How do you see the results of this election? The result was predictable, but was there anything that surprised you?

The high level of support for Putin was unexpected. It was, in fact, too high to be credible. The official high turnout was also surprising. But we should factor in here the massive propaganda focused on getting people to come to the polls and compelling them to vote — something which is a violation of Article 1 of Russia’s Presidential Election Law by the way. In that context the turnout is more or less normal. It falls short of the 2008 turnout when Dmitry Medvedev won an election where people connected to him their hopes for a normal western trajectory for Russia’s development. In this election people were voting merely with the hope that things will not get worse.

Sociological research shows that the country has lived by this logic ever since 2017. It is a kind of negative adaptation to what is happening in the economy. Russians want things to get better, of course, but they are realists and so they accept that it is better to live like this, with this president and in these circumstances, than with something new and unknown, and with the fear that things will get worse in the country.

Putin received a serious mandate from the people. He is the president of all Russians. But this mandate is not a sign of active public support, but of indifference. It is not a mandate for reform and modernization. It is a mandate for stagnation and a continuation on the political path that Putin has been following for the past few years.

Turnout this year was higher than in 2012. How can this be explained and why did the boycott, which the opposition called for, fail?

There is one overarching reason for the high turnout. Citizens were called upon to fulfil their civic duty. A substantial part of the population wants to be law-abiding. And for very many of them in fact, voting was a ritual. There is always this motivation to participate in elections. But, this time thanks to the propaganda for voter mobilization, it was more prevalent. Additionally, many people dependent on the state, including the increasing number of those employed by state-owned companies, national banks, the army, hospitals, state institutions, state universities — all of them were obliged to vote, or at least appear to take part in these elections. Many were expected to report to the authorities that they voted before noon on election day, in some cases by submitting photographs from the site where they vote. This is clearly a case of people being compelled to vote. There were many such people; in fact, I think that there were probably millions. So, the result is not entirely honest.

I cannot definitively say that the boycott failed. It simply can’t be measured. Some people didn’t take part in the election simply out of political apathy or indifference, while others didn’t because they were taking an active stance, deciding to not vote because they support Navalny and his boycott. If we accept that turnout did not reach 70%, a substantial number of those abstaining may have supported the boycott. There is a dissenting minority that is politically active, so it’s possible that Navalny’s core electorate listened to him, maybe those with lesser sympathy for him too. So, I wouldn’t say that the boycott failed because of a lack of sympathy for Navalny and his cause.

Is it worth waiting for radical reforms or a thaw during this presidential term?

Putin received a mandate for stagnation, which means there will be no serious, comprehensive reforms, there will be no liberalization. Putin understands perfectly that he can’t touch the political foundations of his system as everything will collapse. Six years is a very long period, which needs to be endured calmly, so that a model of succession or for preservation of power may be found. Some targeted economic reforms, administrative reforms, judicial reforms are possible, but they will not change the authoritarian essence of the regime. Putin will try to find support in the new bureaucracy. He has new mechanisms for identifying promising young officials such as the "Russian Leaders" program and the "cadre reserve". I think that in his next term he will rely on young technocrats. Perhaps, people who will ensure the smooth transition to a new presidential term in 2024 will be recruited from out of their midst.

What new things has this campaign brought to the political landscape of Russia?

This campaign has made it clear to the West in particular, that Putin will not change his overall direction. And now, relying on this powerful mandate, he will act even more freely. When it comes to domestic policy, this mandate implies a continuation of the current economic policy, including the return of the state to a role of excessive presence in the economy, and a narrowing of space for public organizations, political parties and political leaders. A new figure who emerged from this election is, of course, Pavel Grudinin. Despite attempts to suppress him, Grudinin earned a significant number of votes. Paradoxically this may impede his future career. We do not know yet whether he will be chosen to lead the Communist Party or whether his career will end with the presidential election. But the fact that Grudinin came in second shows that there is a demand for new faces and for a populist discourse of the leftist variety. Ksenia Sobchak and Grigory Yavlinsky revealed the deep divisions in the liberal camp, not to mention the split within the entire liberal-democratic opposition. Nevertheless, the optics of a small and divided result make them look harmless, and so the government can allow for the creation of a liberal party that will participate in future parliamentary elections and in various elections across the regions.

Is it possible to unite the opposition?

I don’t think so. It was never really possible. Their small differences are arguably more significant than the vast differences between strongly opposed adversaries. In the past, it was impossible to unite the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko not only because of personal ambitions, but also because of their different views on economic and domestic policy. Now there is no possibility because the opposition is divided by different criteria. Now there is the legal opposition, approved of by the Kremlin, and there is the illegal opposition. And they will never join. This is evidenced by the serious conflicts that arise between Sobchak and Navalny. Even so, Sobchak can attract a significant part of the liberal electorate, which has given up waiting for Navalny to legally be allowed to participate in politics. The fact that there is no alternative opposition leader has contributed to the fact that a significant part of the urban elite supported Sobchak. But she did not manage to collect many votes, in fact, shockingly few in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Just over four percent among urban voters in Russia’s two main cities not enough for a liberal candidate.

Who, in your opinion, will become the next prime minister or will Medvedev keep his post?

According to both rumors and political logic, Prime Minister Medvedev will keep his post. It is too early to look for a real prime minister who could become Putin's successor. There is still time. By re-appointing Medvedev, Putin will send a clear signal to the ruling elites that everything remains as before, that everything is continuing to work in the same spirit as it has in previous years, and that Putin should not be considered a lame duck. For Medvedev, this preserves his position in the future race of successors in a paradoxical way. His weakness is his strength. He remains a technical figure who conveys a non-threatening message to the elites: "Do not rush, you do not need to forge a new coalition in favor of someone who seems more attractive to you than Medvedev or Putin. We are continuing along the path that was set in 2012."

Will this term be the last for Vladimir Putin, or is another “Medvedev as president” swap possible, which would allow Putin to return in 2030?

The fates of authoritarian regimes similar to Russia’s differ greatly. The trajectories of autocrats progress in different ways. But, as a rule, something very serious must happen to force an autocrat to give up power. It’s natural to expect that, for now, Putin is mostly concerned about his own security. He needs a successor like Putin was for Yeltsin. Putin was chosen so as to partly maintain the achievements of the 1990s — which he did not. However, he was primarily chosen to ensure the security of Boris Yeltsin, his actual family and his political one. Putin proved much more capable on this front. So, Putin needs this sort of Putin. Perhaps he will not find such a man, and then Putin will become his own successor in one way or another — whether as president or as a kind of informal leader of the nation. The search for a succession model, I think, will seriously begin after the parliamentary elections of 2021.

  • Andrei Kolesnikov