[News analysis] Putin set to become longest-ruling Russian leader, after Stalin

Posted on : 2024-03-14 16:40 KST Modified on : 2024-03-14 16:40 KST
Russian leader looking to secure a whopping 80% of the vote
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP/Yonhap News)
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP/Yonhap News)

Russia will be holding its eighth presidential election on Mar. 15-17. The outcome is foreordained — it will end in a “landslide” victory for current president Vladimir Putin, aged 71.

Since assuming power as acting president on Dec. 31, 1999, Putin has effectively been the leader of Russia for over 24 years now, including his tenure as prime minister (2008-2012).

If Putin completes another six-year presidential term following this election, he will break the 29-year record (1924-1953) set by former Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist following the death of Vladimir Lenin, who established the regime. Since a 2020 constitutional amendment allows Putin to serve several more terms as president, he seems determined to become dictator for life.

While the outcome of the election is not in doubt, Putin’s regime has spent lavishly on this election with the apparent goal of securing an unprecedented 80% of the vote. Leading up to the Russian presidential election, the Hankyoreh has assessed the significance and prospects of this election with the help of domestic and foreign experts who are well-versed on the situation on the ground.

The reason that Putin is seeking the highest-ever vote in this election is because it serves as a referendum on his invasion of Ukraine and on the continuing war that has required enormous investments, including Russia’s first draft since World War II.

Most manipulated post-Soviet Russian election?

Callum Fraser, an expert on Russia and a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Hankyoreh over correspondence that this presidential election is necessary to secure the Putin regime’s legitimacy.

As a result, many are concerned about election-meddling by the regime.

“This election will likely be the most manipulated election within Russian politics since the fall of the Soviet Union,” Fraser said. “Putin’s need to secure strong support from a strong voter turnout will mean that all steps will be taken to manipulate the results.”

Opposing factions have viewed this election as a chance to show the level of opposition to Putin and the war.

Alexei Navalny, the leader of the political opposition, had been running an anti-government campaign urging people to show up at the polls and cast a vote against Putin. But that was before Navalny’s death last month at the IK-3 penal colony in the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region of Siberia, where he had been imprisoned.

His widow Yulia is now carrying on that campaign, but Russian authorities’ tight control of public opinion is a tough nut to crack.

Putin’s goal of achieving the best election record in history is feasible because of his high approval rating. According to a poll by the Levada Center, a nongovernmental polling organization, Putin enjoyed an approval rating of 86% last month. That was 17 points higher than his approval rating of 69% in January 2022, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Why are Putin’s approval ratings so high?

A South Korean government source who is knowledgeable about the situation in Russia offered the following explanation. “There are obviously some who oppose the war and the regime, but the majority of Russians are accustomed to authoritarianism. They regard Putin as the only person capable of making Russia powerful enough to pay the US back for its insults,” the source said.

Putin’s high approval rating owes to the fact that the Russian establishment has cultivated an image of Putin being the country’s only competent leader.

“All forms of mass media are heavily repressed, allowing only state-sponsored news to be published,” Fraser said, adding that “any form of protest or opposition to Putin is quickly repressed before it can generate momentum.”

Fraser noted that while polls are generally accurate, “the issue is who they ask, and more so, who is willing to answer. [. . .] The people who are willing to answer such questions are more likely to support the current regime.”

There are no figures or forces in Russia capable of resisting Putin. The other politicians registered in the presidential election — Nikolai Kharitonov (Communist Party), Vladislav Davankov (New People Party) and Leonid Slutsky (Liberal Democratic Party) — are little more than placeholders, with approval ratings around 5%.

Boris Nadezhdin, who had declared his opposition to the war, attempted to register as a presidential candidate, but Russia’s Central Election Commission barred him from running on the grounds that most of the signatures he’d collected were invalid.

Presuming he’s reelected by an overwhelming margin, Putin is likely to treat that as a mandate to intensify his assault on Ukraine, making the war drag on even longer.

“Russia appears to think it won’t be able to wrap up the war before the US presidential election. Since its current onslaught is gaining momentum, it’s likely to adopt a policy of maintaining its occupation of Ukrainian territory,” said Shin Beom-sik, director of the Institute of International Studies at Seoul National University.

Sanctions haven’t been as effective as planned

The Russian economy is sustaining the country’s ability to wage a protracted war. Despite economic sanctions from the West, the Russian economy grew by 3.6% last year, and the International Monetary Fund projects 2.6% more growth this year.

One reason the Russian economy is growing despite sanctions is because it has boosted trade with the “Global South,” a blanket term for developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America that are in the Southern Hemisphere and the lower latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

However, there are concerns that a protracted war will exacerbate the Russian economy’s dependence on China. According to figures provided by China’s customs authority, known as the General Administration of Customs, trade between the two countries last year amounted to US$240.1 billion, a 26.3% jump from the previous year.

That’s the biggest trade volume the two countries have ever reported.

As a result, some think that Russia may still attempt to improve relations with South Korea, despite regarding it as an “unfriendly country.” A source in the South Korean government said that Russia “regards South Korea as a cooperative partner for avoiding subservience to China and for establishing strategic independence.”

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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