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Chasing Putin: Russia’s Pro-Democracy Parties and the Presidential Election

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by Gordon M. Hahn
Long-standing Russian President Vladimir Putin will win Russia’s presidential election by a landslide, garnering some 70 percent of the vote. Democratic candidates are likely to finish behind the main communist candidate Pavel Grudinin and the tired populist-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii. They might outdistance the equally tired nationalist Sergei Baburin. The pro-democracy forces’ poor showing is in part a result of their fecklessness and internecine warfare. What is wrong with Russia’s democrats and what could the democrats have accomplished in this less than balanced playing field of Russian presidential elections? What are the potential costs of continued failure?
It’s worth starting the answer with Aleksei Navalnyi’s call for a boycott of the elections. Since almost only pro-democracy voters are likely to follow Navalnyi’s advice and since he is the most popular democratic leader but was not allowed to run for a past, dubious criminal conviction, the boycott hits only the democratic vote and hits it hard. The registered democratic candidates – Grigorii Yavlinskii and Ksneiya Sobchak – are both flawed. Y, who would probably make a fine president, is ‘old school’ who will not appeal to democrats in any significant numbers, especially young voters. He founded and is the real leader of the liberal Yabloko Party founded in the early 1990s, and he has run for the Russian presidency several times, garnering few votes.
Sobchak is the democratic candidate who appeals to younger liberals. Although she has at times impressed in debates and interviews, she lacks experience while possessing major personal baggage in the form of a very public ‘glamorous’, scandalous, and hedonistic youth, not popular outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Moreover, many democrats believe she has been put up to running by the Kremlin, given her family’s historical ties to Putin, who served as deputy, then first deputy mayor of St. Petersburg Anatolii Sobchak, her father. Sobchak and her mother have defended Putin against those who claim that Putin had Anatolii assassinated in February 2000. (The dubious nature of this charge lies in the fact that Putin was planning to appoint Sobchak to a high post upon being elected president months later, as numerous sources, including Sobchak himself, attested to.
As I have written about numerous times, the democratic opposition continuously eats its own through mutual recriminations, cut-throat competition and a general failure to unite forces against the Kremlin. As a result, neither Yavlinskii nor Sobchak will get more than 2-3 percent of the vote. Perhaps neither will break more than 1 percent.
Given that winning or even forcing Putin into a runoff round were impossible goals for the democratic opposition, what could the democrats have accomplished in the presidential vote?
First, they could have finally united around a single candidate to put forward for registration by conducting a primary. Then the Kremlin would have been faced with a dilemma. It seeks the image of a free and fair vote and for that it needs the participation of democratic candidates. But by denying registration to the most popular democrat, Navalnyi, and allowing two lesser democratic figures to run, it has been able to ensure that no democratic candidate stands out from the crowd of losers. This can only demoralize the pro-democracy or liberal voter. If the democrats had put forward a single candidate — likely Navalnyi would have won such a primary — the Kremlin would have been forced to delegitimize its presidential election by conducting it without a candidate for the democratic wing of Russian politics.
Second, if the Kremlin did allow Navalnyi or another democrat to run, then the liberal opposition should have done everything possible to mobilize the liberal vote it his/her favor in order to set up a more encouraging environment for democratic voters for the upcoming Moscow mayoral election scheduled for later this year. That election could have ‘set up’ the democrats for the 2021 Duma elections which will be a prelude to the 2024 presidential election, in which the system is likely to face a crisis since Putin cannot constitutionally at least run for a third term in a row. It has no successor in line and Putin’s choice for the interregnum presidential term in 2008-2012 has been discredited by corruption charges, less than sterling economic performance, and a generally declining leadership image since the Libyan crisis and Putin’s return to the presidency.    In connection with the 2013 Moscow mayoral election it is important to recall that pro-Kremlin Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin just barely escaped a runoff round in the election, garnering just 51 percent of the vote, because when  was able Navalnyi win 29 percent of the vote. This would have been the first serious blow delivered to the Kremlin at the polls since Putin became president.
Third, with Putin aging and the unconstitutionality of his running for a third consecutive term, the Kremlin could be facing a grave crisis in 2023-2024. If the regime should meltdown in circumstances where the democratic societal opposition is weak, then system liberals will have no chance of forestalling a hardline takeover of power or even an ultranationalist revolution of the kind that is occurring in Ukraine. Such an ultra-nationalist Russian regime in cahoots with criminal elements and rogue regimes will sow real chaos the world over, with a new nuclear arsenal and other materials and means of mass destruction up for sale to the highest anti-American bidder. Good luck with that.
On the other hand, a strong democratic opposition in society can buttress system liberals who might be able to convince Putin to step down and support a negotiated transition to democracy under guarantees for his future freedom and a comfortable retirement. Otherwise, Russian history tells us that a vacuum of power atop the system is more likely than not to lead to a palace coup and, in present circumstances of external encirclement by NATO, the rise of a harsh anti-Western regime. For these reasons, strengthening Russia’s democrats, especially the moderate wing that includes both system and opposition liberals, is vitally important for both Russia’s and the world’s future.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California,
Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.
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. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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