarkable job in highly unusual and difficult circumstances.

Any reshuffle, however, will be for the coming weeks. Only then will we, and Russia’s voters, see the first signs of where a Putin fifth term might be heading.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

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