Anyone else out there following Russia’s upcoming nail-biter of a presidential election? If not, don’t worry- it seems a lot of Russians are apathetic too, and that’s a problem as Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidky points out in a recent article. Of course that’s not necessarily the part of the article I wanted to focus on, but rather this paragraph here:
Putin doesn’t appear to feel any need to campaign. His election website, as perfunctory as if he were running for a municipal council seat, has just gone live, and it doesn’t even contain a program or any promises — just some questionable statements on how life in Russia has improved under Putin (“The illegal cutting of trees has practically stopped”; “Russian universities have entered the BRICS Top-50”). The site also reports that it only took a week for the Putin campaign to collect 30 percent more than the 300,000 citizens’ signatures necessary to put him on the ballot — an impossible achievement for any other candidate but not for the president: Reports come in from different parts of the country of students being pressed into collecting the signatures and workers told to sign for him at work (the campaign has even rejected the signatures harvested at two factories in Kurgan in the Urals).
The Western Putin fan club just loves claiming that Western Russia journalists don’t really understand Russian politics simply because they often focus on the activities of non-systemic opposition figures like Alexei Navalny (who is not in the running this time anyway). They continually point to the polls of Russia’s loyal opposition such as the KPRF and LDPR, along with the poor polling of the non-systemic opposition, and gleefully lecture us about the latter’s minimal popularity as though we, and those Western journalists, aren’t fully aware of these facts. They’d have us believe that Western focus on people like Navalny would be like America’s media focusing on Jill Stein or Gary Johnson in 2016’s presidential election. In reality, however, journalists follow Russia’s opposition not because it is big or has any realistic shot at winning, but rather because it is the only faction actually opposed to the Kremlin and Putin.
Reading that paragraph above, it is clear that Russia is not a normal electoral democracy. Apart from the fact that the President changed the constitution so he could come back for another pair of six-year terms, he’s running in an election with virtually no campaigning, no promises, no platform. To the extent that he’s campaigning, he’s harping on “accomplishments” from the mid-2000s, during the oil price boom. Does that sound at all normal for a system that is supposedly no less democratic than what exists in the West and other developed countries? If 2016 did anything positive, it was shutting up the cynics who called American elections predictable (ditto Brexit, Corbyn, etc).
Of course I know many Putin fanboys who, if pressed, will more or less admit that Russia’s elections are not fair and the system is biased towards Putin. Usually they deflect by asking “Who else is there?” But you see- that’s the problem. If Putin were ever a good leader, even during the years when things were on the up and up, he would have at least had the prescience to understand that he’s not immortal and he should probably construct Russia’s state institutions so as to ensure stable, democratic succession long after his death, incapacitation, or retirement. In general, he would use his authority to build a system based on rule of law and some kind of values as opposed to a cult of personality surrounding himself. He barely toyed with the concept back in 2008 when he let Medvedev take the reins, but he was so paranoid and concerned with image that he decided to come back to the presidency early.
The ultimate result of this is that wherever you fall on the spectrum of Putin/anti-Putin, there’s really no getting around the fact that sooner or later Russia is fucked, and there’s really nobody to blame for that but Putin. Therefore I can’t really understand why he still has Western admirers today. I do get the ones who just hate their own governments, have no experience with Russia, and just absorb a steady diet of bullshit from RT, Sputnik, and pro-Kremlin sites. But I don’t get the people who work for outlets like that and continue to defend the man and his system. Even if we foolishly attributed all the positive things in the mid-2000s to Putin, all of that has either been negated or on the chopping block to be negated within the coming years. All I can think of is that the Western apologists do it for the money. Those who don’t are complete idiots. There just is no other explanation.