Monday, March 19, 2018

‘One of the Strangest Russian Presidential Campaigns Ever’ Finally Ends

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – Tomorrow, Russians will go to vote after what Yekaterinburg commentator Aleksey Shaburov says has been “one of the strangest Russian presidential campaigns” ever, a campaign that was about mobilization rather than choice, suppression of differences of opinion rather than their clarification, and a failure to talk about the future.

            The Yekaterinburg commentator says that even before the results are tabulated, there were three features of these elections that defined them and their likely impact on Russia’s future, features perhaps never entirely absent in earlier campaigns but that have defined the one just concluded (

            First, from day one it was clear to everyone that Vladimir Putin would win if he wanted to. What mattered was not that outcome but rather the level of participation because this election was all about the ability of the regime to mobilize the population, something measured by participation rather than by the share of votes cast for this or that candidate.

            That was shown by the enormous and striking difference between the amount of money and effort the authorities devoted to getting people to turn out to vote as compared to that devoted to getting them to vote for Putin. “Was participation really more important for the authorities than the results? Of course not.”

            But the goal of the campaign was mobilization because that provides a measure of the capacity of the Putin regime not just to get people to come to the polls but its ability to get them to act.  This “transformation of the elections into a mobilization campaign is not a good signal because it deprives elections of their proper function and makes other things possible.

            Second, elections are supposed to be the occasion for contesting points of view, for challenging the positions of those in power by those outside. But the campaign just concluded almost completely eliminated that possibility for within system protests that could help both the incumbents and the opposition know better where the population is and how to proceed.

            “All the concerns that the elections would lead to a growth in protest attitudes and to the exacerbation of contradictions in society turned out to be for naught,” Shaburov says. One need not restrict this to political protests but rather to enlarge it social ones because there are many social problems in Russia that should have given rise to protest. That didn’t happen.

            “The only significant protests during this time were connected with ecology,” with concerns about trash disposal. “But ecological protest by definition is local and therefore it is not appropriate to talk about its national dimensions.”  A major reason for the absence of protests is the opposition candidates did not encourage them lest they be accused of “’rocking the boat.’”

            Even Aleksey Navalny, who wasn’t allowed to be a candidate, did not make use of his efforts to stimulate protest attitudes.  He focused instead on promoting a boycott, that is, on demobilizing the population rather than mobilizing it against the authorities, according to Shaburov.

             If this absence of protests was very useful for the authorities, the commentator says, “it was not for society. Elections are the best means of talking about all-national problems, finding ways for their resolution or at least raising them at the level of the entire country. But nothing like that happened;” and it is difficult to foresee when it will.

            And third, this election produced no model for the future even though many had expected Putin to declare his intentions.  But he did not. “Moreoveer, Putin didn’t even present his own pre-election program.”  Putin himself became the image of the future, not any specific policies. In that sense, the campaign reinforced the notion that “if there is Putin, there is Russia.”

What these three things mean, Shaburov argues, is that this non-campaign campaign isn’t going to be remembered for very long.  Instead, Russians will immediately start thinking about the 2024 elections “if of course they in fact will take place.”

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