Vladimir Putin recently won another six-year term as President of Russia. Philipp Casula discusses Putin’s goals for the term ahead, and what they may mean for Russian-European relations.
The Russian presidential election on Sunday 18 March left little room for surprise. Vladimir Putin was re-elected president of Russia. The 65-year-old incumbent won a fourth term achieving 77 percent of the vote. Thanks to an aggressive campaign by the authorities, turnout reached 67.47 percent. Neither the “liberal” candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and the daughter of Putin’s former boss, nor the Communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin, an agricultural entrepreneur, stood a chance in this unequal competition. A third potential candidate, opposition icon Alexei Navalny, was barred from participating altogether. Again, Russian elections failed one key requisite of democracy: uncertainty.
The lack of alternatives does not only concern the competing candidates. The lack is also symbolic. It indicates the success of the nationalist-populist strategy Putin has employed over the last several years and the difficulty of countering such a hegemonic narrative. But it doesn’t ensure Putin’s success in the face of the challenges ahead.
Since the conservative turn of the Russian regime after the 2011/12 parliamentary and presidential election cycle, “the people” have been cast in increasingly nationalist terms. Nationalism and populism have become more intertwined in Russia. The regime is keen to maintain hegemony over nationalism and has banned or co-opted many far-right groups because they challenge the regime’s nationalist credentials. While to say that the Russian far-right is «dead» might be a far stretch, the Russian state is aware of the danger to its own existence that emanates from this political sector and tries to keep it in check.
Still, because the regime’s success depends on pleasing a diverse set of stakeholders, their brand of nationalism is an inclusive one. The desire to reunite the former Soviet Republics means ethnic-Russian nationalism would just not do. In addition, the regime continues to enjoy popularity with liberal constituents and younger generations, who see it as a bulwark against nationalistic excess despite its recent conservative turn. In order to please all of these groups, the regime must be inclusive at least to some extent.
The recipe for success of Putinism since its inception has been to split the political space into a pro-Putin and an anti-Putin camp. This core populist strategy was also adopted by the regime in the period preceding the 2018 election, and the opposition largely played along. The signifier “Putin” has become the rallying point for both camps, negative and positive. For supporters, everything is about keeping Putin in place, as a symbol of a resurgent Russia, of political stability, and of the current distribution of power. “Putin” has played this role with utmost perfection. For opponents, everything is about getting rid of Putin. “Russia without Putin” became the battle cry of the opposition (though Ksenia Sobchak came up with a populist slogan of her own, “Sobchak against all”). Russia appears divided more than ever between a pro-Putin and an anti-Putin camp.
In the 2018 election, the Russian people duly voted for the incumbent, since Putin’s brand came to represent the desires and demands of many Russians. The vote was not just about upholding an illusion of legitimacy or a show of force and resilience. It was a symbolic act that reconfirms the pivotal symbolic function of the Putin brand. While Russia has no democracy as we know it, it certainly has a populism centred on Putin. Symbolism alone, though, will not do to fend off the 2024 nightmare of a strained legacy or even regime failure, and Putin faces substantial challenges on multiple fronts.
On the foreign policy front, Putin will have to find some long-term solution for Syria or an exit strategy, as the country, even after regime gains, will continue to be torn by the Iran-Israel/Saudi Arabia rivalry. He will also have to develop some sort of modus vivendi with an erratic, volatile and increasingly aggressive US administration, as the nomination of John Bolton as security advisor indicates.
Internally, Putin must turn Crimea into a success, create jobs and eradicate corruption, and fix the situation in Eastern Ukraine, which is key to repairing relations with western Europe. To give its economy a push and create a positive legacy in domestic and international affairs, Putin most importantly must restore its relations with the European Union.
In addition, Putin’s populsim, while apparently successful, disregards that Russians would welcome gradual adjustments, especially in the economic and social spheres, in which the Putin brand fails them. Among the demands that rank highest are an improvement in living standards (25 percent of respondents in August 2017) and “social guarantees and social justice” (17 percent). Strikingly enough, though, a vast majority of respondents see in Vladimir Putin as the only person capable of implementing such changes.
In the years to come, Europe must take two sides of the Putin regime into account: on the one hand, Russia will continue to bolster its assertive and independent role in international relations, especially in the post-Soviet space. While the country is willing to make concessions, for example to China in Central Asia, Russia considers this geographic area as its core zone of influence. This is also of utmost importance on the symbolic level, since pursuing such a foreign policy reaffirms Russia’s status as regional and global power.
On the other hand, Russia needs Western Europe, symbolically, politically and economically. Symbolically, Europe has always been key cultural point of reference and will continue to be so. Politically, Russia is in need of allies, and despite a multi-vectored foreign policy, Russia’s most important partner remains Europe. This is nowhere clearer as in the economic sphere: sanctions and counter-sanctions are harmful, not only economically, but damage relations between two neighbours who need each other.
For Europe at large, thus, the result of this election signifies a high degree of continuity at its eastern borders. Being aware that this tenure will determine the legacy of “late Putinism”, there is a chance that they could patch up relations if each side is willing to make some concessions. However, the ongoing diplomatic row between Russia and the rest of the world following the Skripal Affair  is pointing in a different direction.
Philipp Casula (@PhilippCasula ) is a post-doctoral researcher at the Center of Eastern European Studies (CEES) at the University of Zurich.
Photo by Jedimentat44  via Creative Commons License 2.0.