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The Farce of the Guiding Star: the Russian Presidential Election of 2018

The Farce of the Guiding Star: the Russian Presidential Election of 2018

Author: Vahur Hollo

Russian presidential elections took place just a little less than a week ago. In honour of that, Poliitikalabor conducted an interview with a local Russian student studying in University of Tartu, Estonia.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity. Vera’s name has been changed. The interview was conducted by Vahur Hollo. Aleksei Jašin contributed to the questions. All pictures in the article have no direct connection with anyone involved in the making of this interview.

Hi, my name is Vahur and I am currently interviewing you for Poliitikalabor. What are your interests in political studies?

Vera*: I did my bachelor in general political studies and then I came here to study in the MA program in International Relations and Regional Studies. I was trying to make my research and studies narrower.

Did you vote in the election yourself?

Yes, of course! Because not voting is a stupid stance to take. If you are a citizen of a country you should vote. You should vote even if it’s for Putin! (laughs) Elections are not a game, they are all about the future of your country and the future of your children. Hopefully I will not raise my children in Russia, but still… (laughs)

“If you are a citizen of a country you should vote.”

Several observers in prior elections have considered the elections illegitimate as there was vote tampering. As far as this election is concerned, what is the general opinion of the public that you’ve heard so far?

Well, I am in my 20’s, as are my friends, so… Actually, they are divided into two groups: those who will vote and those who will not vote. And all of them think that, as we share general values, that Sobchak and every other candidate but Putin is a “toy candidate”.

They went to the election to show that “we have some opposition, even though Putin will not debate us, so whatever”. So it was like a circus, at least it looks like one to me. I was too young to vote in the previous Putin’s elections but I think I should. But my friends who do not vote to say that “this is a stupid event since we cannot decide, we cannot do anything to affect the elections”. That’s why they abstain and instead go and post  “I am not voting as a civil position” on Instagram as a form of protest.

Of course, you can go to meetings and be detained by the police, spending a month in prison, but that will not work if you cannot express your feelings or your opinion to the public. Today [the interview was conducted on 19th March – editor], in the morning, I saw the results of the election, Putin has about 75% support,  then comes Grudinin with 12%, then Zhirinovsky with 4% and then Sobchak with 2-3% if I am not mistaken, and everyone else got even less. Talking about another group of people, such as my parents…

Do they see the election as legitimate?

My parents? They do not know what the term „legitimacy“ means. In Russia, there is a practice of forced voting. They work in governmental structures [the public sector – VH], and then you must go and vote. Indeed, you must go and take a photo of yourself and the ballot when voting.

Some people think that it’s OK that their expression of opinion – meaning voting for Putin – is forced out of them. There are also some people who do not vote at all, who are in their 30s or 40s, but who don’t vote because they can’t be bothered to go to the school where the voting takes place, staying, instead, inside.

It’s just a day like any other?

Yeah, because they are content with the idea that Putin is our leader, and everyone can elect him without their input being necessary.

Most Western news outlets focused on the voter turnout. How important would you estimate that to be to the people in power?

That’s a good question because, during the last presidential election, there was an extremely low voter turnout [the official turnout is 64% – VH]. This time, the president’s administration made an advertisement company. This means that at every corner, there are calls to vote. That is kind of annoying, actually.

They did make some competitions within kindergartens and children 3-4 years old, trying to read verses about how strong Russia and Putin are, how strong we will be together with Putin and so on. That’s so awful! This time they decided to increase the voter turnout, but I don’t think this campaign affected voter participation.

The president of the Russian Federation certainly runs a non-Western campaign, in that he barely seems to be present during the campaign events himself. In the few events he was present in, he has touted Russian missile capabilities, in addition to moving the day of the election to the date of the annexation of Crimea.

Yeah. (rolls eyes)

A popular Russian pop group just released a video gushing over a shirtless Putin…

“They are signing that together we are stronger if we have a star that shows us the way with the lyrics being a play on words strongly suggesting Putin is a guiding star.”

Fabrika is one example of non-direct advertisement, but there was another egregious example, the “Putin team”, an assortment of television stars and music personalities, who stage multiple events in the name of “Great Russia” which is strongly associated with Putin.

Basically, there’s no distinction between Russia and Putin anymore?

Yeah, because it is an authoritarian regime. In the example I gave to you, (shows video) they sing about the star that shows us the way. In the video, teachers and pensioners are shown.

The “Putin Coalition”, basically?

Yes, they also show a few doctors. They are signing that together we are stronger if we have a star that shows us the way with the lyrics being a play on words strongly suggesting Putin is a guiding star [Putin and putenvodnaja Pute – path Vodnaja – to show the way – VH]. It’s irritating, yet also funny in a way.

On the topic of turnout, I’d also like to talk about the federal structure of Russia: now we have 85 regions/districts, counting Crimea. [Crimeans voting created issues with the previous voting system since many of them left Crimea post-annexation – VH] There is a system of propiska [registration – editor], stamping your living address on your passport. I used to study in one city and moved to another city for example. Then I got that city’s stamp. By law, I could be fined 3000 rubles if I do not return to my new hometown after, say, visiting my parents after about 90 days.

(in disbelief) What? Within Russia itself?

Yes, it’s federal law in Russia. If you move, you need to get a stamp, otherwise, your stay has to be temporary. In terms of elections, you need to get some papers from your home city to be allowed to vote. In these elections, the administration said that this was not convenient, so you can just vote wherever you are. But you can still ask the committees online!

Someone associated with Navalny took 5 consents to be allowed to vote in 5 different places, voting 5 times. The turnout numbers are probably false, because Putin’s team could likely have done the same, and manipulated the vote, thusly.

Is that called a carousel? Are voters bussed around from district to district to vote multiple times?

In a carousel, you have buses of people that can be traced, but there is no way to trace people within this system. In theory, there could be enormous amounts of duplicate votes.

In some areas, there were also no independent election monitors, I hear, for example, in Chechnya?

I actually have a friend who monitored elections in Chechnya.

Oh?

Yes, väga hästi [“very well” in Estonian – editor]. (laughs) That friend was in one of the election stations, and observed large amounts of ballots, of course, for Putin, being stuffed into a ballot box. That friend noticed it and reported it to the police, the police did not come.  

Instead, someone from the election committee came to flirt with her, as a way to attempt to get her out of the building. She remained to observe until the counting was finished at 1 in the night. However, her report of the monitoring was thrown out by the authorities.

Does the Russian public perceive that this election is in any way different?

It’s just re-elections. I think, overall, the perception was that these elections were like the ones before. Liberal groups see these as re-elections, and the attempt to raise the turnout is a way of legitimizing the regime. If there’s a 65% turnout and 75% of votes for a candidate, he is considered legitimate. People within a political science discourse understand that. Regular people put a lot of their own resources and will into their own survival, as the country is very poor right now. They don’t have time to be building a democracy.

Because you brought up Navalny earlier. How would you describe the attitude towards him in Russia? In Estonia, there are several camps. Some see him as a liberal straw man, whereas others see him as a serious form of political opposition.

That’s a difficult question, even people who are deeply invested in politics disagree. There is no consensus. Some think that Navalny is the star of the opposition, they might even be working in his anti-corruption fund. Others think he is a clown. One of my Moscow friends says that he has sources which tie Navalny to the FSB structures. If he didn’t, the logic goes, he would not be as free to operate the way he does.

Overall, people don’t care. Official media (Channel 1, Russia 24) does not talk much about him. Not even Putin will say his name, instead calling him “this guy” or “this suspicious person”.

He will not dignify Navalny by saying his name.

Yes, he refuses to accept Navalny as even a person or human being. Personally, I think Navalny does better in his anti-corruption things than as a politician. I know he has degrees in law and… He does this really well. But being a politician in Russia is very dangerous. Of course, he is brave and a nice guy, but looking at him over time, one sees him as more desperately angry, because he cannot do anything. He cannot do anything that would be effectively helpful to the country. He also has some nationalistic rhetoric, but I think we can afford it, so…

I would love to do a word-association exercise with you. Try to use one word. This is about other people running for president, some were mentioned before, but describe whatever the first word is that comes to mind when you hear these names.

First off, Pavel Grudinin (Communist Party).

In Russian kandidat ot naroda – candidate of the people – because he’s Communist and portrays himself as such.

Is this a joke assessment or do some people actually see him that way?

He’s from the Communist Party, so of course. He is trying to make our country stronger, but in his Communist way.

So not “great again” but just “stronger”?

Of course great again, but that means something different for Putin and Trump than for Grudinin.

Next one: Ksenia Sobchak (unaffiliated/against all).

She’s like a big star from a TV show. She was the head of the Dom 2 show and she’s like the Paris Hilton of Russia, who then became an oppositional political journalist, and now she’s playing the role of the opposition, attracting negative attitudes for the liberal opposition in Russia. I think she’s a Kremlin project.

I suppose it would be very difficult to take Paris Hilton as a third party candidate very seriously…

Paris Hilton in this context is married with a son, and has critical thinking. But she’s also in an authoritarian system.

“It’s his seventh or sixth election, and in all of them he received less than 5 % of the vote. Why is he a statistical error? Because the statistical error in polls tends to be close to that 5%.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia).

(amused) He’s a clown.

Clown?

Vera: Yes, clown. No further comment.

Finally, Grigori Yavlinsky (Yabloko).

Let me think. “Statistical error”?

Did I hear that right? Statistical error?

For some background: It’s his seventh or sixth election, and in all of them he received less than 5 % of the vote. Why is he a statistical error? Because the statistical error in polls tends to be close to that 5%.

Especially now that the proper polling firms were not allowed to operate during these elections. I hear Levada Center was not allowed to poll before this election.

I did not notice that. Actually, Levada has a difficult relationship with the Kremlin now.

Because of being labelled a foreign agent?

Yes, they are not as consensus-building as ZEOM or other social science organizations more favourable to the Kremlin.

Because it has been such a prominent topic in the West, what has the Russian public reaction been to the assassinations of Sergei Skripal and Nikolai Glushkov?

The media perverted the question because they are trying to say that Russia is not to be blamed for this, rather the UK, the evil Theresa May and the evil Boris Whatever. The position is that we are not responsible for the assassinations, Lavrov even refused to comment [initially, now he has done so – editor]. This is why the political relationship has tensions.

It has also been said that the assassination could have been a publicity stunt, meant to send a message abroad and within Russia, that Russia should not be trifled with. The message would be that Putin is tough, strong, and kills his political enemies, keeping Russia safe. What’s your opinion about this?

No, I don’t think so. They could not say that loud. That would be illegal. We have an authoritarian regime, but we do have laws.

It is not perceived that way in Russia?

No, it is not perceived at all. Most people don’t know or care about this even if they do know.

In other countries’ elections certain social divides come to the foreground, such as the left-right or liberal-conservative divides. What are the main divides in Russian society and did they change the election in any way?

No.

Just monolithic support for Putin and that’s it?

Yes, some are lovingly supporting Putin, and others will vote for him because there’s no one else to vote for, and he’s nice enough.

It’s just very hard for me to believe that there is a country of 140 million people where everyone thinks the same way about all the possible topics. Has there just been no political debate whatsoever?

(laughs) There has been some political debate, but it has been [coloured] by Zhirinovsky who has strong populist positions, but not like Trump. Trump is nationalistic, kind of libertarian, but Zhirinovsky has no positions whatsoever. He just says whatever the Kremlin asks of him. You would understand if you lived in Russia, it’s somewhat like in North Korea.

Imagine Russia in the next 6 years for the moment. What are you the most anxious about?

I am worried about the international relations, because currently what is happening looks to me like a second Cold War. The second issue that worries me is ideological propaganda because the government does not think of domestic issues, instead, they think about what happens abroad, about the prestige of the country, about military power. That’s not OK, It is hard to build national wealth when you have this many poor people in your country. The third problem is the economic situation, as no one is looking at it. And the fourth problem is the energy sector because Russia is a major supplier of gas.

The energy and economic problems are strongly related, yes?

Yes, our country fully depends on oil and gas exports and that is really bad for the economy. I have the impression that we are returning to a Brezhnev-style economy, where we just sold our resources and all the oil and gas money was held in the hands of the nomenclature.

Is there anything you are hopeful for?

I am currently in Estonia as no one in Russia needs political scientists, they need people from Russia Today… Critical thinking is bad for the Kremlin, for national prestige, and Putin’s personal popularity. I hope we will see a liberal, wealthy Russia eventually…

In the next 6 years?

No, I will not see that great Russia, my children will. The Soviet, maybe imperial way of ruling heavily weighs on the country. There is this sort of Tsarist autocracy, very concentrated power into one person’s hands, supported by God.

Like the pope and a king in the same person.

Vera: No, an Orthodox patriarch. In Europe, the pope was a major power, the kings wanted his blessing, in Russia, it was vice versa. The patriarch has no decision making powers, he gives the Emperor’s actions the blessing of God. An example would be Peter the Great. Our current patriarch used to be a cigarette contraband smuggler in the 90’s, so his public standing is debatable.

Let’s look even further into the future as we wrap up. What will realistically happen, in your opinion, of course, once Putin no longer has presidential power?

That’s interesting. Right now Putin has his people in power. Sechin, for example, is the head of Gazprom, some time ago it was Yakunin who was the head of the railway company in Russia, so there are several people, and some of them end up not mattering in the end. So if Putin gets kidnapped by aliens for example…

… or turns out to be mortal, just throwing this wild theory out there… (laughs)

(laughs) No way! No way. If it happens, however, at one time, there will be a competition between Sechin and Yakunin, Sechin and whoever… between politicians who were close to Putin, because they know where the power is and how to obtain it. They want to keep it, I think this is the realist theory of bureaucracy by Max Weber.

Thank you so much for this interview, I am so glad we were able to do this.

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