Why Russia’s election matters



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By Amelia Nierenberg

Russians begin voting for president today, but there is no suspense about the result: Vladimir Putin, 71, is certain to be declared the overwhelming victor.

The election, which will take place over three days, is held as the war in Ukraine rages on and the Russian opposition tries to turn grief from Aleksei Navalny’s death into momentum to protest Putin. The three other candidates on the ballot do not pose a challenge.

Since he was first appointed in 2000, Putin has consolidated power and changed the constitution to extend his rule. If Putin lasts two more terms, until 2036, he will surpass the 29-year rule of Joseph Stalin.

“This election is a ritual,” Anton Troianovski, our Moscow bureau chief, told me. “It’s a very important ritual to the functioning of Putin’s state and system of power. But you also shouldn’t expect it to change all that much.”

Here’s more from my conversation with Anton.

What is Russia trying to accomplish with this election?

Anton: The goal is to bestow a new degree of public legitimacy on Putin for his fifth term — and, very importantly, to portray Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as having overwhelming public support.

russiaThe Kremlin has always used these elections — even though they are not free and fair — to say that Putin has all this power because all these people support him.

So we expect them to announce, when polls close on Sunday, that there was more than 60 percent turnout — and that more than 70 percent of people voted for Putin. After that, there will probably be a big Putin victory speech.

What is the mood like among Russian voters?

I don’t think anybody is biting their nails awaiting the first exit polls on Sunday night. But where you do see a lot of apprehension is around the question of what happens after the election.

Perhaps the biggest thing that Russians fear is mobilization: another military draft. There was one in September 2022, which set off this exodus of people trying to flee the country. It was the most chaotic time in the country, at large, since the war began. At this point, analysts say it doesn’t seem very likely that that is going to happen. That’s because Russia has the initiative on the battlefield.

But there’s also the issue of repression. Will there be another wave of repression? Of arrests? Of new and repressive laws that are passed after the election? That’s also a possibility.

This election is important for Putin. He needs the show of public approval for him and his war.

How has Aleksei Navalny’s death changed the election?

Navalny’s death simultaneously produced a lot of despair and a lot of hope among Russians who are opposed to Putin.

Aleksei Navalny

Despair, because he was sort of the one figure that people could imagine as the president of a more democratic, post-Putin Russia.

Hope, because there was this tremendous outpouring of grief after he died, including in Russia, where, by many estimates, tens of thousands of people came out to his funeral and to his gravesite in the days after his funeral.

People inside Russia knew that there were many who were opposed to the war, but you almost never saw them display that publicly. His funeral became this message: That there are still critics of Putin, critics of the war inside Russia, who are able to make their voices heard if they see the right occasion to do that.

How do Navalny’s supporters intend to protest this time?

Russia, right now, is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet period. The question is: In this environment, can the Russian opposition still use the election in some way to send a message of dissent?

One of the last things that Navalny published on his Instagram page before he died was a call for a protest at the ballot box on the last day of voting, Sunday, March 17, at noon.

The idea is: There’s no law against going to vote. In fact, the government wants you to vote. And there’s no law against showing up at any given time, either. So why doesn’t everyone who is against Putin and against the war show up at noon on March 17?

Navalny’s team hopes that we’ll see these huge lines and that will show the government how many people are against the war. But turnout is going to be hard to measure, given that Russia has tens of thousands of polling stations. punjab

(Courtesy: www.nytimes.com)

Main pic courtesy: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA, via Shutterstock

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