With the expulsion of the Russian diplomats by the UK, the U.S. and some European countries, President Vladimir Putin’s ranking among Russians remains robust and high. Paradoxically, the Western pressure on the Russian leader contributed to his landslide victory during the presidential race and increased the voter turnout. In this hostile environment, Russians don’t see alternatives to the current President.
On March 26, the U.S. and a number of European countries expelled Russian diplomats to support the UK in its campaign against the Kremlin over the accusations of poisoning a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on the British soil. Oddly enough, this Western solidarity against President Vladimir Putin only bolsters his popularity among Russians. Partly thanks to U.S. and EU pressure on Russia, Putin won the March 18 elections with a comparably high voter turnout.
Nevertheless, on March 26, the Mikhail Khdodorkovsky-funded opposition movement Open Russia recognized the Russian presidential election as dishonest and illegitimate. Russia’s Central Election Commission thinks otherwise: It confirmed the results of the presidential elections and announced the victory of Putin on March 23.
In fact, one could predict this outcome long before the voting day. Experts and observers expected fraud and manipulations during the elections. They believed that Putin’s ranking could worsen, with the low voter turnout being inevitable. The opposition expected new protests and a boycott amidst the elections. But these forecasts didn’t come true.
According to the Central Election Commission, the turnout was about 68%, which is pretty high. Putin got almost 77% of votes. However, the opposition accused the authorities of vote rigging and using the administrative resources to influence the results of the campaign. And electoral fraud might indeed have taken place: Observers detected the facts of electoral fraud in some regions. Yet this doesn’t necessarily mean that Putin doesn’t enjoy the support of most Russians.
Of course, the President was interested in such landslide victory and high turnout and naturally it encouraged Russian regional authorities to show off their loyalty to him. Some regions of the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan), Mordovia, Tatarstan had abnormally high turnout that was close to 90-100%. This might be the result of vote rigging. Yet denying the fact that Putin won the campaign with the high voter turnout would be wrong.
Many Russians went to the polling stations, because they strongly believed that Russia was in the state of a “besieged fortress”: Voting for Putin was their response to the Western pressure on Russia. In fact, the Kremlin’s head succeeded in mobilizing Russians amidst Russophobic sentiments in the U.S. and the EU.
Judge for yourself: Russian athletes were banned from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea because of the doping scandal. Yet an ordinary Russian is hardly likely to go deeper to understand the real reasons of Russia’s disqualification from the Games. He or she would rather point fingers at the West and asks other questions: “Don’t Americans and Europeans use banned performance-enhancing drugs?”, “Why does the West humiliate our country? Is this because Russia got the most Olympic medals in 2014?” This is the logic of an average Russian, who supports Putin.
The same situation is around the Skripal case. London accuses the Kremlin of poisoning the former Russian spy and his daughter and expels 23 Russian diplomats from the UK. Other Western countries support this move. On March 26, U.S. President deports 60 Russians and closes the Russian consulate in Seattle. Again, an average Russian sees this moves as a well-coordinated plot against his or her country.
Likewise, the Western pressure on Moscow (American and European sanctions, the U.S. investigation into the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the American domestic affairs) brought together Russians around Putin. But this is not the only reason why Putin won in the presidential elections. Most Russians support Putin because he restored the country’s geopolitical clout: He returned Crimea and launched the campaign in Syria.
Putin returned stability to an average Russian, which means regular salaries as well as economic well-being to the middle class. In the 1990s, under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, the population could not enjoy such perks, with salaries delayed for months.
Finally, the Kremlin is flexing its muscles: Putin strengthens the Russian army, shows it military potential in Syria and brags about Russia’s newest nuclear weapons, as indicated by his March 1 Federal Assembly address. All this encourages ordinary Russians to vote for the current president. They don’t see any alternative to him regardless of their frustration with the Russian government in general. This is how the Good Tsar-Bad Boyars scheme works.
Other presidential candidates — such as Communist Pavel Grudinin and liberal Ksenia Sobchak — were too weak and unpopular among the Russian population to compete with Putin. Today, amidst the harsh political and diplomatic confrontation with the West, it is impossible to imagine the situation when a pro-Western candidate wins the elections.
Artem Kureev, columnist.
Photo by kremlin.ru