Putin's victory in this year's election is not in doubt. But what will the future Russia look like as the country enters into a third decade of Putinocracy?
In 2018, Vladimir Putin's main agenda will be to legitimise the next six-year term of his presidency.
All the steps taken by the Kremlin have been meticulously planned. His two hour presidential address to the Federal Assembly projected the strong-man image he has become so adept at portraying. Nuclear sabre rattling was the centre piece of his speech which could only exacerbate tensions with the West.
There are less than 10 days until millions of Russian citizens go to the ballots to elect their president for another six year term.
The three-week marathon of pre-election debates will begin broadcasting live on “Radio of Russia”. People eagerly awaited the first discussions that held on February 28 on the national channel “Russia”. Five state-run television channels and three radio stations have allocated free airtime for election campaigning. Candidates are concentrated on intensively preparing their programs to impress audiences.
According to Russia’s Central Electoral Commission, it is up to TV channels to determine the format of electioneering events, discussions, round tables and debates. During the current campaign, state owned TV channels decided that “all” candidates would have to take part in debates.
Furthermore, all Russian propagandistic media outlets on both TV and internet platforms make hyperbolic statements attempting to depict the contest as a drama whose conclusion is yet to be determined: “Debate starts! Do not miss!”.
It’s clear that Russia is trying to paint a picture by claiming to the rest of the world that they are having a “democratic” election fueled with debates and dynamic discussions. When in reality, political pluralism is non-existent in present-day Russia.
Seven candidates joined the first TV debate. All candidates appeared in the TV studio together, to present their election programs. The atmosphere in the studio was tense. Russian debates never appeared to have standard “democratic” discussions.
Denigration, scandal, haranguing, this is what the Russian election is all about. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a fiery nationalist politician, and Ksenia Sobchak, a well-known liberal journalist and prominent socialite, were arguing about the collapse of the Soviet Union — and things quickly spiralled out of control.
“Get her out of here,” Zhirinovsky screamed. “She’s a crazy fool.”
Sobchak then picked up a glass of water and hurled its contents at Zhirinovsky.
The most amusing and captivating part of this puzzle is that Vladimir Putin, a man who has held power for 18 years and who is planning to run in elections this March did not bother participating in the debates - further nullifying the facade of Russia pretending to hold democratic elections.
Funnily enough, Russia-1, a state-owned Russian television channel, tried to explain away the refusal of Putin to attend the debates by stating, “This is his legal right. First, he is busy at work. And everyone understands how busy he is. Secondly, Putin is already understood. Also there is a world famous pattern: it never makes sense for an invincible leader to enter into direct debate with outsiders”.
Now Putin's electoral rating, according to RPORC (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) polls, is at 69.5 percent. This is almost four times the total support of the remaining candidates. They remain in single digits at less than 10 percent. Even Ksenia Sobchak, a 35- year-old socialite with over five million Instagram followers who is known by 95 percent of the population, has only less than one percent of the votes.
What do these numbers mean? The dynamics of the numbers show how bizarre and unnatural the atmosphere of the elections are. Putin is widely expected to have a tremendous victory as he is “receives” higher approval ratings than his rivals.
Putin's most suitable opponent is not a candidate that can win, but rather someone who can attract as many people as possible to the polling station. Debates, full of scandals and captivating discussions are the best opportunity to distract the attention of Russian people.
Putin’s campaign is pushing the narrative that “he is way too good to compete with other candidates” and making sure that state media is in control of this narrative.
The election is set for March 18, the anniversary of Crimea's reunification with Russia – which actually marks the symbolic link between 18 years of authoritarian rule and Crimean occupation.
Putin is undoubtedly the owner of Russia, the richest and most powerful citizen with an estimated net worth of $200 billion, who also wants to do whatever he wants without any repercussions from anyone or anywhere.
It seems, as though, extending Putin’s dominance over Russia’s political landscape into a third decade will be a contest that he is comfortably poised to win. Putin, though, does not face any real challengers.
Therefore, it is imperative not to ask what will happen in the March elections, but what will happen to Russia itself?
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