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In election season in most countries, a suspected leak from a nuclear facility would become the leading news item. Rival presidential candidates would visit the area, talking to spooked voters and probing the performance of the government.

Yet in Chelyabinsk, the Russian region where a huge radioactive cloud appears to have originated in September, the only hopeful to turn up has been Alexei Navalny, the opposition candidate who is likely to be barred from presidential elections due next March.

At a rally in Chelyabinsk a week ago, Mr Navalny’s assertion that “in a normal country” candidates would have thronged to the town was greeted by the crowd with puzzled silence. “There’s an election campaign going on, right?” Mr Navalny asked. “You don’t feel it, no?”

Indeed, 18 years after Vladimir Putin first became president, attitudes towards the election range from disinterest to cynicism. Most ordinary Russians consider any outcome other than Mr Putin’s victory unthinkable, and the Kremlin’s consultants find it challenging to keep up even the semblance of a competitive race.

Russia elections charts

And yet, the March elections are shaping up as a watershed moment for Russia’s political future. Beneath the surface of the expected Putin victory, there is hectic activity and speculation about the president’s future, about the potential for a constitutional shake-up and even about just how much control Mr Putin really does exert over daily events.

“The question is not whom voters choose to lead the country over the next six years, but rather whether, when and how Putin hands power to a successor,” says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst.

So far, Mr Putin has kept everyone guessing. In drastic contrast to Mr Navalny, who kicked off campaigning nearly a year ago although he will almost certainly be denied official registration as a candidate due to a criminal conviction on what he maintains were trumped-up charges, the president has yet to declare whether he intends to run at all.

“Putin has transited to a different political persona in the course of the past few years,” says Mr Petrov. “He is a vozhd now,” he says, using a term for “leader” that has not been in currency since the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Russian election candidates

Vladimir Zhirinovsky

© AFP

The 71-year-old firebrand nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic party has been a fixture in Russian political life since 1992. Alongside other token opposition parties in the Duma, the party helps ensure that parliament backs the Kremlin’s policies.

Gennady Zyuganov

© AFP

Like Mr Zhirinovsky, Mr Zyuganov has run against Mr Putin twice before and often criticises him, but still acts according to the Kremlin’s interests. Although the 73-year-old announced his candidacy, his Communist party could pick a younger candidate.

Ksenia Sobchak

© AFP

Most Russians know the 36-year-old socialite, daughter of Mr Putin’s former mentor, but many dislike her. The Kremlin views her candidacy favourably as a means to weaken opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s support. But if she is too fiercely critical of Mr Putin, she might be denied registration.

He argues that Mr Putin’s sky-high support ratings are based largely on his prestige as a military commander, earned through geopolitical power games including the annexation of Crimea and the military campaign in Syria.

“It is just impossible to exceed that level of exaltation in an election, so any election result may look like a step down from here,” he adds.

Changing the rules

There is already no shortage of other candidates for the election, including nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and the 36- year-old socialite Ksenia Sobchak. But in the absence of a clear statement of intent from the president, Moscow has been seething with gossip that Mr Putin might arrange for a successor to run in the March poll — either his loyal lieutenant, prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, or one of the little-known former bodyguards to whom he gave provincial governor posts in the past year.

Such a scenario now looks highly unlikely. The Kremlin’s candidate will have to be officially announced in early January at the latest. That leaves no time to launch an alternative candidate. “Putin is just delaying for as long as possible because a short campaign allows him maximum flexibility,” says Alexei Chesnakov, director of the political consulting group Centre for Current Policy and a former Kremlin official.

Russia elections charts

But big changes loom after Mr Putin’s re-election. Both people close to the Kremlin and independent observers believe it will start amending the constitution next year to secure Mr Putin’s long-term future beyond what would be his last term under current rules.

“I am absolutely convinced that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] will not cede power in 2024 either,” Alexei Venediktov, editor of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, wrote on the messaging service Telegram last month. “That means . . . it’s necessary to change the configuration of power and transfer the main power to an institution other than the presidential post.”

The Russian constitution limits any president to two consecutive terms. Mr Putin circumvented this restriction in 2008 by having Mr Medvedev run for president while he moved to the prime minister’s office, before coming back in 2012. But repeating this manoeuvre, widely known in Moscow as “castling”, in 2024, is not seen as an option.

“In 2008 he knew that he would be coming back, but in 2024 he will be an old man. He knows that if he pulled the ‘castling’ move again, they might resist when he tries to meddle during the interregnum,” says Tatyana Stanovaya, director of the analytical department at the Centre of Political Technologies.

Russian election candidates

Grigory Yavlinsky

© AFP

The 65-year-old leader of Yabloko, Russia’s oldest liberal party, started his political career with economic reform plans in the dying days of the Soviet Union. This will be his last presidential run. While Yabloko has strong support in some regions, he is seen as trailing Mr Navalny and Ms Sobchak.

Boris Titov

© Bloomberg

Not initially nominated by his Party of Growth, 56-year-old Mr Titov launched his candidacy under Kremlin pressure. Although highly respected for his work in protecting Russian businesspeople against arbitrary prosecution as Mr Putin’s ombudsman for entrepreneurs’ rights, he is seen as a spoiler candidate.

Yekaterina Gordon

© AP

A television host, singer and head of her own law firm, Ms Gordon has cast herself as a fighter for the rights of single mothers. The 37-year-old blonde announced her candidacy just days after Ms Sobchak said she would run.

One of the ideas under discussion is to transform the State Council, an advisory body to the president introduced under Mr Putin, into the powerful main governing body similar to the structure of the Chinese central government. This would allow Mr Putin to become head of the State Council, freeing him from the term limit. “The presidency could continue to exist as a ceremonial head of state position, or be abolished altogether,” said a person familiar with discussions of this proposal. “You could also call it the Putin forever model.”

However, some observers believe such radical change would be risky for Mr Putin. “His style of leadership has evolved in a way similar to China under Xi Jinping, but it would be a mistake to try and copy the Chinese system,” says Mr Petrov. “They may be looking at how to allow him to preserve a certain influence even after formal retirement, but that is risky as well because Russia, different from China, doesn’t have experience with informal leadership.”

Laying the groundwork for Mr Putin to retain influence even beyond the end of his next presidential term is not the only driver for the hectic brainstorming. One other reason is the way that Mr Putin has taken to governing in recent years, especially on domestic matters.

“I strongly disagree with that malicious talk about our president styling himself as a vozhd, but he has changed the way he works over the last two or three years,” says a person whose family has long known Mr Putin. “Most importantly, he really focuses on our country’s global interests and security, and he leaves the nitty-gritty of domestic issues to others. This is not reflected in our institutional structure in an ideal way.”

Russia elections charts

People familiar with the reform discussions say members of Mr Putin’s inner circle had taken advantage of his growing fatigue with domestic politics to push through their policies or even personal interests.

“Putin still decides a few of the biggest questions, but many others are handled by persuasion,” says Ms Stanovaya. Mr Putin has been vetoing a break-up of state gas monopoly Gazprom, an idea Igor Sechin, the chief executive of state oil company Rosneft, has long lobbied for. The president has also resisted raising the pension age, a step his economic adviser Alexei Kudrin has pushed for repeatedly.

But other decisions with a bearing on the economy are taking place almost without Mr Putin’s involvement. Central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina has been given carte blanche in dealing with mounting liquidity problems in the banking sector, resulting in a de facto state takeover of the country’s two largest private lenders this year.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny © AP

A company controlled by Arkady Rotenberg, Mr Putin’s childhood friend and judo sparring partner, received a licence for a controversial road cargo transport toll system, and the president has not intervened even after the increased cost for small transport companies sparked continued protests.

Sergei Chemezov, head of state defence group Rostec and another member of Mr Putin’s inner circle, also scored a victory recently. Industry minister Denis Manturov, a protégé of Mr Chemezov, supported merging United Aircraft Corporation, the producer of Sukhoi military jets, into Rostec, a decision two officials said had not required approval from the Kremlin.

The prosecution of Alexei Ulyukaev, a former economy minister, on corruption charges after he tried to oppose an acquisition plan by Rosneft of a smaller rival also reflects Mr Putin’s looser grip on domestic events. The sting operation at the Rosneft headquarters that ended with Mr Ulyukaev’s arrest a year ago was carried out with the help of Mr Sechin, whose ties with Mr Putin date to their early days in the security services.

As Mr Ulyukaev’s trial unfolds, contradictions between the former minister’s version of events and testimony collected earlier from Mr Sechin are being publicly discussed, a sign of open conflict which analysts say would never have emerged if targeting Mr Ulyukaev had been approved by Mr Putin.

Watching them dance

Now, as Russia prepares for the president’s final term, members of the political elite are seeking to protect their interests in a more sustainable way through constitutional change.

Russia elections charts

The person with family links to the president says constitutional shortcomings were to blame for some of the infighting since they allowed for rival centres of power in the presidential administration and the government, led by the prime minister. One concept that has been tabled calls for merging the government into the presidential administration, as in the US.

Analysts say no matter what Mr Putin’s underlings dream up now, the debates remain largely abstract until the president decides how he wants to consolidate his power.

“He can afford to take a nap, rumbling, stretching his huge claws and opening one eye on his striped muzzle,” Alexander Nevzorov, a TV journalist, said in a recent radio discussion, comparing Mr Putin to a sleeping tiger. “He can afford to watch different political mice dance in front of him.”

Russian soldiers guard a regime-held street in Deir Ezzor, Syria © AFP

In anticipation of the expected constitutional amendments, Vladimir Bortko, a Duma deputy from the Kremlin-loyal Communist party, has proposed a draft bill for parliament to convene a constitutional assembly, which is required for the sort of momentous changes to the constitution’s basic architecture that are being discussed. The basic law “written by liberals” in the freewheeling 1990s was no longer fit for purpose, he says.

However Kremlin critics warn that Mr Putin, despite having dominated Russia’s political life for 18 years, might struggle to determine its future to the extent he wishes.

“The Kremlin has removed so many checks and balances in local and regional politics, and narrowed the spectrum of political debate on all levels so much that it now lacks channels for receiving accurate information about what’s going on at the grassroots level,” says Mr Petrov. He believes that Mr Putin’s excessive accumulation of power has prevented younger politicians loyal to the regime from building the resources and influence that any credible successor would need. “Ironically, that means that a few years from now, when succession really becomes an urgent issue, Navalny, who has built a support base and organisational network across the country, will be the only politician who is ready,” he adds.

Mr Navalny himself has made clear that he is in it for the long run. For now, he can only watch the Kremlin’s election preparations with cynicism.

“People sitting in Moscow who call themselves presidential candidates, and their campaigns consist in writing half a page twice a week. And their press people send that text out. Political analysts and experts discuss chances and hidden signals,” he wrote on Telegram. “What a classy fight for power.”

Endorsement: sports stars back the patriotic president

Practically everybody in Washington DC knows Alexander Ovechkin. If they have not watched him play ice hockey for the Washington Capitals, they have seen him in ads for Papa John’s pizza.

These days the Russian NHL star is also putting his charisma at the service of Vladimir Putin. Last month, he launched what he calls a social movement in support of the Russian president, but which could potentially become the platform for Mr Putin’s campaign for re-election next spring.

#PutinTeam – Alexander Ovechkin © AFP

“I founded Putin Team to unify those who are proud of Russia and our president, and who want to make our country stronger,” Mr Ovechkin, pictured, says on a website that urges other celebrities to join.

Although little has been revealed about what the group will do, hundreds of people have already signed up, including prominent athletes and artists. Platinum-blonde singer Polina Gagarina talks about family values and trust as the reason for backing Mr Putin. Olympic pole-vaulting champion Yelena Isinbaeva, banned from last year’s Rio Olympic Games amid Russia’s doping scandal, praises Mr Putin for his “decency”.

This patriotism theme plays to the Russian president’s biggest strength: his approval rating has remained above 80 per cent because the public believes he has restored the country’s dignity. According to Denis Volkov, an analyst at pollster Levada, many voters no longer distinguish between Mr Putin and the state.

As a result, some political analysts believe Mr Putin might shun the little-loved United Russia party and run on a seemingly apolitical platform — like Mr Ovechkin’s initiative.

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