From Novaya gazeta Europe, Oct. 25, 2023, https://novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/10/25/peizazh-pered-proigrannoi-bitvoi. Complete text:)
This fall saw a series of visits to the Kremlin by factory workers, farmers and college students. This means that ordinary folks have once again been instructed to beg Vladimir Putin to seek reelection. In a few weeks, he will launch his campaign, or rather the semblance of a campaign orchestrated by a military dictatorship.
In the run-up to the campaign season, Putin has adjusted the rhetoric he uses with his supporters. The Russian dictator is speaking less of the war and sticking to his usual welfare state agenda, where his role is to push back against ineffective local bureaucracy and work miracles by showering common folks with social support. Another role that Putin takes on before elections is that of the leader of the global South challenging US hegemony. (Don’t be surprised to see Russia associated with the South, because Australia, for example, is part of the global North. Traditional geography does not apply here.) The purpose of Putin’s recent visit to Beijing [see Vol. 75, No. 42, pp. 9‑13] (and he hasn’t been traveling to other countries a lot lately!) was precisely to present him as such a leader.
An unpopular war and arguments against joining the show.
The fact that the Russian president is staying away from the subject of the war in his public speeches is not a bad sign, actually. It means his aides think that the new demonstration of unlimited popular support should happen against a different backdrop. Numbers show that Putin’s war is unpopular. The polls conducted in late summer indicate that most people are in favor of peace talks. Yes, government-sponsored polls indicate that support for the dictator is still strong, but everybody would love it if he were to end the war. People want things to go back to normal; they want to return to a peaceful life. This is the biggest underlying factor behind everything happening in Russia today. This is why the authorities are afraid to shut down the borders. This is why they are reluctant to declare a new major mobilization campaign.
Opposition leaders and political emigrants face a difficult choice in this situation. On the one hand, taking part in the election under the current circumstances doesn’t make any practical sense, and there are several arguments to support this point of view.
Let us go over them briefly:
1. All the real candidates capable of running for president, like Aleksei Navalny, have been isolated by the Kremlin. (The recent unprecedented attack on Navalny’s lawyers was specifically designed to isolate the political prisoner before “Putin’s election”). Putin’s dictatorship is based on systemic repression and fear, and it is impossible to campaign in this entirely lawless environment.
2. Independent media and prodemocracy bloggers have been delegitimized or declared foreign agents or undesirable organizations, so an independent candidate won’t be able to reach out to their audience. (For example, if a person is registered as a presidential candidate, they won’t be able to give an interview to Dozhd [Rain TV channel].)
3. The dictatorship has numerous ways of rigging the election – from using good old administrative clout and mobilizing the electorate through their employers to essentially banning independent monitors and introducing novelties like online voting.
4. The opposition within Russia has been wiped out, and political emigrants are unable to agree on a single candidate. (More on this later.)
What will a boycott accomplish?
All these arguments notwithstanding, the conditions under which Putin starts his new electoral cycle will be extremely important for the future of Russia. In particular, they will be important to those Russians who realize the scope of the current tragedy. Putin’s rule has given Russia the greatest political tragedy since the [Russian] Civil War and the Great Terror. He declared a wartime mobilization [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6] – for the first time since 1941 – only 10 days after regional elections [see Vol. 74, No. 37, pp. 3‑8]. Putin made a decision to commit this crime against his own people after the usual demonstration of “people’s love.” He saw that people had shown their support for his policies by voting overwhelmingly in favor of the candidates who endorsed his actions (in the absence of any other candidates).
Scholars of Russian authoritarianism, like philosopher Grigory Yudin, explain that elections in this system have been essentially reduced to opinion polls, where people have to periodically renew their pledge of allegiance to the president. Following this logic, if Putin wins the 2024 election more or less convincingly, that will inevitably result in much tougher repression and further militarization of Russia. Internationally, Putin is trying to put together an alliance for an endless global war. If he scores an easy electoral victory, he will view it as a green light for him to go ahead and complete his project of converting Russia into a military camp. Objectively speaking, such a scenario looks inevitable, but we have to ask ourselves whether we can resist it.
Even according to official statistics, tens of millions of people in Russia oppose the war.
The antiwar movement is still alive, although its public manifestations have been wiped out almost entirely after the arrest of hundreds of antiwar activists. These people are what stops the Kremlin from turning Russia into an entirely fascist society. It is these people that State Duma member [Andrei] Gurulyov was referring to in his recent rant, when he said they should be “eliminated, or at least isolated in some way.” The upcoming election is a chance for the Russian people to safely express their opinion about the disaster our country is facing because of Putin. Even a rigged election may turn into a platform that will show that there are a large number of people in Russia who are against the war, that it is not just a handful of renegades.
Finally, there is one more reason why this election is important. It may show the international community that it should not give up on the Russian people. Not all Russians are cannibals supporting air strikes against Ukrainian cities. The world can and should talk to the Russian people directly, ignoring the dictator. There are voices calling on the European Union and the US to not recognize the outcome of a one-candidate wartime election and to declare Putin an illegitimate ruler who has usurped power. This would be a step in the right direction. If the mock presidential campaign of 2024 is not a cakewalk for the Kremlin, it will be easier for the world to see the difference between the Russian people and the dictatorship.
In other words, if we boycott the election:
1. It will be easier for the Kremlin to continue its policy of suppressing dissent and turning Russia into a fascist society.
2. The antiwar movement will accept the idea that our defeat in Russia is final.
3. People will be even more isolated and atomized.
4. It will be easier for the West and the entire international community to conclude that Putin represents all Russians.
So, it seems that taking part in the election would be the right thing to do.
But the idea of having a single opposition candidate is a nonstarter under a military dictatorship. On the one hand, it is impossible to campaign against the war and Putin from outside Russia. Such efforts will not be appreciated even by critically minded voters, and propaganda will easily portray any emigrant as Russia’s enemy bankrolled by the West. On the other hand, if an opposition candidate openly criticizes the war and has at least some chance of organizing an effective campaign, the authorities will either disqualify that candidate from running, or (even if, for one reason or another, the Kremlin agrees to let them run) the candidate’s life and freedom will be in grave danger.
Anyone who encourages the opposition forces to unite behind a single candidate should keep in mind that they are basically asking that person to become a martyr.
Members of this “nominating committee” should first ask themselves whether they are ready to become martyrs themselves by going to Russia to support the antiwar candidate. (In addition, there is the question of whether such a sacrifice would make any sense, because the chances of the opposition winning the election are nonexistent.) Given all the war crimes committed in Ukraine on a daily basis, a candidate cannot play safe and limit their campaign to “sterile” issues. Such a campaign would be no different from the one Noviye lyudi [New People] ran during the latest parliamentary elections. The party is called New People, but it soon became obvious to everyone that these people were no different from the old ones.
A scumbag who is the savior of Russia.
If it’s not possible to have a proper candidate, does this mean that it’s impossible to organize a political campaign against the war? I don’t think so. Here is what the opposition’s campaign might look like without an opposition candidate.
The opposition would give up on the idea of nominating a single candidate and instead use the entire time before the election to explain to people how Vladimir Putin robbed them of their future (“The man who stole an entire generation”). This campaign would rely on politicians, artists and activists who have spoken out against the war, and would be supported by independent media. The central message would be that everyone will be better off once Putin is gone. The issue of the war crimes committed by the dictatorship is very important, but it will only scare people away and, unfortunately, it won’t be an effective tool to fight the dictatorship. All the data provided by independent media shows that the general public shuts out reality and does not want to hear about war crimes; instead, people want to know about mobilization, Prigozhin’s mutiny [see Vol. 75, No. 26, pp. 3‑9] and the exchange rate, i.e., the things that impact their lives directly.
Next, the campaign would admit that there are no good candidates but would use an approach that should be more or less familiar to all because it is similar to [Aleksei Navalny’s] “smart voting” project [a tactic of supporting contenders most likely to defeat the respective United Russia candidate – Trans.]. At a certain point, just a few days before the election, one of the registered candidates would be appointed, sarсastically, “the savior of Russia,” in the spirit of the old comedy “Election Day” [Den vyborov], and all those who are against the war would vote for that person. The campaign might emphasize certain farcical, grotesque attributes of the candidate. This would win some additional votes from the people who usually support the LDPR or the RFCP. This way, people who use the election to protest the war will be better protected, because their votes will be mixed with those other groups.
The campaign could use the slogan of “Enough is enough!” or the image of “Vladimir who stole the future.” It might be a good idea to pick the candidate to be appointed the “savior of Russia” through a lottery on live TV. (This kind of show should attract at least as much interest as the recent debate about the opposition being “divided.”) This is because there will probably be no good candidates, and any attempt to pick a candidate through some rational choice may turn away the voters who cannot stomach voting for, say, a Communist. A lottery rarely works well in modern political systems (except for the jury selection process in court), but there was a time when drawing lots was regarded as the fairest political practice.
Let’s call this model “supersmart voting.” The Kremlin won’t be able to prepare in advance, because it won’t know who will get picked by the lottery, and since the candidate is picked by mere chance, it makes no sense to challenge the outcome. For this approach to work, all the voters who are against the war should be prepared, once the token candidate is picked, to turn a blind eye to his or her moral attributes. This person will most likely be a scumbag, but all that matters is that they serve one purpose only: [to put] a valid name on the ballot that can be used for a protest vote.
Some may object that it seems inappropriate to organize such a farce when Russian democracy is in such a tragic state. But I would argue that the proper way to respond to this danse macabrestarted by Putin is not by wailing, but by offering something positive instead. For example, we might say that the Russian people, patriotic as they are, are in no hurry to die, and if Putin is replaced with literally any other person, their chances of living longer would improve significantly.
Putin’s guaranteed victory and the opposition’s goals.
It will be practically impossible to disrupt the rigged show, whose purpose is to extend Putin’s rule for another term. No matter what happens in real life, no matter what people think – none of that will have any effect on the outcome. This is why I admit in the title of this piece that this battle will be lost. No matter what the opposition does, officially Putin will still win the race, because the whole competition was specifically designed in a way that guarantees his victory. But here are some achievable goals that are worth fighting for:
– We can force the rigging machine to run at maximum intensity, which will increase the number of malfunctioning incidents.
– We can consolidate the protest vote in favor of a single alternative candidate.
– We can motivate opinion leaders to join the antiwar campaign en masse in order to mobilize the electorate to vote for the alternative candidate.
– We can make the antiwar position (“No!”, “Enough Is Enough!”) visible both to voters (at polling stations and on social media) and to the global community.
Only three years ago, when Putin held his rigged referendum on constitutional amendments [see Vol. 72, No. 27‑28, pp. 3‑7], over 20% of the voters, or 16 million people, came to the polling stations to say no. If we can double this number in the rigged presidential election, what was planned originally as a one-man show may turn into a platform that will help us look for ways to achieve peace and rescue our future.