The Russian Elections: Five Things You Should Know

As Russia prepares to head to the polls in the upcoming presidential elections on 18 March 2018, here are five things you should know.

(1) This is a one-man re-coronation.

Although there are eight registered candidates, it is best to see the presidential elections in Russia as a referendum exercise to reaffirm the legitimacy of Vladimir Putin. It is certain that he will win a fourth six-year term in office — de facto fifth if we include the four-year sleight of hand with Dmitry Medvedev. This means that he will be in charge of the country until at least 2024. Formally running as an independent candidate, Putin is not participating in the candidate debates, presumably because he does not see himself as a candidate.

(2) Turnout is crucial however.

Despite the fact that the winner is not in doubt, these elections have two significant unknown variables.

First, is the voter turnout which independent pollster Levada Centre projects to be a record low. This is a potential challenge for Putin’s legitimacy. Thus, the Kremlin needs to employ a number of tactics to boost electoral participation: anything from creating a festive atmosphere to bussing voters into — and between — polling stations.

The second is Putin’s overall score itself. He needs to secure the highest possible result to begin his fourth term comfortably and with a new sheen of legitimacy. A 70–70 result would be satisfactory for the Kremlin — 70 per cent turnout and 70 per cent of that turnout voting for Putin. If that is not achieved through the vote, it is not clear how the Kremlin will react.

(3) The opposition is irrelevant.

With the country’s main opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, barred from running in the elections, the field is wide open for the dubious honour of coming distant second place to Putin. Nominal remaining opposition candidates include Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and daughter of Vladimir Putin’s former boss, Anatoly Sobchak. Although she claims to represent an opportunity for the Russian people to vote ‘against all’, and has been fairly critical of the Kremlin thus far, her candidacy is designed to act as a turnout magnet. Outlier Pavel Grudinin, boss of a Soviet era collective farm, is appropriately running for the Communist Party — though he is not a member of that party.

(4) The international element is important.

This election will be held amidst the US investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. In response, Moscow says it believes that the US plans to meddle in its elections this year. The head of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolay Patrushev, has warned about the threat of hacker attacks on the electoral infrastructure, and a report on American interference has made the headlines in the Russian media, alongside the news that US diplomats have been barred from observing the elections. The Russian leadership sees this as a tit-for-tat move against Washington at a time of deteriorating US-Russia relations.

(5) What matters are the next six years — and beyond.

Putin will remain consistent in his hard-line, conservative and nationalist domestic and foreign policy, thus offering populist continuity in Russia. Although it is by no means certain that he will relinquish power in 2024 — after 24 years at the top and at the age of 71 — it is quite possible that a key task for this term will be identifying, prepping, and introducing his successor. On the other hand, it is believed that competing elite groups within the Kremlin will also be engaged in identifying potential successors.

Mathieu Boulègue is a research fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and Roman Osharov is the Academy Robert Bosch fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.