Life after Putin
There is little doubt that Vladimir Putin, standing for a fourth and likely final term in this month’s presidential election, will win. But Russian elections are not about the result. They are about calibrating the ruling government’s degree of legitimacy. And this time Putin’s campaign has been dented by a challenger he can’t seem to deter, Alexey Navalny. The Supreme Court recently upheld a ban on Navalny from standing, due to a previous fraud conviction, but he has continued campaigning, calling for a boycott of the elections and threatening to spoil Putin’s swan song.
Best known for his anti-corruption blogging, Navalny commands a loyal following, with tech-savvy supporters helping spread the message of his boycott online. He is, however, no liberal or friend of the Left. Lurking behind the generous representation of Navalny in the Western press is an ideologically flexible populist. Left Front activist Alexey Sakhnin labels him ‘Russia’s Trump’, for his past participation in ultra-nationalist rallies and racist comments about Muslims. Conservative nationalism remains the most potent mobilizing force in Russian politics, and any alternative to Putin will likely come draped in the national flag.
Navalny’s momentum highlights the bankruptcy of the Putin brand. But what comes next? The Russian constitution bars Putin from seeking a third consecutive term in 2024. The dozen or so men that he brought with him to the Kremlin, and who share the privileges of the kleptocracy they created, are now thinking in terms of the post-Putin era. But this ‘collective Putin’, as Russians call them, lack direction and rivalries between them are intensifying. Recent arrests of Kremlin insiders suggest this factionalism will increase as Putin becomes a lame duck.
The struggle to define Russia’s future is under way. Navalny and his supporters are determined to turn a stage-managed election into the start of a genuine shift in political forces. Whether they succeed or not, those hoping for a more progressive Russia will be disappointed.