Article by Kamilla Magadeeva.
In March of 2018 the mandate of Vladimir Putin will come to an end. The person who ruled Russia for almost 20 years does not seem sure about running for the presidency again. This situation of uncertainty has been raising a lot of questions within Russia and Western countries.
Most importantly, the next Russian president will be responsible for dealing with the current wave of domestic instabilities, as well as future relations with NATO. How did Putin manage to maintain power for so long, and who is likely to be the future Russian president?
To understand Putin. you need to understand Russia. The Russian twentieth century was particularly marked by instability: the fall of the Tsar with the Revolution of 1917, the Second World War and its twenty-million casualties, the difficult era of Stalinism and the Cold War, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union…
Russia’s 20th century was stably unstable, and then came Vladimir Putin….
Over the last two decades, since the beginning of his first presidential term in 1999, the standard of living in Russia has noticeably increased. From a failed state, Russia has become a world power. But what is holding-up Russia? Such historical background makes it that the single and largest source of stability and loyalty is the head of state. He is truly the only legal source of power, he is the symbol of the country abroad and a real idol inside the country. The members of the Duma are perceived to have been elected undemocratically, as proven by certain cases of fraud and the regional councils don’t even have any real power. The President holds the country and the whole state apparatus together, and it is the president that gives the power and legitimacy to the Prime minister and other power figures. In this sense, for the sake of the welfare of the country and a secured position on the international scene, Russia needs a strong leader.
Among other political figures, Dmitri Medvedev is one of the most well-known Russian politicians abroad: as the Prime minister and ex-President, he is one of the incarnations of corruption in Russia. Despite his already poor reputation, the Prime Minister continues to expose himself in a bad light on social media. During his visit to Crimea last year, following dissatisfied remarks from pensioners regarding a lack of basic means of survival, he replied: “There’s just no money. But you take care!” This phrase spawned many memes on the Internet and a wave of discontent which only worsened Medvedev’s image as a narrow-minded and incompetent politician.
And, on a day when thousands of people were demanding his resignation during the March 2017 protests, the Prime minister, in response to a Twitter user who asked how his day had been, answered: “Not bad, I went skiing.”
And while the laurels for the ingenious international game go to Putin, on Medvedev shoulders lays the responsibility for inflation and the recent sharply reduced standard of living. Thus, while the Prime minister plays the role of a “scapegoat” for all the recent domestic policy and economic failures in Russia, Putin is considered as a genius President who is leading the country towards even greater geo-political victories in the future.
The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, will probably run for presidency again. This would be his sixth time participating in presidential elections after 1991, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012. A nationalist, populist and a political clown, he is a Russian twin of Donald Trump. During the talk show Duel on the TV channel “Russia” in 2013, Zhirinovsky suggested introducing a state of emergency in the North Caucasus to gain control of troops, the police, and the FSB members stationed there, and to forcefully limit the birth rate by imposing a fine for the birth of a third child in a family.
In addition, according to the leader of the LDPR, the threat of terrorism emerging from the region should be eliminated by “fencing the territory of the North Caucasus with barbed wire.” He seems to blame the whole population of North Caucasus for terrorism, and many of Russia’s problems. And although all of his speeches have upheld clearly inflammatory and xenophobic views, he has never had problems with justice. According to the Levada Center (a Russian independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organization), Zhirinovsky usually represents about 10% of votes, which placed him in third position in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Considering his far-right authoritarian tendencies, he is still surprisingly in the state Duma, which suggests he could be just another marionette used by the Kremlin to fake an opposition. Thus, Putin and Zhirinovsky seem to be playing a “good cop/bad cop” game. Zhirinovsky will always win a certain, stable quantity of votes, but he is not likely to become the president of Russia anyday.
Another disputed Russian politician is Alexey Navalny, officially a head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, and unofficially a leader of the opposition. His every appearance draws quite a lot of protest, which always end in clashes with the police. In the beginning of the year, his foundation released a video exposing the business empire belonging to the son of the Attorney General, which had allegedly financed a fund to the attention of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, and allegedly owned numerous undeclared real estate properties acquired by Medvedev through obscure funds. Millions of Russians watched this video, which caused great discontent among the people during a time marked by economic difficulties. As Piskarev (Chairman of the State Duma Committee for Security and Transparency, and a deputy of the United Russia Party) said, “The product of his (Anti-Corruption Foundation) creativity, as it turned out earlier, and I’m sure now the situation is the same – is a symbiosis of filth, fantasy, staging tricks and falsifications with a pronounced political provocation.” Medvedev himself said that the investigation by the Anti-Corruption Foundation was sponsored by private investors with the goal of “pulling people out into the streets”. Despite all the obstacles he faces from Kremlin, he seems to have gained support from the youth who are tired of Putin’s “reign”.
However, the Russian population is not likely to refuse stability in favour of uncertain hope for a better life.
The current Minister of Defense, Sergey Shoygu, seems like a perfect candidate for the presidency. He started a career in the early ‘90s and served during several crises, such as the Ossetian-Ingush conflict. Back in 2001, he was at the origin of the liberal-conservative party called “Unity”, later changed to “ United Russia”, which has now been a ruling party in Russia for more than a decade. He also worked for the Ministry of Emergency Situations for a long time, and has been able to gain the image of a lifesaver and a superhero, increasing his political rating greatly — about 55-60% of the population claiming to trust him. Therefore, according to the ratings and opinion of experts, he seems to stand a chance to become the next Russian president if Putin leaves the position. Although Shoygu seems to be the only more or less serious candidate fit to lead the country, we may imagine a hysteria in Western countries in response to an ex-defense Russian minister becoming President.
Putin’s rule has had both advantages and problems. Despite the fact that Russians feel that there has been an economic decline and a deterioration of relations with Western countries —especially with the United States— it is also true that the most popular candidate in the presidential elections is none other than Vladimir Putin himself. His victory in case of his participation would be uncontested. According to polls, his approval ratings vary from 80 to 90%. And though he has not officially decided to run, it is nearly certain that the decision is already taken. Regardless of the deteriorated welfare of the country resulting from European-American economic sanctions in response to Crimea becoming Russian, Russian citizens seems to be loyal to him despite all sorts of financial difficulties and corruption, as long as they can enjoy being a part of a strong and independent country. It seems that no one cares about economic recessions if Russia looks strong, if not aggressive, in the international scene. Russia’s immense national pride plays an enormous role in supporting a national leader that can make Russia great again.