Russia’s Central Election Commission announced Monday that Vladimir Putin had won nearly 77% of counted votes in Sunday’s Russian elections. The Russian President’s closest competition came by way of Communist Party candidate, Pavel Grudinin, who garnered 12% of the vote.
While Western news outlets suggest the Kremlin may have been involved in “improprieties” during Sunday’s election, those on the streets of Eastern Europe and Russia roll their eyes, long ago accepting that free and fair Russian elections are unlikely to happen under Putin. With registered election violations and the silencing of the opposition, it seems Putin has once again succeeded in consolidating his power.
There’s no question that Putin receives wide popular support in Russia. His mixture well crafted Christian devotion (despite his Soviet past), exaltation of Russian exceptionalism, and anti-American scapegoating has created a heady blend of political rhetoric that is essentially nationalist napalm, and a one way ticket to the Russian Presidency.
Despite his control of the media and popularity, Putin has been unable to silence all critics.
Alexei Navalny symbolizes the political opposition against Putin. After successfully organizing thousands in street protests, he was barred from participating in the election in December. In response, he called on the Russian people to boycott “the lying, false system” by refusing to vote. The Central Election Commission has announced turnout for this year’s election was 68%, a jump from turnout for the 2012 election. Opposition leaders have accused businesses and state institutions of forcing their employees to vote, while the Kremlin has been accused of ballot stuffing as a way to increase turnout numbers.
Pussy Riot, the female punk group aimed at criticizing government and economic corruption in Russia, posted to social media just before the election, “Guess who’ll win?” sarcastically capturing the frustration, yet resignation many Russians feel towards the political sphere. Just after the elections, Pussy Riot posted an uncharacteristically dark new music video called “Elections.” The video was accompanied by a statement from the group on the Russian elections:
What 18 years of Putin’s power has brought to us? Arrests, poisonings, tortures, murders of political activists. Institutional corruption which is HUGE. Total erosion of democratic institutions. Giant economic inequality. Worsening of prison conditions. Environmental catastrophe in lots of industrial regions of Russia. Censorship everywhere – in media, in education, in internet, in people’s heads. Self-censorship, caused by fear. You should not be deceived, this event on 18th of March is not elections. Falsifications, eliminations of political opponents, Kremlin-controlled media leave no chance to anybody except Putin.
As Pussy Riot points out, Putin has not improved the lives of Russians. He may be able to brag about the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, but the unfortunate truth about life in Russia is there have been few significant improvements for the lives of average Russians, while the oligarchic class continues to line their pockets.
Under Putin, Russia’s GDP growth frequently fluctuates. During his tenure as president in 2009, GDP growth saw an all time low of -11.20%. In 2016, Russians faced one fourth of Russian companies cutting salaries and a 15% spike in the poverty rate. In 2017, after years of negative growth, the GDP finally broke through at 1.5% growth, however this was still below the projections of the Russian government. Who’s to blame for Russia’s economic difficulty? US led sanctions, of course.
Putin’s supporters might say that those statistics are cherry picked to reflect badly on the president, that they fail to account for an overall decrease in the poverty rates over time, as well as less tangible aspects like national self esteem. That may be true, but they also fail to capture the effects of censorship, fear of political expression, and resentment towards other world powers. Not to mention the violent oppression of gay citizens, the annexation of Crimea, and a costly nuclear program that could potentially destabilize the tense balance of MAD.
Election Tampering & Cultivated Apathy
An election watchdog group, Golos, has reported thousands of voting violations throughout the Russian elections, while observers were prevented from monitoring the vote. Most analysts at least accept the possibility that the Kremlin could be utilizing tried and true election tampering techniques to ensure a Putin victory.
The question isn’t whether the Kremlin tampered with the election results, or how much they were able to swing the election using media censorship and fear. The more important question is what does it say about the state of life in Russia and the psyche of its people when they are willing to overlook brutality and the gradual erosion of their rights to accept a leader who, according to them, exemplifies strength and stands up to the US?
Putin has been in power for 18 years. That means many in Russia grew up with Putin as their leader. While plenty of American activists write pieces and issue statements that basically amount to, “Oh, those poor Russians! They don’t know what they’re doing!” the election tampering, voting violations, suppression of political prisoners, and wealth disparity are hardly hidden.
It may seem that having these issues out in the open would help to ameliorate them, but actually, the opposite seems to be true. Social media in Eastern Europe has been rife with memes mocking the Russian elections and pointing out the impossibility of a challenger defeating Putin. Although humorous and perhaps expressing genuine frustration, Putin as president and the human rights issues that follow have become the accepted reality. When opposition leader Navalny was legally barred from participating in the elections, any hope of true opposition was wiped out. Critics turn up dead and supporters end up rich. The fact that these details are well known and eventually accepted as the status quo creates a level of resignation that is almost impossible to overcome.
Why Should Americans Care?
If you lost sleep over ever unfair election in the world, life would be difficult, but Putin’s victory should be pretty disturbing for Americans. For one, the veteran election tamperer is currently accused of exerting his influence, and an army of Russian bots, to meddle in the 2016 presidential election in the US.
Another key point about Putin, that should be mentioned every time he is discussed, is that he is a former agent of the KGB, no doubt where he learned his techniques of brutal suppression and election doctoring. As such, Putin has publically lamented the downfall of the Soviet Union, saying “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” Just a quick reminder, the Soviet Union enslaved Eastern Europe, brutally killed millions on millions, and violently expanded the Russian/Soviet empire. Just this month Putin said if he could go back in time he would save the Soviet Union.
This is clear political rhetoric that appeals to the older generation of voters who still feel nostalgia for the Soviet Union and have been left reeling by the subsequent economic and geopolitical changes. But it also gives insights into Putin’s potential imperial goals and anti-Western attitude.
Also this month, Putin enshrined anti-American sentiment in his state of the nation address. While speaking at length about Russia’s nuclear might, Putin revealed that Russia has developed a nuclear weapon aimed at creating mass civilian casualties and long term environmental destruction. The Status-6 weapon will create a radioactive tsunami meant to engulf an entire coastal city. His speech was enhanced by animations of Russian nuclear weapons attacking the US, amid cheers from the audience.
Putin’s political rhetoric and aggressive nuclear strategy has led many to postulate that a new Cold War is brewing. Everyone, especially Americans, should be wondering what the world looks like with a KGB agent well adept at stoking the flames of anti-American sentiment at the helm of a technologically advanced Russia. Thanks to this year’s Russian elections, we now have 6 more years, at least, of Putin to figure it out.