Russia’s Presidential Election 2018

by Gordon M Hahn

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has still not announced that he will run in the upcoming 18 March 2018 presidential election, there is little doubt that President Vladimir Putin will be running for his second consecutive and overall fourth term. The candidate field is beginning to take shape and has added some intrigue to what is nevertheless still likely to be a rather hum-drum affair, ending in a a first round victory for Putin. Kremlin is putting its ducks in a row, and the only real open question is whether opposition candidates can muster enough votes collectively to force the Kremlin and/or its local minions in governor houses and election commissions in the regions to overplay their hand in terms of the application of administrative resources, ballot stuffing, and fraudulent vote counts and thereby incite protests as occurred in the wake of the December 2011 Duma elections. This prospect raises the potential for the kind of color revolution the Kremlin and others fear.

Some are under the mistaken impression that Putin “is dragging out his entrance to the presidential campaign” (http://carnegie.ru/commentary/74661). In reality, as of now, Putin is ‘on schedule.’ The announcement is likely to come at or around his annual marathon press conference on December 14. This would be in line with the timing of the four previous Kremlin presidential candidate announcements, which have occurred in December and 80-90 days before election day. The outlier being the 24 September 2011

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ELECTION DATE        ANNOUNCEMENT DATE         TIME DIFFERENCE

March 26, 2000             December 31, 1999                            85 days

March 14, 2004             December 18, 2003                            86 days

March 2, 2008               December 10, 2007                            82 days 

March 4, 2012               September 24, 2011                         156 days

March 18, 2018             December 14, 2017?                          94 days

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announcement that then PM Putin, not first-term president Medvedev, would run for the presidency in the 4 March 2012 election. This much earlier announcement was in part necessitated by the unique circumstance of Putin pushing Medvedev aside from a second term, something which risked unbalancing the system by alienating liberal regime members and angering liberals in society at large evidenced by the demonstrations months later in the wake of the December 2011 Duma elections.

The presidential election next year is scheduled to take place approximately just two weeks later – on 18 March – than the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and a week earlier than the pivotal 2000 presidential vote that first elected Putin to the presidency. That was a rather short turnaround, give the succession to Yeltsin, but one negotiated more easily by Putin’s having held the PM’s post since September 1999 and Yeltsin’s unpopularity by that time. It would be imprudent to leave so little time before the election in the very unlikely event that Putin decides not to run. Such a scenario would require a time line similar to 2011 in order to allow sufficient time for building up the replacement candidate’s reputation and image. There are simply no signs anyone is being groomed, no new faces on media suddenly getting significant air time, no major administrative or cadre shifts at the top ranks, except for the low profile presidential administration chief and deputy chief, Anton Vaino and Sergei Kirienko, respectively. Opposition leader Aleksei Navalnyi’s relatively recent expose’ of PM Dmitrii Medvedev’s expensive and luxurious lifestyle and holdings secured through family and friends, the possibility that some of the material for the expose’ was leaked to Navalnyi from Kremlin hardliners around RosNeft chief Igor Sechin trying to challenge Medvedev for the premiership in the next Putin term, and the lack of any state media or other form of campaign promoting Medvedev all suggest another ‘castling’ move like that made in 2007-08 is not being considered.* In 2007, the announcement that Medvedev would be running for the presidency in 2008 came on December 10th, just 82 days before the 2 March 2008 election. But any tremors that decision might have caused were absorbed by the expectation that Putin would not violate the constitution to run reinforced by his own statements to that effect.

This time the logic of the more typical but short turnaround may be to keep the campaign as short as possible to avoid any unexpected developments domestically or, more likely, internationally that could upset the Kremlin’s apple cart.

The Emerging Field

The candidate field is beginning to take shape and has added some intrigue to what is nevertheless still likely to be a rather hum-drum affair, ending in a a first round victory for Putin. The ‘left’ flank of the presidential field is adding all the intrigue thus far and could make the election slightly more interesting than might otherwise have been expected. The opposition candidates that the Kremlin is most likely to allow to register and run are Kseniya Sobchak, Boris Titov, and Grigorii Yavlinskii. The one that has sparked the most interest but which might have the least tangible effect on the percentage of votes garnered by Putin is Kseniya Sobchak’s decision to run as a candidate ostensibly ‘against everyone’. Sobchak is the daughter of Putin’s one-time mentor, the pro-democratic mayor of St. Petersburg in the last year or so of perestroika until 1996, whom Putin served with as deputy mayor. It still remains unclear what Sobchak’s slogan means precisely and what her program is. More importantly, it remains unclear how many votes she might take away from other democratic opposition leaders, such as those Alexei Navalny might garner if he were allowed to run, something that is unlikely given his conviction on trumped up corruption charges.

Many believe that Sobchak has been put forward or at least been given the green light to run by the Kremlin. The latter is possible, as she claims to have told Putin she would run and Putin has not denied it. There can be little doubt that her candidacy will reduce votes for other staunch pro-democracy candidates, like Yabloko Party candidate Grigorii Yavlinskii, who unlike Navalnyi will likely be registered as a candidate. But the main reason Sobchak will be allowed to proceed is that she is likely to boost turnout by increasing the youth vote, adding legitimacy to Putin’s victory. This and the possibility of Kremlin acquiescence in her run is supported by Sobchak’s recent and unprecedented appearance on state television a week ago on the ‘Russia’ channel’s popular political talk show ‘Nightime with Vladimir Solov’ev’. That she received some 50 minutes of brutal, albeit, airtime one-on-one with an even more aggressive than usual, albeit, Solov’ev is far from typical for such an outspoken democratic opposition figure (http://russia.tv/video/show/brand_id/21385/episode_id/1568166/video_id/1701904/).

Given Putin’s not fully estranged relationship with the Sobchak family, Sobchak’s rise in the ranks of the opposition, which she parlay through a presidential campaign perceived as relatively successful like Navalnyi’s Moscow mayoral run, could be beneficial to Putin should a strong opposition movement emerge and threaten the regime forcing him to seek an exit from power. Sobchak is positioning herself as a more moderate force for change than the “revolutionary” Navalnyi, as Sobchak described him in a recent Ekho Moskvy interview (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/a_team/2096030-echo/).

Another interesting candidate seeking registration is from the conservative pro-democracy pro-market wing: Russian presidential ombudsman for small and medium-sized business, leader of the Party for Growth, and Director of the Stolypin Club, Boris Titov. We might look at Titov as the candidate who follows in line with the legacy of Imperial Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin to which Putin seemed set to adhere in the early 2000s (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/09/14/putin-is-no-stolypin/). Titov’s declaration of his candidacy emphasized maintaining political stability while liberalizing and growing the economy in order to democratize upon achieving a certain level of economic development on the Stolypin or Singaporean model. Titov is a proponent of even a more moderate approach to regime transformation than is Sobchak. Whereas Sobchak hopes to head an opposition movement that could pressure Putin to leave power and would be willing to negotiate Putin’s extrication from power, Titov seeks an transition to democracy slowly imposed from above preceded by a medium-term period of socioeconomic development. He centered his announcement and is centering his campaign around the Stolypin Club’s proposed economic program for the mid-term (www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2017/11/26/743014-boris-titov-rossiya-pora-predprinimat-predprinimat). The program emphasizes stimulating higher growth rates through targeted increases in government spending, a less stringent monetary policy, and tax reforms (http://stolypin.institute/strategy/#strategiya and http://stolypin.institute/institute/boris-titov-predstavil-strategiyu-rosta-na-rossiysko-britanskom-biznes-forume-v-londone/).

There was good timing in Titov’s announcement as inflation is low, so there is room for more money in circulation, and as it appeared increasingly unlikely that growth for 2017 will attain the government’s promised 2 percent. The IMF and Russian Central Bank project 1.8 percent growth, and the European Commission expects 1.7 percent. Under no illusion he can win the presidency, Titov is preparing his party for Duma and lower-level elections by running and may be positioning himself to be appointed Prime Minister or Economic and Trade Minister in the government to be appointed after the election. Indeed, Prime Minister Medvedev appeared to be coopting one of Titov’s key proposals – the creation of a Administration for Growth in the government to coordinate implementation of administrative reforms and measures for driving economic growth (http://stolypin.institute/smi-o-nas/premer-ministr-dmitrij-medvedev-poruchil-prorabotat-sozdanie-shtaba-reform-administracii-rosta/).

Kremlin is putting its ducks in a row, and Putin is not only unlikely to be defeated no less pushed into a runoff.  The only real open questions are which opposition candidates the Kremlin will allow to run and whether opposition candidates can muster enough votes collectively to change the political landscape. The Kremlin is likely to allow at least one leading pro-democracy candidates to register and run. Navalnyi is most unlikely to be registered.

The opposition can nevertheless change the political landscape by garnering sufficient support to force the Kremlin and/or its local minions in governor houses and election commissions in the regions in seeking to avoid a runoff comfortably to overplay their hand in the application of administrative resources, ballot stuffing, and fraudulent vote counts. This could incite protests as occurred in the wake of the December 2011 Duma elections. Those demonstrations forced the Kremlin to offer a series of electoral reforms making it easier for presidential candidates and political parties to register and thus participate in elections. This prospect raises the potential for the kind of color revolution the Kremlin and many others in Russia and (given the risks that instability poses in a country laden with WMD and related materials) even abroad fear as a consequence of Western democracy-promotion and opposition-support practices in ‘target’ countries with authoritarian regimes.

A pivotal hurdle in the campaign will be the refusal to register Navalnyi as a candidate. This itself could spark demonstrations and change the atmosphere surrounding the elections. Will Navalnyi lend his organizational and party infrastructure to Sobchak, who is being nominated by former Economic and Trade Minister Andrei Nechaev’s Civic Initiative party, or another democratic candidate like Yavlinskii, once his registration is rejected? Will Mikhail Khodorkovskii throw his Open Russia (OR) organizational infrastructure behind Sobchak, as the latter’s visit to the OR in London portends? How might the Kremlin react to such cooperation with an organization allied with and directly plugged into the West and its democracy-promotion (color revolution) networks being directly involved in the presidential election.

The election itself will be a referendum on Putin’s rule and the beginning of the transition to a post-Putin Russia. Therefore, even if a Putin victory is assured, the scale of the victory and the prize for being a spoiler will be important in shaping the context of this final term. That in turn could affect stability inside and outside the regime ruling groups and the Kremlin’s choice of a successor.

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*The ‘castling’ move involved Prime Minister Medvedev running for the presidency with President Putin becoming Prime Minister. With Putin remaining near the top of the pyramid ballast was added to the system, as it placated the desire for stability within the political elite and among various Kremlin-tied clans meaning that they would maintain their access to the state feeding trough.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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About Gordon M. Hahn