In a Russian presidential campaign season in which Kremlin officials have insisted that candidates abide by federal election laws, numerous news outlets have reported President Vladimir Putin’s exception to the rule.
Barred from leveraging so-called “administrative resources” — the bureaucratic machinery of various state-backed media, security and educational institutions — to promote their respective candidacies, presidential hopefuls, such as Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal Yabloko Party, rely instead on the “Kremlin-orchestrated circus” of reality TV-style debates defined by water-throwing, name-calling and threats of physical violence.
Only the incumbent himself remains above the fray, exempted from debates in exchange for fawning 90-minute documentaries by Rosiya-1 state television, police patrols that guard only his campaign billboards against vandalism, and university auditorium lectures on why his re-election is the correct choice for the state.
Russians go to the polls Sunday for an election that is certain to allow Putin to retain his grip on power. He is expected to bring in more than 50 percent of the vote, but his election team is hoping for 70 percent.
While exploitation of state resources to bolster the candidacy of an established leader is a time-tested feature of Russian politics, this year it is completely different — and exactly the same — says Maria Lipman, editor of the Moscow-based Kontrapunkt (Counterpoint), an open-access Russian-language journal of politics and society published by George Washington University.
During previous presidential elections, Lipman said, Putin either used administrative resources himself or allocated them to his hand-picked, temporary successor, former President Dmitry Medvedev.
“The notion that Putin is a leader beyond competition was created at the very beginning of his presidency,” she told VOA. “Even in 2008, it was clear that whichever candidate Putin proposed to his fellow citizens as a successor would be accepted, supported and voted for by the nation simply because Putin recommended him.”
An evolving strategy
That strategy, Lipman added, is part of what Russian experts sometimes call the “super-majority” approach to maintaining political power in Russia.
“In such a system, public administration and power are concentrated virtually in the hands of one person,” she said. “This person should be beyond competition. He should not simply be one of the candidates, but a ‘super candidate’ elected by ‘super majority.’ It is necessary to demonstrate such an overwhelming superiority that no one has the slightest doubt that this is the right order of things in Russia.”
But ensuring Putin’s sustained super majority rule in Russia — where the 65-year-old leader enjoys substantial popular support, especially outside of major cities — requires a constant updating of strategies, which have evolved over time.
“In 2008, legitimization was achieved due to revenue growth: oil prices increased and Russia’s economic growth was quite substantial, which led to a significant decrease in the number of poor people in Russia,” Lipman said. “But today legitimization is achieved by promoting a ‘besieged fortress’ image” of a nation economically beset by myriad Western sanctions.
“This particular way of legitimization was even apparent in 2012, when Putin’s colossal advantage over political competitors was less obvious, and his rating fell to little more than 60 percent,” she said. “We remember the protests that accompanied his return to the presidency in 2012, so, this time, the super majority is critical to restoring his political legitimacy.”
Privileged coverage, ‘safe candidates’
One distinct feature of the super majority turnout strategy for 2018, says Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent election monitor Golos, is deployment of federal media resources at home and abroad.
“Alternative forces proposing different approaches to the country’s development cannot get on federal TV channels or work with the population,” he told VOA. “As soon as a politician gains some momentum, he or she is immediately forced to interact with the courts and law enforcement agencies.”
A case in point: the one-time candidacy of anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who in December was disqualified from the race because of a conviction for embezzlement, which the European Court of Human Rights dismissed as politically motivated.
“He was attracting volunteers for a whole year, created campaign headquarters, and began to score points, and now we see what they did to him,” Melkonyants said, referring to the Russian courts upholding the conviction, giving Navalny a suspended five-year sentence.
“Others watch this and understand that if they overplay their hand or attempt to sit atop the pedestal occupied by [Putin], there will be problems,” Melkonyants said. “Therefore, the candidates remaining in the race are safe ones.”
The image of Putin as the leading candidate is “formed by the federal media and then picked up by regional media,” the Golos official said.
“Our media monitoring initiative has not recorded a single negative mention of Putin, although one can always find grounds for criticism of a leader who has been in power for so many years,” Melkonyants said. “The whole campaign looks like this: a giant facing down scores of political dwarves.”
Even abroad, in the territorially disputed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, outlets such as The Washington Post have reported on Russian state broadcasters calling themselves “informational warriors.”
Lilia Shibanova of Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council says the most distinct feature of the 2018 strategy to secure the super majority turnout is that state media actually run Putin’s campaign.
“The candidate himself solely acts as the president,” Shibanova said, calling footage of Putin campaigning among average Russian voters virtually nonexistent.
“Media here operate as political technologists,” she said, explaining that news media analysis shows opposition candidates cast in a negative light, whereas Putin is portrayed as infallible.
“Any comments about other candidates serve a very specific purpose,” she said.
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service. Translated from Russian by Sasha Milentey.