At a recent campaign trip in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, journalists stood patiently at the city’s new hockey stadium. Throughout the day, they had been frustrated by hours of delays, security checks, and zero access. This time, aides promised, Vladimir Putin would be offered whole: in full, newsworthy form.
When the President finally appeared – from behind a glass shield on the other side of the ice rink, and surrounded by bodyguards and state television crews – he went straight into the planned photo-opportunity.
As he posed with a local ice hockey team, the journalists began to scuttle over the ice, only to be intercepted by two concentric rings of security officers. No amount of waving by his press secretary Dmitry Peskov would save the situation. By the time the journalists were allowed in range, the President had gone – back, once again behind the glass wall.
Mr Putin has never engaged with the grime of competitive politics, but this campaign has been managed to sterility. It has been conducted on the President’s terms alone. He has limited contact with the outside world. His public appearances have been scarce. He has declined to appear in television debates. And he has refrained from domestic interviews – preferring, instead, pre-recorded documentaries made by the stars of propaganda TV.
The campaign has also managed to avoid real discussion of policy. Mr Putin’s major state-of-the-nation speech on 1 March did promise Russians a warmer, less Darwinist country. There would be more money to mothers, more hospitals, and GDP would rise by 50 per cent in a decade.
But the costings were fuzzy and the targets unlikely, given the state of the economy and current growth rate of 2 per cent. The only clear vision that Russians have gained from the speech was that their future will be nuclear and militaristic.
Russians are yet to fall out of love with Vladimir Putin. When he took over in 1999, the country was recovering from one of the worst economic crises in living memory. Helped by an oil boom, Mr Putin managed to steady the ship, and he gave many ordinary citizens back their wages and dignity.
Concurrently, he oversaw the steady erosion of the independent information space – first television, then parts of print and internet. Mr Putin encouraged his citizens to keep their noses out of competitive politics, and concentrate on their careers and making money.
But after two decades of fostering cynicism and apathy, the President has a problem. He needs his citizens to rediscover the interest in politics that he took away.
Not to ensure he is returned as President, for Mr Putin will win without that. But to receive a resounding vote of confidence in what might be his last election as President. That, according to multiple sources, means as much as 70 per cent share of the vote with 70 per cent turnout.
To this end, the President’s team have tried to add the appearance of competition and intrigue. They have jazzed up the managed “opposition” with new faces. Two “opposition” candidates in particular have stood out in this otherwise anodyne race.
First is the Communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin – a smooth-talking, millionaire, pro-business and Stalin-loving collective farm manager. The incongruity of his politics might have caused problems elsewhere, but many Russians have taken a shine to him.
In unofficial surveys, according to several sources, he was at one point polling as high as 15 per cent. But a series of scandalous “investigations” in Kremlin-linked publications and dramatic allegations of undeclared Swiss bank accounts have followed.
Mr Grudinin says the allegations are false, but the Russian Central Election Committee disagrees. Now a damaging caveat about his foreign riches will be printed alongside his name on the ballot paper. It is unlikely to endear him to the average Communist voter.
And then there is Kseniya Sobchak, a celebrity liberal candidate and daughter of the President’s former mentor, Anatoly Sobchak. Many questions remain over the events leading up to her candidacy. She insists she did not coordinate her decision with the Kremlin.
But her decision to run has been widely mocked by the leading Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who has insinuated that it was. Mr Navalny was barred from running over a disputed criminal conviction that the European Court of Human Rights has described as politically motivated.
A former reality show host, Ms Sobchak has given the Kremlin much of the spectacle they hoped for. On 27 February, she awakened the somnambulant televised debates by throwing water over veteran nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia’s Trump before Trump.
“She’s scum, a whore,” snarled Mr Zhirinovsky. The presidential administration would have been smiling; the “debate” was watched by a record number of viewers.
But Ms Sobchak’s candidacy has not been entirely safe. For the first time in years, she has brought discussion of sensitive subjects to live national TV. She has talked about Russia’s international isolation, its participation in hybrid wars, and the crimes of the Stalin period.
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Getting a sense of the true standings of the candidates is difficult, given the withdrawal of Russia’s only independent pollsters, Levada Centre, from the campaign. Last year, the organisation was labelled a “foreign agent” and is now forbidden from activities that directly “interfere” in elections.
But according to state-backed pollsters, Mr Putin is conveniently set to get achieve above 70 per cent of the vote on a turnout of around 70 per cent. The battle for second, they say, is between Mr Grudinin and Mr Zhirinovsky, listed at around 6 per cent. Ms Sobchak, again according to these official figures, is polling at less than 2 per cent. The other candidates barely register.
The long-held concerns over the work of state-backed pollsters was underlined this weekend when a letter, ostensibly from the President’s security services, was leaked on social media. The document suggested pollsters were issued target polling figures by the Kremlin.
A week before elections, the operation to increase voter turnout is already in full swing. In some regions, cancer check-ups will be offered on the weekend of the vote, with results offered in local schools on the day of voting – conveniently also the location of polling stations.
Another programme will attempt to mobilise young voters with the offer of smartphones for the best “election selfies”. Across the country, there will be local referendums on urban regeneration schemes, and (if previous campaigns are a guide) discounts on fresh vegetables, buckwheat and sausages.
The main boost to turnout will come from manual interventions like forced voting at institutions under the Kremlin’s control – state corporations, universities, hospitals, mental hospitals. But here the authorities face a delicate balancing trick: how to get turnout targets without provoking a major scandal. An opinion poll by Levada Centre indicated less than 30 per cent definitely intend to vote.
“You can see from the maths that they won’t be able to get there honestly,” says the independent election observer Sergei Shpilkin. Mr Shpilkin’s own mathematical modelling, which identifies statistical outliers, suggests the number of questionable votes in the system has grown from 3 million in 2000 to as many as 10-15 million in recent years.
Mr Navalny has called for a boycott and to subvert the entire election process, which he describes as a sham. Critics say his strategy will inflate the President’s share of the vote at the expense of an already small anti-Putin electorate. But many are taking Mr Navalny up on the challenge.
According to Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist at the Russian Presidential Academy, this campaign has been accompanied by a multitude of “small, disruptive enterprises” appearing at the grassroots.
“There are any number of initiatives – ranging from writing NO ELECTIONS on posters to producing fake leaflets, imitating official election documents,” she told The Independent. “Scores of citizens are angry enough to use anonymous tricks of subversion, without quite going further.”
Sunday’s election does not look like it will produce any real surprises. But if it does, this army of invisible insurgents may well have something to do with it.