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‘Do the Russians want to participate in the electoral performance?’

Although it is already certain that Vladimir Putin will win the Russian presidential election on 18 March, it is still significant for him, argues Russian expert André Gerrits. ‘The support of the people reinforces Putin's position of power.’

‘It is clear to many Russians that the elections are a performance,’ says André Gerrits. ‘None of the seven other candidates who are taking part in the presidential election have any chance. If that were the case, Putin would intervene. What matters is the extent to which ordinary Russians are prepared to participate in the performance.’

If anyone believes in Putin, it is Putin himself.

70/70

The rule of thumb is that electoral participation must hover around 70%, and that about 70% of the votes cast will go to Putin, with or without any fraudulent intervention to get it there. Gerrits: ‘Putin needs this result to maintain equilibrium and peace within the Russian elite, and to be the face of that elite. A democratic mandate gives him greater weight.’

It is a misunderstanding to believe that you are forbidden from voicing criticism in Russia. According to Gerrits, it can be done, albeit by not too large a group. TV is indeed firmly in state hands but radio has more freedom and almost no restrictions have been imposed on the Internet. ‘Only it is not wise to criticise Putin himself or to accuse those in charge of corruption. That can have very unpleasant consequences.’

Opposition and Putin

The opposition that Putin will supposedly come up against on 18 March consists of seven candidates, belonging to the system opposition or the non-system opposition. ‘The candidates and their parties who usually vote in the Duma with what Putin wants fall under the system opposition category,’ Gerrits explains. ‘Some candidates, in the non-system opposition, are truly independent, such as Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko party, and Aleksej Navalny.’ Yavlinsky advocates for a (true) free market economy, Navalny denounces abuse of power. As payment for his opposition, Navalny himself is often accused of corruption and regularly arrested for it.

Putin firmly believes in Putin

If anyone believes in Putin, it is Putin himself. Gerrits: ‘He is truly convinced that nobody can embody the role of president better than he can. In his own view, he is the inevitable president.’ Only a strong Russia can play a major role on the world stage. And Putin alone makes Russia strong – that is essentially the extent of his reasoning. ‘And Putin is, of course, not the only authoritarian leader who is likely to seriously overestimate his own position of power.’

On the Russian countryside, poverty is quite common.
On the Russian countryside, poverty is quite common.

Not a rebellious people

How is it possible that the Russians support such an authoritarian president? In part, this is due to the stability that Putin provides. The Russians value that very much. And, according to Gerrits, the country has also made great strides since the fall of the wall. ‘Perhaps not in the poor countryside – the divide between city and countryside is huge – but in the city, you can see that the country has become more prosperous. You must also remember that the Russians are not a particularly rebellious people.’ There is certainly a lot of dissatisfaction, especially in terms of the disregard for the rule of law and widespread corruption. People feel helpless under this weight but do not believe there is a way to change it structurally. Gerrits: ’Nevertheless, Russians are certainly making themselves heard. Strikes are commonplace, although you do not see much of it in the news here. The strikers get their way locally without any changes to the system, and they subsequently return to the order of the day.’

Amateurish action

What does Gerrits think about the attempted murder of the British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter using nerve gas. Is Russia behind it, as British Prime Minister May claims? ‘I don’t know,’ says Gerrits. ‘The only proof there is points in that direction. But Skripal was released in a spy exchange, which meant that he could not do much harm. Why then still kill him? ‘Gerrits calls the attack with nerve gas also somewhat unsophisticated, even clumsy and brutal. ‘There is much surrounding this affair that I don’t understand.’

Crimea

And then came the invasion of Crimea. ‘Putin’s chief argument was the protection of the Russians in Crimea against the fascist regime in Kiev.’ And Putin correctly gambled that the EU and the US would not respond militarily. Brutality pays off in international politics. Russia’s historical claim in Crimea is weak, and not without risk. Before you know it, Turkey will be knocking on the door with claims going much further back in time.’