Samantha de Bendern for the Guardian: Putin had to contrive a ‘landslide’ – because he knows cracks are showing in Russian society

2024-03-18 | Expert publications

Samantha de Bendern is an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and a political commentator on LCI television in France

Although Vladimir Putin’s landslide victory with 87% of the vote in the Russian election was no surprise, these elections were important both for the Kremlin and for those in opposition to Putin.

With voter turnout at 74% – the highest in history – anything less than a landslide victory would have suggested that those who did not vote for Putin represented a significant force in Russian politics. This would have been particularly awkward in the case of young upstart Vladislav Davankov, who, with 3.79% of the vote, came a close third place. Davankov has been mistakenly described as an anti-war candidate – he supports peace and negotiations, “but on Russia’s conditions and without one step backwards” – but his platform also called for “freedom of speech and opinion, instead of intolerance and denunciations”, and “openness and pragmatism instead of searching for new enemies”.

Several opposition figures, including the well-known blogger Maxim Katz, and barred candidate Boris Nadezhdin, publicly stated they would vote for him. According to Vote Abroad, Davankov gained the majority of votes at Russian polling stations in other countries. With such a “subversive” candidate on the ballot sheet, nothing other than absolute victory would have allowed Putin to sleep at night.

It was clear for some time that the Kremlin saw this election as a test of the regime’s legitimacy. It is reported to have spent close to €1bn on the election campaign, with funds overwhelmingly devoted to ensuring a large turnout. It was not enough for the Kremlin to win the election – it also had to demonstrate public engagement. There was a push for early voting, especially in the occupied territories in Ukraine, where electoral officials accompanied by armed men in uniform knocked on people’s doors and politely asked them if they would like to vote early. Those who did not yet have Russian passports were allowed to use their Ukrainian IDs. In Russia there were the usual raffles, discos and canteens at polling stations to entice people out.

The elections also marked the culmination of weeks of modest but consistent protest for those opposed to Putin. Alexei Navalny’s widow called for his supporters to turn up at polling stations around Russia at noon on 17 March to show their solidarity with the anti-Putin movement. The turnout for these protests, both in Russia and abroad, was significant. Navalny’s grave, which authorities had cleared of the flowers that mourners had brought since his funeral, was covered instead with ballots voters had brought from polling stations.

Other acts of rebellion marked the elections as well, which even the official press could not ignore. State-owned news agency Tass reported arrests after a number of fires and explosions, with voters throwing molotov cocktails at polling stations, or else ballot spoilage by pouring paint, or green disinfectant, known as zelyonka, into ballot boxes. The ironic symbolism of the latter will not have been lost on voters or the regime: Navalny was seriously injured in the eye when he was doused with the green disinfectant mixed with a corrosive substance in 2017.

In many ways, even though the result was known in advance, these elections have some telling lessons. We should be heartened by the acts of brave resistance, which show that Russian civil society is still alive in spite of Putin’s attempts to repress it. However, the majority of the population still support the regime. Veteran Russia analyst Mark Galeotti suggests that without fraud, Putin would still have been easily elected with a 60% majority in the first round.

That Putin would obviously try to push that number upward despite widespread support shows that the Kremlin has abandoned any pretence that Russia is anything other than a one-party dictatorship. Putin also seemed emboldened by how well the election went; at his post-electoral press conference, he finally said Navalny’s name out loud. With his power comfortably cemented, he is no longer afraid of his arch-nemesis, or even his ghost. It is likely he will use the result of these Potemkin elections as a stamp of legitimacy to justify more repression, intensified war and another round of mobilisation.

Perhaps Putin’s rule is safe. But the splits in Russia’s society have been laid bare, be it the hundreds of thousands of voters who signed up for banned anti-war candidate Nadezhdin, or the many who protested in support of Navalny, and didn’t vote or spoiled their ballots on which his name could not appear. The election result is a facade for a rotten regime that is hollow at the core and needs lies, violence and war to survive. And it is likely discontent will grow as the privations of war and repression dig in.

It may take years for the rift in Russian society to weaken the regime. But, the rift is there – and Putin’s need for absolute victory shows that he is aware of it. He remembers how fast communism fell in Europe once a small chain of events created a tidal wave. He is also known to be fond of the symbolism of dates. It is tempting therefore to taunt him with this little reminder: on 17 March 1985, Romania’s brutal dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was re-elected with 100% of the votes of the rubber-stamp parliament, which had in turn just been re-elected with nearly 100% of the popular vote. Four years and nine months into his term, revolution toppled his regime, and he was shot dead by his secret police.

Commentary originally published on the Guardian.