This article has been translated into English from Russian by Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI.
On March 18, a significant number of Russian voters will go to the polls with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they want to vote for Putin—at least out of habit—but they are not very happy with the idea that Putin’s reelection means nothing will change in their lives for the subsequent six years. On the other hand, they are afraid to vote against Putin because they think that without him everything will come crashing down in Russia.
Formally, the president’s ratings remain as high as they were three years ago when Putin’s popularity increased to an all-time high after Crimea. However, data from focus groups show that people are far less enthusiastic now. The standard of living continues to decrease, and the system continues to benefit the rich at the expense of the masses. This discontent is not yet political; however, the voters just want something in their lives to change for the better. Paradoxically, they are also deathly afraid of change. This is mostly because the memory of the traumatic experiences from economic restructuring and reforms of the 1990s is still fresh in their minds. The Kremlin has run a successful propaganda campaign promoting and exacerbating this fear, instilling in the Russian voters the idea that change does not lead to an improvement of the situation, but rather to its deterioration.
Putin, of course, will win. But the votes he receives will be mainly driven by negative emotions. His victory will be based not so much on the voters’ faith in the future, but on their fear of the future. In such election campaigns, regimes rarely come out strong. Usually, fatigue and disappointment end up dominating the atmosphere.
Putin could change all of this. In order to do so, it would be enough for him to say that his next presidential term would be radically different from the previous one in that the government’s focus will shift from foreign policy to domestic policy. He could say that the central task of his third presidency—strengthening Russia’s image in the world—is now successfully fulfilled. Putin could tell the Russian people that going forward the world will not ignore Russia’s international interests; therefore, immediately after the election, the government will focus on domestic policy—reforming the economy and addressing social issues. He could tell his voters that moving forward his goal will be to improve the living standards of the Russian population. If the Kremlin announced that in the upcoming election Russians would be, in fact, voting for Putin’s new domestic focus, it would see an overwhelming voter support for such a re-arrangement of priorities, and the voter turnout would not have to be enforced through administrative measures. Russians would start to line up in the polling stations early in the morning, and a burst of universal enthusiasm would even put the organizers of Stalin’s first Piatiletka (five-year plan) to shame. Why won’t Putin do this? Because the Russian economy is deteriorating and he knows that there are no great prospects for its future. Putin knows that he must make some unpopular reforms, like raising the retirement age and abolishing certain social benefits. Putin cannot afford to create overly high expectations for the people of Russia because it does not play into his personal long game.
With the election less than a week away, Putin and all of Russia understand that they must move past the election and its results as soon as it is over. Probably, this is the best thing they can do in the current situation.
Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a political consultant in Russia, and comments on Russian domestic policy in Moscow’s leading daily newspapers as a political scientist. Mr. Gallyamov previously held the position of deputy head of the Rustem Khamitov administration in Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia