Two months before Russians go to the polls for the country’s seventh presidential election, the news reports could already be written in advance. Barring an act of God, Vladimir Putin will be elected for a fourth term in office, making him the leader with the longest tenure in executive authority of any of the world’s major powers. Before a single ballot is cast, a majority of the U.S. political establishment will already consider the results of this poll to be illegitimate. No matter the fact of Putin’s genuine base of support in Russia, the ways that the Kremlin has managed the election process and the inevitable gap that will emerge between actual voter turnout and number of votes cast for Putin with the published results—especially if the target of 70 percent turnout/70 percent in favor of Putin is reached amidst reports that some degree of fine-tuning was required to meet these goals—will be cited to deny that Putin has any popular mandate to continue to govern. So the election will solve nothing: those in the Russian elite who believe that Americans (and some Europeans) must concede the “reality” of Putin and start doing business with the Kremlin will be disappointed. Also, those in the West who maintain that all anyone needs to do is wait for the inevitable color revolution to depose Putin, that in turn will solve all the outstanding issues that have led to the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West.
So, on March 19, 2018, nothing will have changed. But the two looming problems that the election will not solve will still be there.
First, to the extent we can speak of something called “Putinism,” its narrative is running on empty. In Putin’s first term (2000–2004), he was the emergency man called to take the helm of Russia and stop its slide into catastrophe. The second term was marked by the theme of rebuilding and reconstructing what had been lost during the disasters of the 1990s. During the period of the tandem with Medvedev, the erstwhile emphasis on modernization was replaced with an anti-crisis approach, to safeguard Russia from the vicissitudes of the global recession. Putin launched his third term by presenting a vision of securing Russia’s place in the world as the Eurasian pole of power, an effort that has faltered as the Eurasian Union has underperformed but even more so because of the Ukrainian crisis. There doesn’t seem to be an overarching, compelling, captivating vision for the fourth term, other than the slogan “A strong president for a strong Russia.” Indeed, it is fascinating that several of the candidates running in March’s election, especially Boris Titov, representing the old “Right Cause” (now the Party of Growth) and to a lesser extent the new face of the Russian Communists, Pavel Grudinin, replacing the old perennial stalwart Gennday Zyuganov, do not expect to win election but are using the campaign to push their respective pro-privatization and anti-globalization programs, in an effort to influence the direction the Russian government will take in the coming years. Even Ksenia Sobchak’s campaign is bringing issues into the public realm—and her ability to pose a question in her capacity as a reporter to Putin at December’s marathon press conference was seen as a signal that, even if she is not expected to win, her candidacy is part of the necessary process to consider what happens to Russian politics after Putin retires or departs from this mortal realm.