Russian Presidential Elections of 2018: What, Who And Why Should We Care?

By Toma Volozhanina 

Toma is a degree seeking student in JCU from Russia but living in Austria. She is majoring in International Affairs and has a minor in Journalism. Toma is currently doing a semester abroad in New School, in New York. The article has been written for the New School Free Press. Toma in interested in the Middle East and terrorism studies and intent to work in the peace and international security sector in the future. 

 

Since the scandal of the Democrats’ emails leaked, the inauguration of Donald Trump and the New York Times-triggered wave of investigations of numerous bot accounts regularly posting pro-Republican messages on the social networks, Russia has been increasingly accused of clandestine interference in the internal matters of American democracy, using its cyber-potential to denigrate secretary Clinton and affect opinion polls in favor of Putin’s hidden intentions. However, two years ago, the situation seems to have turned the other way round with the Russian Presidential elections coming on March, 18th and now Kremlin expressing concerns over the possibility of Western influence. The presence of such fears of American retaliation is clearly seen in the light of recent National Guard’s pledge to defend the integrity of the process: “We are to take part in protection of more than 93,000 election polls and surrounding areas together with the Interior Ministry and private security companies,” says the Chief of the Office for Public Protection, Alexei Zinin.

In any case, like it or not, Russia possesses huge nuclear capabilities, controls the significant share of world’s fossil fuels and holds a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, which renders her a serious geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Considering the remarkable impact of the possible changes in Russian foreign agenda on the international community per se and the United States, in particular, it is important to understand the general mechanism behind the Russian elections, the strategic objectives sought by the campaigning candidates and the potential consequences of those objectives being implemented. According to the Russian Constitution, the eligibility requirements for one to become a presidential candidate require the permanent residence of at least 10 years and age succeeding 35 years old. The time of service is 6 years after it has been prolonged from 4 years during the Dmitri Medvedev’s term, just before the Vladimir Putin’s return to power. As Article 81 specifies, it is prohibited to stay for more than two consecutive terms and more than four terms overall. This renders Putin unable to hold the office after 2024 if he gets elected this year since he currently serves his third term, having ruled from 2000 through 2008 (two terms) and then from 2012 till now.

6 parties that are presented in the State Duma (Russian Parliament) are unconditionally allowed to name their nominees while the non-parliament parties and independent candidates have to collect at least 100,000 and 300,000 supporting signatures correspondingly to qualify for participation. Even though the Central Election Commission has selected 36 presidential bids out of 70 total requests, which is a new national maximum so far, 11 competitors withdrew and 17 – were dismissed, leaving the final 8 candidates ready to campaign. Despite the undoubted record number of participants, the expectations of electoral turnout for many seem not so promising. According to the survey carried out by the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center in the early February, 80 % of citizens plan to fulfill their civic duties yet this figure is widely questioned by the independent observers. As Grigory Melkoyants, a human rights’ advocate and a head of the newspaper “Citizen’s Voice” says to the Independent, “Even a 60 % turnout would need a number of artificial interventions”. Trying to demonstrate its determination to ensure utmost impartiality of the elections, the Russian government has invited more than 500 OSCE’s experts from Europe for the purposes of the procedural oversight. “We will try to cover the maximum number of both large cities and the countryside,” says Jan Petersen who leads the group.

As saddening as it sounds, regardless of the voting results, there barely is any hope of the Russian government’s abandoning its intense anti-West rhetoric, despite all the diversity of ideologies proposed. With their campaigning promises ranging from extreme left-wing Communism to state-promoted free-market Capitalism, only two candidates, Ksenia Sobchak from the Civil Initiative and Grigory Yavlinsky from Yabloko, advocate for the liberalization of Russian politics and normalization of the, at best, strained relations with the United States – and both quite certainly are not going to win. Socialite, fashionista and former star of reality TV, Ksenia Sobchak, is a newcomer in the Russian politics, having decided to run for the office only in the late December, after the rejection of the initial party’s nominee, Alexei Navalny. Loved by the youth for her egalitarianism and hated by the conservatives for her outright criticism of the traditional belief in Russia’s unique political destiny, Sobchak has no chances of victory yet she can definitely move the masses, leaving nobody indifferent. Viewing Russia as a part of Europe geographically, culturally and historically, Sobchak highlights the need to live according to the Western standards of equal representation, social non-discrimination, and respect for human rights. She intends to tackle gender disparities in employment, combat nepotism, legalize the LGBT marriages, guarantee freedom of speech and opposition, ban state ownership of the media outlets and stop ‘demonization’ of the United States.

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Ksenia Sobchak                                                                               Grigory Yavlinsky

The slogans of Grigory Yavlinsky, one of the veteran Russian politicians and Putin’s rival since 2000, are very reminiscent of Sobchak’s ideas, even though he is not as ‘aggressively’ liberal as his rival. He laments governmental corruption, the unconstitutional omnipotence of the President in the officially parliamentary republic and deliberate incitement of anti-Ukrainian sentiments. Yavlinsky is determined to fully ‘decommunize’ Russia, completely erasing the remnants of the Soviet political footprint and cultural narrative. Both candidates are very non-militarist: they plan to reduce Russian army in size and improve its quality by replacing the obligatory conscription with the voluntarily contract-based service. Similarly to Sobchak, Yavlinsky severely condemns Russian occupation of Crimea and military presence in Syria, believes in the importance of the cooperation with the West on the issues of economic sanctions-free partnership, climate change, and sustainable energy. However, talking of the United States, Yavlinsky fears the North Korean nuclear threat and heavily disapproves Trump’s bullying of Kim Jong-un. For both candidates, social, political and economic difficulties experienced by Russia can all be traced back to the insufficient quality of democratic rule and lack of civic values which renders the revival of democratic institutions necessary precondition for the country’s successful development.

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Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and the oldest candidate in Russian history, is known as ‘Russian Donald Trump’ for his often offensive populist claims and strategy of winning the hearts of the ‘folks’ by the use of simple rude language and emotional expressiveness. Zhirinovsky is fascinated with the might of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union: he plans to replace «the President of Russia» by «Supreme Ruler of Russia», double Russian military forces in size and once again unify all the Soviet republics, using political and economic pressure as a tool of harsh persuasion. He plans to alter Russian constitution, reintroducing death penalty, reduce the Parliament to 200 people and eradicate ethnic differentiation, making Russians the only official nationality in the state. Not surprisingly, he is very suspicious about American intentions and claims to have unveiled a great anti-Russian conspiracy. Zhirinovsky, therefore, intends to cut all the ties with the West, withdrawing $100 billion of “treasury securities” held by Russia in the US, while allying with Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria to ensure the protection of Christian population around the world.

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Pavel Grudinin, the nominee of the Communist Party, the billionaire and the owner of the strawberry kolkhoz (collective farm) in the suburbs of Moscow calls for the implementation of slightly moderated Soviet agenda, investing in the education, developing domestic industry and agriculture, amplifying the productive self-sufficiency of the regions, decreasing the interest rate, providing higher maternity allowances and pensions and reforming the taxation system. Such endorsement of the Soviet achievements is also incorporated in the program of  Baburin, the head of the Russian All-People’s Union Party.

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Baburin urges to decrease the costs of healthcare and medical drugs by state ownership of the pharmaceutical industry, fund vocational training and bridge education and toughen border controls to disrupt the migration flows from South Asia. Both Grudinin and Baburin plan to resist the West, further strengthening Russian army and withdrawing from the WTO to ensure economic independence. For Grudinin, close cooperation with Belarus, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, is especially important, potentially enabling Russia to establish local military bases to counteract the increased presence of NATO forces on its borders. Likewise, Baburin emphasizes the expedience of Russian partnership with the BRIC states to collectively oppose the United States’ geopolitical appetites. Both candidates would economically and militarily patronize the Lugansk and Donetsk National Republics and heavily invest in the Crimean security, heightening the quality of its naval defense systems.

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Maxim Suraykin, a representative of a somewhat marginalized party Communists of Russia follows the similar part yet taking a far more radical stance. With his campaigning program called “10 Stalinist Strikes on Capitalism and American Imperialism”, Suraykin basically seeks to restore all the major Stalin’s policies such as nationalization of industry and collectivization of agriculture, state the monopoly on the sale of alcohol and tobacco goods and reintroduction of the Soviet Labor Code. Definitely unwilling to harmonize the Russian-American dealings,  aims to revive the Warsaw Pact and Socialist sphere of influence. His campaign has been one of the most unpopular political movements in Russia since the time of the last elections.

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Another stranger in Russian politics, not so much denounced as simply unknown is Boris Titov, a current Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneurs’ Rights and a nominee of the center-right conservative party Growth. Mainly focused on the economic side of the question, Titov promises to boost the production output and invigorate the entrepreneurial ambitions of the Russians by providing cheap state loans and creating a highly normative business environment, necessary for the flourishing of a healthy free-market system and inter-firm competition. Even though he is not very precise in his vision of the international issues, Titov disapproves Russia’s over-reliance on the oil revenues and, consequently, dependence on the trade with European states and the US: he hopes to mitigate this problem by developing Russian industry and teaming up with the non-Western economic powers such as China and India.

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The last one but certainly not the least one is Vladimir Putin, an incumbent President of the Russian Federation and independently nominated candidate, who has also been supported by 13 parties, 5 of which are the members of the Parliament. As odd as it sounds, there is almost nothing to say about his campaign, characterized by surprising lack of specificity. Arguing that his first and foremost task is to fulfill the ruling duties, Putin refused to join the presidential debates starting on TV on February, 17th and has not formulated any official statement clarifying his political objectives. Similarly to his rivals, he expressed his willingness to enhance the system of education, focusing on the discovery of the new talents, provide Russians with better and cheaper housing, support domestic entrepreneurs, eradicate corruption and raise Russian science to the level of the ‘megascience’, achieving superiority over the Western states. Putin has also mentioned the need to further consolidate Russia’s position on the international arena, investing in the military forces and inventive potential of the Russian engineers and closely monitoring problems of the ‘Russian world’ which means increased involvement in the politics of the post-Soviet hemisphere. For many, the silence of Putin signals his determination to maintain the existing Cold-War-2.0 attitudes, aggressively opposing the European powers and striving to bash the United States on any issue.

Apart from the fact that most of the Russians feel they already know who will be their President (again), the appearance of a new leader striving to heal the wounds of Russian-American animosity rather than pouring oil on the nationalistic flames is very unlikely. In the best-case scenario, Russia will keep playing the role of US personal bully, reinforcing her political isolation and impeding the prospects of economic partnership. Perhaps, it is time to get used to the new international climate marked by strategic uncertainty, occasional crises and nervous expectations of Global Warning if the escalation of tensions skyrockets. Sorry.

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