Fabian Burkhardt – The non-campaign of the 2018 presidential election in Russia

Keep Navalny out, programmatic statements to a minimum, and turnout up. If one had to summarize the non-campaign of the 2018 presidential elections from the Kremlin’s vantage point in one sentence, this would probably be it. It will most likely go down in history as the most uninspiring presidential election in Russia’s post-Soviet history. Even President Vladimir Putin’s campaign slogan “A strong president – a strong Russia” had been copy-pasted from Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 referendum campaign. The incumbent is slated to win the elections on 18 March with a landslide and will then embark on his fourth presidential term ending in 2024 which – according to the constitution – would be his last six years in power as president. Vladimir Putin’s anticipated status as a “lame duck” in conjunction with the non-competitive, largely predetermined and non-programmatic nature of the campaign has led many analysts to speculate about the “arrival of a post-Putin Russia.” Nevertheless, elections under authoritarianism are not void of meaning. From a functional perspective, researchers conclude that “the role of Russian elections has evolved from information-gathering and co-optation to primarily signaling the regime’s strength and sporadically dividing and embarrassing the opposition.”[i] And indeed, signaling strength by showing strong turnout and splitting the non-parliamentary opposition seemed to be high on the agenda of the presidential administration.

The setup

The incumbent Vladimir Putin announced he would run again for president on 6 December 2017. This unusually late announcement three months before the election fits the overall impression of Putin’s campaign: The campaign trail and programmatic statements were reduced to a minimum. In fact, only the presidential address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March gave the broader public a glimpse into how Putin views the next six years, a vision analysts called “conservative technocracy”. Among the other seven registered candidates, two are outright spoilers (Sergei Baburin and Maksim Suraikin). Two represent parliamentary “systemic” opposition parties: Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the LDPR and Pavel Grudinin for the Communist Party (CPRF). Zhirinovsky has been a regular at presidential elections since 1991. In 2018, too, he played his role well of a scandalous, anti-Western, far-right scarecrow and clown that makes everyone else look well-behaved and decent. Shortly before his candidacy was announced, Pavel Grudinin himself did not know he would replace the CPRF’s long-term general secretary Gennady Zyuganov. Grudinin is not a party member, but was actively promoted by the leftist former protest leader Sergey Udaltsov during the party primaries. As director of the Lenin-Sovkhoz (sic) he merges both a capitalist and pro-Soviet or even Stalinist world view. As a newcomer his popularity quickly rose to higher single digits in official polls, but state television was quick to launch a smear campaign against him. This lead to speculation that his candidacy had not been agreed with the presidential administration or whether it signified infighting of various groups within the elite. Otherwise, Boris Titov – chairman of the Right Cause party and acting business ombudsman officially accountable to the president – admitted that he does not consider himself as a genuine candidate and sees the campaign rather as an opportunity to follow up on his cause as a business representative by other means. Grigory Yavlinsky, the co-founder and long-term leader of the liberal Yabloko party once more decided to take part in the election after he had not been registered in 2012, but observers describe his campaign as half-hearted at best. Probably the biggest surprise was the candidacy of journalist and socialite Kseniya Sobchak. During the campaign she has tried her best to convince the public that she was not a spoiler launched by the presidential administration although she did admit she had informed Vladimir Putin (who had worked under her father in the St. Petersburg city hall) about her plans. The amount of airtime on state TV she receives attests to claims that she fits the presidential administration’s plans rather well. Overall, it remains to be seen whether she aims to capitalize on the publicity she has received to increase the number of Instagram followers she has or to launch a new political party in the future. On the other hand, she has received praise from human rights defenders for speaking out in favor of some repressed activists like Yury Dmitriev and Oyub Titiev.

Boosting turnout to convey strength

Signaling strength to the elite, opposition and the wider population is among the core functions of authoritarian elections[ii]. Despite Putin’s approval ratings, which have remained above 80% since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this “approval” for various reasons does not automatically translate into electoral turnout in favor of the incumbent. In general, turnout has been declining across presidential, parliamentary, and gubernatorial elections (Figure 1). Nevertheless, this decline has been least pronounced for presidential elections, therefore a turnout between 65 and 70 percent might still be in the cards.

Given Vladimir Putin’s predominance in Russia’s state media and public sphere in normal times, pushing his person during the election campaign even more could backfire. Quite the contrary, at times observers have had the impression that the presidential administration has tried to restrict Putin’s election-related campaign events and TV reporting.

Overall, two main strategies to boost turnout can be identified. The first is a massive public relations and ads campaign launched by the Central Election Commission to inform citizens about the upcoming election. The official budget of the CEC for public relations amounts to 770 million rubles (13.6 million USD), but reports indicate that many companies voluntarily place information on the upcoming elections. Mobile telecom operators sent SMS text messages, the state services website Gosuslugi emailed users on behalf of the CEC, and companies ranging from the retailer Magnit to gas stations and Burger King placed election-related information on their receipts. Large state companies such as Aeroflot, Sberbank or VTB also placed ads on their websites, celebrities placed paid-for posts on Instagram, and youth TV channel ran clips about the most fashionable event of the spring.

Second, recent research[iii] has demonstrated that voter intimidation and mobilization at the workplace is an important component of elections in Russia. Frye, Reuter, and Szakonyi (2018) report that during the 2012 presidential election campaign “17 per cent of employed respondents experienced intimidation by their employers.” Future research will have to investigate the scale of workplace mobilization during the 2018 elections, but at this point we already have evidence that especially large companies are preparing to do so, such as the Chelyabinsk-based metal producer Mechel or the oil giant Rosneft. It is also crucial to keep in mind that this is as much a bottom-up as a top-down phenomenon. Given the large dominance of the state in the Russian economy, large companies have significant incentives to demonstrate loyalty to the state because they might be treated with sticks such as reprisals in form of oversight bodies or even expropriation, or with carrots such as a preferential treatment with state contracts.

To boycott or not to boycott, and comparative politics

While Sobchak’s campaign started from a mostly apolitical (“Sobchak against all”) slogan to a more political and programmatic platform (For Sobchak), Aleksey Navalny’s bid was political from the very beginning with a strong organizational component. His Foundation for the Fight against Corruption (FBK) managed to sign up more than 700,000 supporters and opened 81 regional headquarters all over Russia. Moreover, especially in the first half of 2017 Navalny managed to stage two comparatively successful protest marches with a strong regional focus in March and June despite increasing pressure from the authorities. In November 2017, for example, he announced that his employees in Moscow and the regions (i.e. not counting volunteers and supporters) had spent more than 2000 hours under arrest and had paid more than 10 million rubles (USD 175,000) in fines. As there is little doubt he would have been able to collect the 300,000 signatures demanded by law, Navalny announced a “voters’ strike” (Zabastovka izbiratelei) after the Central Election Commission rejected his bid to register officially as a candidate on 25 December 2017. Given the resources invested by Navalny, a “boycott” seemed rational, but this automatically pitted him against Sobchak and Yavlinsky. From the perspective of the Kremlin, this constellation was ideal for splitting the opposition with a minimum of effort by the presidential administration itself. What ensued was a rather fierce and at times self-destructive debate by supporters of the various camps about the perils and virtues of electoral boycotts. Electoral mathematicians such as Sergey Shpilkin and Andrei Buzin argued that a boycott that comprised only opposition supporters, but not Putin voters, would only marginally decrease turnout, but inevitably increase Putin’s vote. Notable political scientists such as Grigory Golosov and Aleksandr Kynev support the boycott. Quite interestingly, the debate frequently made reference to boycotts around the world. The most-cited reference was Matthew Frankel’s 2010 paper “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea”[iv] who argued that boycotts are rarely the correct strategy unless the opposition has widespread public support. But even supporters of the boycott found arguments in the Frankel piece that seemed to underscore their position, therefore cherry-picking among expert opinions and academic writings for political purposes was widespread. The whole debate illuminates blank spots in the reasoning and what the various political actors omitted. First, not much has been written about electoral boycotts in comparative politics, so it seems doubtful whether it is actually possible to draw robust conclusions “from the literature” for the Russian case. Second, Navalny’s ”voters’ strike” counts as a “minor boycott” at best. But comparative research so far has predominantly focused on major boycotts. In the most comprehensive work on boycotts to date, Emily Beaulieau only includes those boycotts in which more than 50% of the opposition takes part[v]. And third, the public debate mostly focused on the depression of turnout to harm Vladimir Putin’s claim to legitimacy, but other crucial aspects are kept quiet about. Staffan Lindberg found that boycotts are often positively correlated with electoral violence[vi]. Moreover, oppositional actors preferred to ignore that boycotts are frequently associated with a post-electoral crackdown by the authoritarian regime, and that the long-term prospects of democratization in the aftermath of boycotts are rather bleak[vii]. Overall, the debate on boycotts was rather superficial, but managed to drive a wedge between various opposition actors.

Election monitoring

Navalny and his team underscored that the election boycott was only one element of his strategy of voters’ strike, other elements include nation-wide protests and election monitoring. In fact, right after Navalny was denied official registration as a candidate he announced that his regional campaign headquarters would be transformed into election monitoring headquarters that would help organize and train the regional independent monitoring on election day. In early March, his website boasted more than 45,000 registered election monitors with an overall aim of 50-70,000 (there will be more than 95,000 polling stations). More crucially, while the debate on a boycott was mostly divisive, the election monitoring initiative seems to have led to some collective action and cooperation, and therefore also to a build-up of trust, social capital and experience among opposition actors. In late January, former Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, who is largely supportive of Yabloko, reached an agreement with Navalny: Gudkov aimed to cover all of Moscow’s 3500 polling stations with two observers (in early March 5500 had registered on his website), and Gudkov and Navalny would share expertise and training capacities.

While the scale and effect of this monitoring campaign remains to be seen, in the light of recent research this strategy seems to be justified from the opposition’s point of view. Rodion Skovoroda and Tomila Lankina, for instance, show that “reports by independent observers of subnational electoral irregularities could be employed as reasonably reliable indicators of fraud, and could be utilized alongside other data to ascertain the incidence of misconduct in Russia and other settings”[viii] In an another paper on Russian regional politics, Skovoroda and Lankina find that election fraud has the potential to generate protest[ix]. Depending on the degree of electoral fraud and the quality of election monitoring, the signaling effect and potential ensuing protests could actually prove more effective in delegitimizing the elections than the boycott which has been so divisive for opposition actors.

Constitutional politics and presidential power

The presidential campaign has once more highlighted how the expansion of constitutional and subconstitutional presidential powers[x] and the “rule by law” bolsters authoritarianism.

Navalny’s non-registration: On 25 December 2017 the Russian Central Election Commission refused to register Aleksei Navalny as a presidential candidate. In its decision the CEC argued that Navalny did not possess the passive right to be elected president due to his five year suspended criminal conviction in the Kirovles 2 case. The CEC’s point of reference was the federal law “On the elections of the President of the Russian Federation”, which states that persons convicted of severe or very severe crimes cannot be elected. Navalny, for his part, argues that Art. 32 of the Russian constitution only bans those citizens from being elected that are “kept in places of confinement by a court sentence.” Therefore, Russian federal law is more restrictive than the constitution which – as the supreme juridicial force with direct action – in Navalny’s and some notable constitutional lawyers’ reading should therefore trump federal law. Both the Russian Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court declined to review the Navalny case on the merits. Moreover, Navalny filed a second petition with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the repeated Kirovles 2 decision was handed down with major procedural irregularities. It is expected that the ECHR – just as in its first sentence on Kirovles 1 – will decide in favor of Navalny. In September 2017, the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers already had appealed to Russia to allow Navalny to stand for elections.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly: Russia’s equivalent of the American State of the Union Address is usually held by the president every year. In 2017, however, Putin failed to deliver the address to the Russian political elite, a first in the post-Soviet Russian history. If the address is regarded as a duty, and not as a prerogative of the president, then Putin’s omission has to be interpreted as a violation of the constitution. In addition, in February the date of the address was postponed several times and finally took place only on 1 March. Due to the close proximity to the elections, the speech was in fact an address of the main presidential candidate, and not the president, to the political elite, and therefore not only dilutes the constitutional meaning of the address, but also even more distorts the electoral playing field in Putin’s favor.

Presidential term limit: Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 for his third term was accompanied by a debate about the meaning of paragraph 3 of Art. 81 of the constitution that “one and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms running [dva sroka podryad]”. Many founding fathers of the constitution argued that this formulation essentially copied and implied the French meaning “two consecutive terms” that would not allow another term, even if the third was not consecutive as in Putin’s case. Kseniya Sobchak reinvigorated this debate by filing a lawsuit with the Supreme Court the aim of which was to achieve a ban of Vladimir Putin running for president in 2018. As expected, the SC confirmed that Vladimir Putin’s registration as a candidate by the CEC was lawful. Nevertheless, both Sobchak’s petition and her speech at the SC as well as her lawyer’s comment on the SC’s justification of its appellate ruling will be useful for posterity to judge Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Sobchak claims that a Constitutional Court ruling from 1998, a SC ruling from 2001 as well as a textbook written by the current chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin clearly underscore that one person cannot occupy the post of the president more than two times. But more interestingly, she also argues that Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin admitted on multiple occasions that they secretly conspired to retain the presidency within their elite group. In Sobchak’s reading, this plot constitutes a usurpation of power: even when Vladimir Putin was prime minister he de facto controlled the presidency and therefore in 2018 he has already held the presidency for four consecutive terms. Needless to say, the SC did not expand on the alleged secret deal. But still her legal reasoning resonates with Alexander Baturo’s work on term limits and continuismo[xi].

These three examples illustrate that talks about a post-Putin Russia appear to be premature at this point. At least the legal and political barriers for extending his rule beyond 2024 are low. More crucial still is what Henry Hale has called “the great power of expectations”[xii]. Vladimir Putin will leave the presidency voluntarily or by force only when a significantly large part of the elite will expect him to be weak. Monitoring and assessing these elite beliefs and expectations will be essential for Vladimir Putin’s fourth – or fifth – term to understand whether it will be his last, or not.


[i] Zavadskaya, M., Grömping, M., & i Coma, F. M. (2017). Electoral Sources of Authoritarian Resilience in Russia: Varieties of Electoral Malpractice, 2007–2016. Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 25(4), 480.

[ii] Simpser, A. (2013). Why governments and parties manipulate elections: theory, practice, and implications. Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Frye, T., Reuter, O. J., & Szakonyi, D. (2018). Hitting Them with Carrots: Voter Intimidation and Vote Buying In Russia. British Journal of Political Science, 1-25.

[iv] Frankel, M. (2010). “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea. Brookings Policy Paper, Nr. 19, 1-12.

[v] Beaulieu, E. (2014). Electoral protest and democracy in the developing world. Cambridge University Press.

[vi] Lindberg, S. I. (2006). When Do Opposition Parties Participate? In: Schedler, A. Electoral Authoritarianism. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 149-163.

[vii] Smith, I. O. (2014). Election boycotts and hybrid regime survival. Comparative Political Studies47(5), 743-765.

[viii] Skovoroda, R., & Lankina, T. (2017). Fabricating votes for Putin: new tests of fraud and electoral manipulations from Russia. Post-Soviet Affairs33(2), 100-123.

[ix] Lankina, T., & Skovoroda, R. (2017). Regional protest and electoral fraud: evidence from analysis of new data on Russian protest. East European Politics33(2), 253-274.

[x] Burkhardt, F. (2017). The institutionalization of relative advantage: formal institutions, subconstitutional presidential powers, and the rise of authoritarian politics in Russia, 1994–2012. Post-Soviet Affairs33(6), 472-495.

[xi] See pages 49 to 53 for Baturo’s discussion of the extension of term limits and the Russian case: Baturo, A. (2014). Democracy, dictatorship, and term limits. University of Michigan Press.

[xii] Hale, H. E. (2014). Patronal politics: Eurasian regime dynamics in comparative perspective. Cambridge University Press.

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