2018 Russian Presidential Election: Get to Know the Candidates!

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On March 18th, Russia will hold presidential elections with the largest field of candidates since 2000. Seven opposition hopefuls ranging from avowed Stalinists to free-market reformers will go up against Putin in hopes of bringing change to Russia.  Although largely quixotic, their candidacies could have a real impact on the country down the road.  To understand who is running and what each candidate means for Russia take a look below. As a bonus, I have included each candidate’s most notable (and often cringe-worthy) political ad.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
Current Political Position: President of Russia
Party: Unaffiliated (but backed by the umbrella party United Russia and smaller parties with a wide spectrum of political views)
Polling: 69 percent
Who 
A former KGB operative and past director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin was first appointed to the Presidency by Boris Yeltsin in December 1999 before winning election in May 2000.  Believed at the time to be a man controlled by Kremlin insiders, Putin quickly consolidated his own power winning reelection in 2004.  Because Russia’s constitution barred a candidate from running for three consecutive terms, Putin became Prime Minister in 2008 returning to the Presidency in 2012, when he was elected with 63 percent of the vote to a new six-year term.
Political Positions
Putin’s politics can best be described as pragmatic, but today tend to tilt towards social conservatism, paternalism, nationalism, and corporatism.  He is, essentially, the arbitrator of power in Russia. In many ways, Russia’s power structure still resembles the three estates of medieval Europe (nobles, clergy, and the peasantry). Only today, the nobles have been replaced by corporate oligarchs, and the peasantry has diversified into a less monolithic working class.  The clergy, of course, still retains its power through the Orthodox Church, which considers itself the keeper of Russian culture and identity.  Putin has sought to advance the agenda of these three estates in exchange for their loyalty. To this, one can add a fourth estate, the intelligentsia, largely crushed after widespread street protests in the run-up to the 2012 election.  The 2012 protests were seen as a betrayal by Putin, who had previously allowed a number of free-market reforms.  Since then, the economy has largely been managed along corporatist lines, and civil liberties have been curtailed.
Campaign Performance
Putin has not participated directly in this election cycle.  Instead, he has fostered the image of being above politics, acting only in the interest of the country.  Putin has not taken part in any of the debates nor is he running political advertisements.  That isn’t to say that Russians are not reminded of his “achievements” on a daily basis through Russia’s sycophant media, and the government has been spending millions to get the vote out.  Putin also gave an annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly on March 1st just two weeks from Election Day, which itself takes place on the anniversary of Crimea’s annexation. All this, of course, is designed to benefit the incumbent.
What to Expect
The latest government polling shows Putin with 69 percent of the vote, while the last poll taken by the independent Levada Centre in December 2017 has Putin at 61 percent.  There is no doubt that Putin will win the election and avoid a runoff, but the Kremlin will be keeping a close eye on turnout.  The rumor is that Putin hopes to win by at least 70 percent with over 70 percent turnout.  Anything under 60 would be considered a failure and could result in some policy changes in his next administration. Exactly what this would entail remains to be seen and depends on which of his opponents have the strongest showing.  Given that anti-corruption advocate Alexei Navalny, who is barred from running, has asked his constituents to boycott the election, a low voter turnout could see a crackdown by Putin on corruption even within the United Russia party to sure up support among the masses. Also, Oblast governors that are unable to reach the 60 percent target will likely be replaced following the election.
Most Notable Political Ad
Well, at least Trump wasn’t her first (2012). English subtitles

Pavel Nikolayevich Grudinin
Current Political Position: Chairman of the Council of Deputies of Vidnoye
Party: Communist Party of the Russian Federation (not an official member)
Polling: 7 percent
Who
Grudinin is a strange kind of communist, and many would say, he is not a communist at all.  The multi-millionaire controls the Lenin State Farm, a relic of the Soviet past that was privatized in 1995.  Nevertheless, Grudinin, a product of the USSR, has maintained many of the soviet era programs for his workers, and when the Communist Party needed new blood to replace its aging mainstay Gennady Zyuganov, Grudinin was a logical choice to redefine socialism in the 21st century.  He also has substantial political experience as a member of the Moscow Region Duma from 1997 to 2002 and the chairman of the council of deputies of his natal city Vidnoye. Until 2010, he was affiliated with Putin’s United Russia.
Political Positions
Grudinin’s views have more in common with Western European style radical socialism than the command economy of the Soviet era.  His 20 point platform pledges the introduction of progressive taxes and spending on social programs including massive amounts of money for state housing and pensions.  Grudinin also wants to see protectionist economic policies put into place and price controls on basic foods and commodities.  Like all communists, Grudinin emphasizes the need for increased industrialization and modernization in Russia.
Campaign Performance
One of the more “professional” opposition candidates, Grudinin has focused mostly on corruption with a heavy dose of Russian nationalism while downplaying the more extreme elements of communism. He has performed well in the debates, although it doesn’t appear to have helped his poll numbers much.
What to Expect
Grudinin is expected to finish in second place with seven percent of the vote, only one percent better than the Levada Centre reported in its December poll.  The Communist Party has suffered a significant decline since Zyuganov received over 40 percent of the vote in a 1996 heads-up presidential match against Boris Yeltsin.  In 2012, Zyuganov was only able to garner 17 percent in a four-way presidential race that Putin won with over 63 percent of the vote.  Grudinin needs more than a second place finish if he is going to convince the communists that he is the future of the party, but polls indicate only 10 percent of voters remain undecided.  Despite this, there is no doubt that Grudinin is a significant political force, and he may be in a position to form his own “social democratic” party following the election.
Most Notable Political Ad
Because who wouldn’t want to live in a socialist paradise? English subtitles

Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky
Current Political Position: Member of the State Duma
Party: Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (head)
Polling: 5 percent
Who
Zhirinovsky is a longstanding member of Russia’s State Duma (since 1993) and the head of the ultra-nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party. This will be his sixth time running for president. Frequently described as a “showman” or a “clown,” Zhirinovsky is Russia’s most controversial political figure.  He is often captured making racist, xenophobic, and bellicose remarks.  In one 2014 case, he ordered an aide to rape a pregnant journalist during a press conference.  On several occasions, Zhirinovsky’s verbal threats have led to violence including a 2003 fistfight during a debate.
Political Positions
Zhirinovsky may be the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, but there is nothing liberal or democratic about his policies.  He is an unabashed nationalist and advocate of Russian interventionism aboard.  Socially conservative, he espouses a brand of paternalistic populism that seeks strong state intervention in the economy and increases in social welfare spending.  Zhirinovsky’s views are often described as “fascist.”
Campaign Performance
As one would expect, Zhirinovsky’s belligerent style has been on full display this election cycle; he was even doused with water by another presidential candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, after verbally insulting her at a debate.  But there is some big money behind Zhirinovsky, and Russia has likewise been inundated with Pro-Zhirinovsky political advertising.
What to Expect
Zhirinovsky is currently in third place with five percent of the vote, three percent less than the Levada Centre reported in December. Putin’s more palatable nationalism has already siphoned off much of Zhirinovsky’s support, and given the Communist Party’s poor showing, anything less than second is probably going to spell the end for Zhirinovsky’s presidential aspirations.  On the other hand, with 10 percent of voters still undecided, a surprise second-place finish is not out of the question, and would certainly give the nationalists a larger place at the table within the Putin administration.
Most Notable Political Ad
Abusing this donkey is probably the least despicable thing this man has done (2012). English subtitles

Ksenia Anatolyevna Sobchak
Current Political Position: None
Party: Civic Initiative
Polling: 2 percent
Who
The daughter of a former mayor and Putin mentor Anatoly Sobchak, she has been accused of being a Putin plant to give the election and air of legitimacy; curiously, these allegations have been fueled by anti-corruption advocate Aleksei Navalny, who may see in Sobchak a future rival.  Sobchak shot to fame in Russia as the host of a lowbrow reality TV show called Dom-2 (House-2) before reorienting herself to journalism, including as an anchor for the independent cable channel Dozhd.  Sobchak is considered a political outsider and has never held office.
Political Positions
Sobchak has defined her candidacy not by what she stands for but by whom she stands against, which appears to be everyone.  Announcing her bid for President in October 2017, Sobchak stated that she was the “candidate against all.” Broadly speaking Sobchak supports free-market reforms, increased civil liberties, and less intervention abroad.  She has called for dialogue with Ukraine to resolve the status of Crimea.
Campaign Performance
A lack of specifics on policy and her often brazen personality has won Sobchak little support.  Most Russians do not see Sobchak as a serious candidate.  Her debate performances have been combative but lacking in substance. Sobchak has also been hurt by several high-profile interviews in Western media, which Russians tend to view with suspicion.  On top of all this, it is doubtful that Russia is even ready for a female president.
What to Expect
Sobchak is gaining some traction, polling at an all-time high of 2 percent. But she also remains the most disliked candidate in the race with an unfavorable rating of 57 percent, and it is unlikely she will be able to overcome either Grudinin or Zhirinovsky.  Speculation in the West is that Sobchak has her eyes on 2024, which just might be the case; she announced that she would be forming a new political party just days before election.  Regardless, she is not going away anytime soon.
Most Notable Political Ad
It’s not an ad, but it should be! English subtitles

Grigory Alexeyevich Yavlinsky
Current Political Position: None
Party: Russian United Democratic Party (“Yabloko”)
Polling: 1 percent
Who
Yavlinsky has been a mainstay of Russian politics since the dissolution of the USSR.  An economist best known for his 500 Days program that sought to transform the Soviet Union’s centrally planned economy into a free market in less than two years, Yavlinksy has mostly fallen into irrelevancy since the 1990s.  That has not stopped him from running or attempting to run in every presidential election since 1996, including in 2012, when Russia’s National Electoral Commission declared 20 percent of his 2 million signatures needed to run invalid.
Political Positions
Yavlinsky is a social-liberal and co-founder of the Yabloko (Apple) party which supports free markets and civil liberties as well as government policies that promote the basic welfare of the community.  Because neo-liberal economics has been taboo in Russia since the 1990s, Yavlinksy has mostly focused his campaign on addressing social welfare issues through economic policy.  One of his ideas is to give Russian families free government land to promote its development and use.  He also supports dialogue with Ukraine to address the Crimea’s status and better relations with the West.
Campaign Performance
Yavlinsky’s best days on the national stage are well in the past, and it shows in the polls.  Although his debate performances have been steady, Yavlinsky lacks the charisma to rally a younger generation to his cause, while older Russians are skeptical of his free-market positions.  His eschewing of social media as unprofessional is telling of his age.
What to Expect
Barring a miracle, this will be the end of Yavlinsky’s political career. Polling at barely one percent, Yabloko will likely seek a fresh face to represent the party in 2024.
Most Notable Political Ad
Um…are those Pandas doing what I think they’re doing?  Yes, yes they are. Russian only

Sergey Nikolayevich Baburin
Current Political Position: None
Party: Russian All-People’s Union (head)
Polling: 1 percent
Who
A career politician, Baburin previously served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan before becoming a member of the Supreme Soviet of Russia where he voted against the dissolution of the USSR. His outspoken criticism of Boris Yeltsin won him a seat in the State Duma, where he served from 1993 to 2000 and again from 2003 to 2007.  He currently leads the nationalist Russian All-People’s Union.
Political Positions
Baburin is a paternalistic nationalist who supports heavy state intervention in the economy and the social realm. Broadly speaking, Baburin’s domestic political views are similar to Zhirinovsky, but he lacks the specifics espoused by the latter. Also, like Zhirinovsky, he supports strengthening Russia’s military but is less keen on expanding power through interventions outside Russia’s primary spheres of influence.
Campaign Performance
Not quite the populist that Zhirinovsky is; Baburin comes across as more professional and measured on the debate stage.  Nevertheless, there simply isn’t any room for him in this crowded field, and he has largely spent this election cycle unnoticed.
What to Expect
Baburin will be lucky to get to one percent this year. However, he does have some cross-voter appeal with the communists and could potentially find a new home within a left coalition.
Most Notable Political Ad
Arguably, the dullest political advertisement this election cycle.  Even the exclamation points look bored. Russian only

Boris Yurievich Titov
Current Political Position: Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneurs’ Rights
Party: Russian Party of Growth (head)
Polling: Less than 1 percent
Who
Titov is a businessman who made his fortune mostly in international trade and the petrochemicals and energy industries.  In 2007, Titov was elected as a member of the Supreme Council of United Russia, and in 2012, he left the business world to become Putin’s Commissioner for Entrepreneurs Rights, a position he still holds.  As the leader of the Party of Growth, Titov is generally considered to be a member of the “loyal opposition.”
Political Positions
Apparently, Titov does not want to be President but is merely seeking to promote the Stolypin Club’s economic agenda (Stolypin was a reforming Prime Minister under Nicolas II), a pro-business platform which includes less government regulation and quantitative easing.  His hope is to rally enough support to tilt the Kremlin towards market reforms.
Campaign Performance
“What about Titov?” asks his political ad cryptically, without providing any additional information.  As a Kremlin insider, Titov never had much of a chance. While he differs with Putin on some economic matters, he has consistently praised Putin in almost every other area of his administration.
What to Expect
The Party of Growth may have had the right idea of using an election to increase their influence within the Putin coalition, but Titov was not the man to carry out that mission.  Considering that his campaign has been a complete flop to date, don’t expect Putin to take a free-market approach to economics anytime soon.
Most Notable Political Ad
“What about Titov?”  Ten hours that’s what.

Maxim Alexandrovich Suraykin
Current Political Position: None
Party: Communists of Russia (chairman)
Polling: Less than 1 percent
Who
Not all communists were happy with the selection of Grudinin as the party’s candidate, least of all the Stalinist Suraykin. Although smaller than the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Communists of Russia see themselves as the true heir to the Soviet Union.  Suraykin has been Chairman of the Central Committee of the party since 2012 and has run unsuccessfully for multiple offices over the last several years.
Political Positions
If elected, Suraykin promises to transition Russia from a capitalist system to a socialist one within a hundred days through his “10 Stalinist Hits” plan. Well, you can’t fault his ambition.
Performance
Suraykin, apparently, is hoping to rally the proletariat and win the class war. His debate performances have been largely surreal with talk of large-scale nationalization and the abandonment of democracy outright.  Some in the West may be under the impression that Russians are in love with Stalin and his policies.  Suraykin proves that they are not.
What to Expect
If Suraykin can finish anywhere except dead last that would be something of an achievement.  Workers of the World Unite!
Most Notable Political Ad
Watch Capitalism take a beating from your Stalinist President’s 10 hit plan! Russian only

Alexei Anatolievich Navalny
Current Political Position: None
Party: Progress Party (leader)
Polling: N/A (barred from running)
Who
Navalny is a lawyer and political activist best known in the West as an anti-corruption crusader and ardent Putin critic.  During the first half of the 2000s, he was active in Yabloko, a party in which he joined even though he didn’t particularly agree with their politics, before founding his own “democratic nationalism” party, The People, to advocate for democracy and ethnic Russian rights.  In 2013, Navalny formed the Progress Party and made a failed bid to become mayor of Moscow.  Around the same time that he founded The People party, Navalny became involved in investigating corruption in Russia.  His 2017 report accusing Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of corruption led to multiple street protests demanding greater accountability of government officials.  In 2016, he announced he would run for president but has been barred from running due to a dubious criminal conviction.
Political Positions
Navalny has mainly focused on corruption in recent years, but is also known as a nationalist who has called for greater restrictions on immigration.  Navalny has in the past courted skinhead groups and has made xenophobic remarks, although he has since distanced himself from hardliners. In a break with other nationalists, Navalny supports closer ties to the west and dialogue with Ukraine over Crimea.
Campaign Performance
Navalny is often seen getting arrested at street protests.  This has proven an effective tool for media attention, especially, with the Western press, which broadcast each arrest as proof of an increasingly authoritarian state cracking down on “mass protests.” The truth is, Navalny’s gatherings are generally poorly attended (a few thousand people in a city the size of Moscow isn’t exactly revolutionary), and the arrests are usually because the protesters deliberately refuse to march along the designated protest route. While many Russians are thankful for his exposure of corruption at the highest levels, they do not approve of his methods.
What to Expect
Navalny’s influence in Russia has been greatly exaggerated in the West.  A November 2017 poll by the independent Levada Centre found only 1 percent of Russians would vote for Navalny, and he overwhelmingly lost his 2013 bid to become mayor of Moscow despite the city being the only region in Russia where Putin received less than 50 percent of the vote in 2012.  Having called for a boycott of the 2018 presidential elections, Navalny has staked his political future on low voter turnout.  If Russian voters do stay away from the polls on March 18th, than Navalny may see himself truly become the leader of the opposition.
Most Notable Political Ad
Navalny illustrates how to  deal with “lawlessness.”  Here’s a hint: it involves more than a flyswatter (2007). Russian only

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