What Vladimir Putin’s New Six-Year Term Portends
March 26, 2024
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Visiting researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
Nikolai Petrov analyzes Vladimir Putin’s reelection for another six years and suggests that his reported sky-high public support hardly strengthens his power and might even weaken him in the coming years.
According to the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Putin has been re-elected for another term with a record high percentage of the vote. Having successfully executed another major political project, Kremlin administration officials can breathe a sigh of relief, but the triumphant confirmation of Putin's presidential mandate for the next six years actually changes the balance of power in the political system, weakening Putin’s position rather than strengthening it.

The irony is that Putin does not need the elections to maintain his legitimacy as leader, since they do nothing to supplement his already unchallenged power. Elections are an added burden, but he cannot completely eliminate them, even under Russia’s authoritarian regime. Refusing to hold elections would be a show of weakness. But since he is the leader, Putin cannot have any real competition in the race, only bit players. He’s not the first among equals — he is the only one. Therefore, the sky-high number of votes that Putin received are not a reflection of greed or personal whim, but rather a demonstration of the autocratic nature of his power.

The Powers That Be

The current presidential elections took place under conditions of consolidated autocracy and paramilitary law, and therefore any form of opposition to the leader was impermissible. Voting for the president was a nationwide demonstration of loyalty, as well as total support for Putin and his new regime, including from his so-called “competitors.”

The voting process took place on March 15-17 lacked two key factors that had reined in the rampant fraud in the 2018 elections: the need to demonstrate compliance with Western democratic norms and the fear of scandals or negative press associated with independent observation.

In starting the war with Ukraine and framing it as a defensive war against the evil West, the Kremlin has turned away from the West and no longer cares about how it looks to Western eyes.
As for monitoring, measures were taken in advance to completely prevent the participation of any independent observers in the elections.
Grigory Melkonyants, Co-Chairman of the Golos Movement for the Protection of Voters' Rights, has been under arrest since the summer of 2023. Golos was declared an "undesirable organization".
Source: Yandex
Last summer, the houses of the co-chairman and 14 regional coordinators for the Golos Movement for Defense of Voters' Rights were raided by police in a number of regions, including Moscow, Kazan and St. Petersburg. Golos itself was declared an “undesirable organization,” co-chairman Grigory Melkonyants was detained on charges of organizing the activities of an “undesirable organization” and has been under arrest for more than six months.

The number of Putin’s “competitors” was reduced to a minimum — from seven in 2018 down to just three. The politicians themselves were carefully selected to create the best background for Putin. From the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, 75-year-old Nikolai Kharitonov, who participated in the 2004 elections; from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 56-year-old party leader Leonid Slutsky, who is completely devoid of the charisma of his predecessor Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and from the New People Party, an even younger and less notable vice speaker of the State Duma, 40-year-old Vladislav Davankov. None of Putin’s “rivals” led any significant election campaign.

The Opposition

There was essentially no proactive participation in the election campaign on the part of the opposition either.

And while within Russia, completely excluding opposition politicians from participating in the elections is a conscious Kremlin tactic, this is a major omission on the part of oppositionists living abroad. One reason — perhaps the main one, but not the only one — is Alexei Navalny’s complete isolation and death (or murder) a month before the election.

Navalny has consistently demonstrated creativity and effectiveness in his election campaigns, no matter what difficult conditions he found himself in. In 2013, during the elections for the mayor of Moscow, he led an active and very vibrant campaign, which launched him into politics at the federal level. During the 2018 presidential elections, in which Navalny was not even recognized as an official candidate, he managed to create a de facto party from his network-style headquarters and supporters across most regions.
"Noon Against Putin" line at the polling station in Yerevan. Source: Wiki Commons
Even after his death, Navalny continued to occupy more of the public eye than any of the official candidates. Tens of thousands attended his funeral in Moscow, and people across the country brought flowers to hundreds of spontaneous memorials constructed in his memory. The “Noon Against Putin” rally held on the last day of voting, which Navalny had endorsed shortly before his death, attracted a huge number of supporters.

With Navalny gone, the opposition made no attempt to play their own cards or impose their agenda on the authorities. Apart from the large-scale “Noon Against Putin” campaign, they did not organize any protests that would be visible to citizens and were unable to offer any topics for debate — no appealing ideas, no alternative presidential message, no meaningful analysis of the candidates’ platforms.

The War and Elections
Despite the fact that the elections were held in wartime, the topic was barely on the radar. As the campaign progressed, the unpopular war became somewhat of an elephant in the room.
At the forefront of Putin’s rhetoric were family, economic growth, social benefits and poverty reduction, and a “special personnel program” for those who fought during “The Time of Heroes.”

At the same time, the key differentiating issue between the candidates, in essence, was the war. For anti-war-minded citizens who were willing to vote, first Nadezhdin, and then — when he was barred from running — Davankov became spokesmen of opposition to the war, at least to some extent.

Putin announced that he was participating in the upcoming elections from the Kremlin, at an award ceremony for those who had distinguished themselves in battle, and not at the grandiose “Rossiya” exhibition and forum — contrary to what the domestic political bloc of his presidential administration had planned, according to rumors. But in Putin’s presidential address, in which he announced his plan for the next six years two weeks before the election, he said almost nothing about the war. Neither Putin nor the other candidates made public trips to the front — Putin limited himself to taking a ride on a Tu-160M strategic bomber.
Putin meeting with trusted representatives after the elections, moderated by Artem Zhoga (left), Chairman of the People’s Council of the DPR. Source: Wiki Commons
There were few military men among Putin’s trusted representatives. The list, initially composed of 346 people (by the end there were 544), included the usual actors, athletes, doctors and rectors. There were a few high-status veterans and a couple of military officers. During the two years of war, not a single well-promoted or well-known hero had appeared on the list. But at the meeting between Putin and his trusted representatives after the elections, which was chaired by Artem Zhoga, chairman of the People’s Council of the DPR, war heroes and front-line regions were top of the docket.

Election Results

The results of the three-day vote turned out to be significantly higher than the Kremlin’s preliminary guidelines and sociologists’ estimates: a record 77.5% participation and a record 87.3% for Putin, with over 76 million votes. The share of the remaining three candidates officially totaled 11.4%, each receiving approximately 3-4%. Regional variation has declined sharply, from a low of 79-80% for Putin in the Northwestern regions and Khabarovsk Territory to 99% in Chechnya and 93-95% in the annexed Ukrainian regions.

Any substantive analysis of these numbers is pointless. While previously it was possible to talk about distortions of the electoral landscape as a result of falsifications, now, due to total falsifications that completely covered the landscape, only a few isolated areas remain in Russia that allow us to see the real picture.

Take, for example, a voting site on the territory of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT). The turnout of 90.8% is not surprising, since almost all voters (1587 out of 1603) registered to vote at the MIPT site were not assigned the location through their place of residence, but rather because they had expressed the intention of voting. At this site, Putin received 41.4%, Davankov — 34.9%, Kharitonov — 3.7%, Slutsky— 2.5%, and 17.5% of the votes were declared invalid.

Or the precinct election commissions in the outlying Moscow districts of Severnoe Butovo and Maryino, where paper ballots recorded turnout at only 29% in Severnoe Butovo and 37% in Maryino, with Putin taking 55% in Northern Butovo and 75% in Maryino, and Davankov — 26% and 17%, respectively.

Putin's results differ little from region to region, ranging from 79.1% to 99.0%, and more than half of the regions (54 out of 89, or 60%) reported between 84% and 91%. At the same time, according to territorial election commissions, if you look at smaller groups within the regions, the range is much wider: from 60.7% to 99.9%.

According to an evaluation made by one of the most authoritative electoral experts, Ivan Shukshin, based on a mathematical analysis of precinct data, the number of “anomalous” (essentially, fraudulent) votes is approximately 22 million. Without these votes, the turnout would be closer to 62%, with Putin receiving 81%.

According to this recalculation, while votes for Kharitonov and Slutsky did not seem to be understated, Davankov, for whom many opponents of the war voted, despite the fact that there was no reason to consider him a true “opposition” candidate, should have received around 8-11% (by various estimates).

Election results

The Kremlin presidential administration had two main target audiences in mind during the elections: the elite, to whom it needed to demonstrate that Putin really relies on those close to him, and Putin himself. As the results show, the Kremlin decided to please Putin with extremely high numbers, and was quite successful.
However, the elites have serious reason to doubt Putin’s allegedly high approval ratings among the populace, since they themselves provided Putin with a fantastically high percentage of the votes at the Kremlin’s behest.
As a result, we can say that in the eyes of the elite, Putin’s position — both from a corporate and a regional perspective — has weakened somewhat.

The campaign itself didn’t run smoothly for the Kremlin. It overlooked three serious blows to its image: the lines of people willing to sign to register Boris Nadezhdin as an anti-war candidate; Navalny’s funeral, which essentially resulted in a mass protest demonstration; and the “Noon Against Putin” rally on the last day of voting. The picture of popular support for Putin turned out to be flawed.

The official announcement made by the Central Election Commission of Putin's strong results does not provide an adequate picture of who and what won in these elections. It is necessary to correlate the goals of the main players, in this case, the Kremlin and the opposition, with the extent to which these goals were achieved, as well as the corresponding costs.

The Kremlin has significantly exceeded the bar that it initially set. Back in November 2023, it reported that the presidential administration planned to achieve a turnout of at least 70% with at least 75% of the vote going to Putin. And regardless of whether the fact that these figures exceeded initial projections is the result of the Kremlin deliberately pushing for the highest possible numbers or of “competition” between regions on who would report more votes for Putin — for the aforementioned reasons, the excessively high number of votes for Putin weakens the Kremlin rather than strengthening it.

As previously stated, the opposition was barely visible during the campaign, but, on the other hand, Nadezhdin's support at the very beginning of the campaign, and the Noon Against Putin protest at the end, demonstrated an ability to organize actions and the presence of a noticeable support base within Russia. In this way, the campaign helped opposition-minded Russians assert themselves and publicly express their position.

Life After the Elections

It is unlikely that the Kremlin and Putin will be able to perceive the election results as carte blanche to make any unpopular decisions. They know the value of their figures, and they also know that citizens have rather resigned themselves to the authorities and their actions than rallied around them, and are unlikely to be willing to make sacrifices if the authorities demand it. However, at the moment, the Kremlin does not really require such sacrifices.

Some governmental actions that are to be expected after the elections have already been announced. This includes a tax reform, accompanied by populist rhetoric about fairness and shifting the burden to the rich; as well as the expansion of the redistribution of property with the dispossession of the “old oligarchs,” both Yeltsin’s and some of Putin’s. In Putin’s Address to the Federal Assembly on February 29, threats were clearly made against “...those who have lined their pockets through various economic processes since the 1990s. They are definitely not the elite. The true elite are those who serve Russia.”
The redistribution of property will be coupled with increased repression against the elite, which is necessary for the president to maintain control over them from his somewhat weakened position.
Growing competition within the elite for dwindling resources will also contribute to the increase in repression. That being said, a “cultural revolution” with a massive overturn of the old elites, apparently, should not be expected, despite Putin’s statements that “participants in the special military operation...should take leading positions” and they “can be trusted with Russia in the future” — the external threats are too great.

We can hardly expect any high-profile resignations or new appointments, since now is not the right time to risk the relative stability, and besides, the Kremlin is evidently quite satisfied with the work of the socioeconomic bloc and the government as a whole. A few replacements might occur here and there, such as the Minister of Energy, who is one of the oldest ministers.

A replacement of the foreign policy bloc has long been anticipated, both in the state (Minister Sergei Lavrov) and the Kremlin’s administration (Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s advisor on foreign policy issues).

Rather, we should expect resignations aimed at maintaining stability and ensuring the effective overall functioning of the system. This refers primarily to the corporations, for whom efficiency is especially important because they ensure the security of the country. It can be assumed that the urgent need for personnel changes in the security sector became even more obvious after the ineffective work of the special services during the terrible terrorist attack in Moscow on March 22. These corporations are directly subordinate to Putin, and they are headed by colleagues from previous positions he has held, who have long since passed retirement age. This is a repressive machine consisting of the Federal Security Service (Alexander Bortnikov), the Investigative Committee of Russia (Alexander Bastrykin), the Security Council (Nikolai Patrushev), the courts, and state corporations — ”chaebols” (read how Nikolai Petrov likens the Russian industrial conglomerates to South Korean chaebols here) such as Gazprom (Alexey Miller), Rosneft (Igor Sechin), etc.

There is also a certain backload of personnel decisions that have been postponed until better times. This includes Dmitry Kozak, who has been pushed aside but retains the position of Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, a number of elderly presidential aides, the position as the head of the Federal Customs Service, which has been vacant for more than a year, and the recently vacated post of Chairman of the Supreme Court following the death of its permanent head, Vyacheslav Lebedev, which, apparently, is destined for Putin’s classmate Irina Podnosova.

Putin’s triumphant victory in the elections adds nothing to his usurpation of power that was secured by the 2020 constitutional amendment allowing Putin to rule Russia until 2036. The most recent elections have done nothing to strengthen or legitimize the government. While the regime is still far from weak, the need to increase its reliance on force and repression may contribute to its erosion and gradually diminish its power in the coming period.
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