“I heard all you have to do to vote for Putin is nod in front of the TV.” The comment was made by Andrei as we drove by a large billboard of Vladimir Putin urging Russian’s to come to the polls. He, like much of the country under 40, was apathetic about politics and would be staying home for the March 18th elections. It was part of a popular refrain that I was hearing all over Russia. Everyone already knew who would win. But what was the alternative?
In its frenzy to condemn all things coming out of the Kremlin, the Western media has denounced Putin as a dictator presiding over a sham election. There is no doubt that the Russian government has an authoritarian streak. Putin himself has acknowledged this in so far as describing the current political environment as “managed democracy.” But there is quite a bit of nuance that the press leaves out about what is going on in Russia; chiefly, that Putin is actually the country’s only popular politician at the moment.
To understand Putin’s popularity, one has to appreciate the profound economic crisis that the country went through in the 1990s. The end of the Soviet Union and communism did not usher in an era of prosperity but the complete and total economic collapse of the country. GDP per capita went from $20,000 in 1989 to less than $12,000 when the economy finally bottomed out in 1998. It’s hard to explain the profound psychological impact that the 1990s have had on Russian society. But it was when Russia was at its lowest that Yeltsin tapped Putin to replace him. Subsequently, the economy recovered, and by 2006, GDP per capita had surpassed Soviet Union levels. Despite the 2008 global economic crisis and the ongoing Russian economic downturn that began in 2014, GDP per capita remains above $27,000, which, while not high by Western European standards, is similar to the emerging economies of Poland and Hungary.
Although Putin had little to do with Russia’s return to economic growth, he happened to come into office at an auspicious time and consequently reaped the credit for the country’s return from oblivion. As much as Western media talks of Russian chauvinism and Machiavellian plans of a new Soviet Union, it is the economy that is primarily responsible for Putin’s popularity. This isn’t to discount other aspects of Putin’s tenor as president. He owed his initial election to his decision to send troops in the Chechnya, and the war with Georgia and annexation of Crimea proved to be very popular. But more than anything, Russians fear a return to the 1990s and the societal collapse it brought. Putin represents stability, and few Russians want to rock the boat.
Putin also owes his success to the simple fact that no one on the national stage has quite been able to capture the public’s imagination. Oh, yes, there is Alexei Navalny, the darling of the Western media, but his popularity is greatly exaggerated. In 2013, Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow and only received 27 percent of the vote, despite Moscow having some of the highest anti-Putin sentiment in the country. Even though Navalny claimed fraud after the election, his vote share was actually slightly higher than what the independent polling organization Levada Center had predicted.
It is true that on a national level Navalny may have been able to outperform the current presidential opposition candidates if he had been allowed to participate (he is currently barred from politics because of a highly suspect corruption conviction). But Navalny’s nationalism and anti-immigration agenda (all of which is almost never reported on in Western media) is anathema to many who oppose Putin.
The other seven candidates (two communists, two nationalists, a former reality TV host, a classical liberal, and a Putin insider) have their own sets of problems. Most of these candidates have been political mainstays since the early days of the Russian Federation. The communists, in particular, have seen their support dwindle as the country ages, and the pensioners, their main source of votes, are replaced by younger generations who grew up after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and have no interest in its return. The main nationalist candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the ironically named Liberal Democratic Party, has contested almost every presidential election since 1991. But he isn’t considered a serious contender mainly because his boorish personality (he has said things publicly that would make even Trump blush) and xenophobic posturing already have an outlet in the more palatable chauvinism of Putin. Then there is the liberal candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, who eschews social media as a sideshow rather than a particularly useful tool of communication in an age were more traditional forms of communication such as television are heavily tilted to the state.
There is a reason why Russians feel there is no alternative to Putin. The opposition parties have repeatedly failed their constituencies. Today’s young generation of Russians are tech-savvy independent thinkers, who are increasingly turning to the internet for news and opinions. There is no dearth of information online challenging the policies of Putin and the Kremlin. But the opposition continues to put forth the same tired candidates, the same old faces that have been part of the political establishment since Soviet times. It is as much the fault of an opposition without fresh ideas as it is Putin’s fortuitous popularity and quasi-control over the media to which he owes his next election victory.