Putin's presidential election getting underway

Putin's presidential election getting underway
Russian president visited a sick boy in hospital who didn't want to talk to him. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin November 10, 2023

Russia goes to the polls next year and Russian President Vladimir Putin seems set to stand for his fifth term in office after he has already served 24 years as Russia’s leader. The presidential campaign is already gathering momentum.

Putin was on television on November 9 visiting a small boy in hospital. But the meeting didn’t go as planned. Unsettled by all the attention in what was clearly a set piece to make Putin look human, the boy refused to talk to the Russian president, pulling the covers over his head repeatedly as his mother tried to pull them back again. Putin stood in the doorway awkwardly as the month threatened to confiscate the boy’s phone for two days unless he talked to the most powerful man in Russia. It didn’t work.

The vignette could well turn out to be a blueprint for the rest of the campaign with Russians trying to pull the covers over their collective heads while the Kremlin presses them with feel good messaging and the state machine keeps pulling the covers down.

It is already clear that the Kremlin will downplay the war in Ukraine and instead push a narrative that all is well in Russia while the west is riven by problems, Meduza reports.

While it is almost certain Putin will win the election should he stand – he has yet to comment officially on his candidature – and not because the system is fixed, but because he remains genuinely popular. Most Russians remember the chaos and poverty of the Yeltsin years, but after Putin took over in 2000 he ushered in a decade of growth and rising prosperity, for which Russians remain very grateful. Amongst Putin’s landmark policies from this period was to revise the labour code, introduce a flat income tax of 13%, one of the lowest in Europe, and increase public sector wages by around 10% every year for a decade to close the gap between the public and private sector wages.

Even more importantly, he brought with him stability and restored a lot of Russia’s standing on the international stage and the humiliation of the loss of its superpower status. On the flip side of the coin he has been portraying the west and effete liberals while stressing Russian conservative family values that are grounded in Orthodox Christianity that has wide appeal across all of Eastern Europe.

Now the Kremlin intends to play into more of the same, presenting Putin as the man responsible for turning Russia into an "island of tranquillity" in contrast to the belligerent West intent of expanding its global hegemony, reports Meduza, citing sources within Putin's administration. And the Kremlin has plenty of material to work with.

According to Meduza’s sources, Russia's leaders believe there is a significant demand among voters for criticism of the "collective West."

One source told Meduza: "Whenever the president speaks about this issue, criticising [the West], we see his approval ratings go up."

While Meduza could not independently confirm the direct impact of such criticism on Putin's popularity, surveys conducted by Russian government-funded VTsIOM pollster has reported similar results. For instance, in a recent survey VTsIOM found that approximately 80% of survey respondents expressed a positive view of Putin's work in early November. This represents a 3% increase compared to the previous month, before the outbreak of the war in Israel on October 7, which Putin attributed to the West.

At the same time, Russians have largely been supportive of the war, with Putin’s approval rating ticking up from the mid60s pre-war into the 80s since the invasion of Ukraine and staying there. Putin has been selling the line of the “Nato enemy at our gate” and as Ukraine is almost entirely supplied by Nato members, this has been an easy sell.

The irony of Russia’s presidential elections is that Putin would almost certainly win a comfortable majority if the vote was free and fair. However, politics in Russia doesn’t work like that: Putin’s constituency is not the people, which the Kremlin has always regarded as sheep since the Tsarist-era, but the siloviki, or power security services faction led by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Putin needs a commanding majority to assure them he is in control and can’t be challenged, which is the basis of his authority.

Another source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that as the election draws nearer reports from Russia's propaganda outlets about the "difficulties" facing Western countries will "intensify."

These reports range from the benign recent "bedbug infestation" in Paris, to the more serious, such as Germany’s economic woes as it slips into its second recession in two years and Europe’s deindustrialisation thanks to the lack of Russian energy and raw materials. And he has had some luck with his own economy. Oil sanctions have proven to be a spent cannon, while thanks to Russia’s friendly countries it has successfully managed to dodge most of the sanctions. After the initial shock of sanctions after the invasion, the shops are full again and most of the products that disappeared are back, if not being sold by the owners of the brands. Russia’s economy is growing so strongly there is talk of “overheating” and both real and nominal incomes have been rising for the first time in almost a decade.

Changes in the International milieu have also played into Putin’s hands. The attack by Hamas on October 7 has become a major headache for the White House, and the widespread criticism of the US unflinching support of Israel and failure to prevent the indiscriminate bombing helpless civilians in the Gaza strip has isolated the US further from many in the global south that were already uncomfortable with the international sanctions regime on Russia. The whole fracas has been a PR gift for the Kremlin.

The slow progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive has also fuelled the already palpable Ukraine fatigue and made Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy look increasingly isolated, which is another PR gift for the Kremlin. Russia’s state media has gleefully jumped on the string of articles in the last weeks that claim the war in Ukraine is a stalemate and that the divisions amongst Zelenskiy’s high command are growing.

"The US is about to collapse from the fact that it's going to have to support not just Ukraine but Israel as well. Their end is inevitable," the source said, summarising the main narrative Russia's propaganda aims to promote.

The state-controlled media will convey the message that, despite all the sanctions against it, Russia "looks pretty good against the backdrop of the general chaos" in the world.

The ongoing war in Ukraine, however, is expected to remain "in the background of the campaign," Meduza's sources said. One source underlined that while the risk of Ukraine's counteroffensive developing into a "black swan event" is now "extremely low,” but to make the Ukraine war an election issue, would necessitate a major military victory on the battlefield and that is remains extremely unlikely as Russia is as badly armed as Ukraine is.