By Eugène E.

As the results of the presidential election due to take place in Russia on March 18 are something of a foregone conclusion, some might bristle at the title of this blog post. Why write about an election that many consider little more than a sham process? There are several reasons. First, Vladimir Putin, the man expected to continue governing Russia as he’s been doing since the dawn of this century, is reputed to be a stickler for rules and procedures – an election should take place, if only to satisfy all the formalities. It might be interesting to see how this one’s orchestrated. Second, despite the authoritarian, statist nature of his regime, even Putin’s opponents have never contested Putin’s victory in the last presidential election of 2012, which, however imperfect the process that begot his victory, was definitive – the illegitimacy of the presidential election should perhaps not be overemphasized. Third, history’s taste for surprises and even miracles has been well documented, although an election outcome that is not favorable to Putin will require a miracle of truly biblical dimensions.

Finally, Russia counts – perhaps less than Putin’s most ardent supporters claim that it does, but more than his critics would have us believe. As I’ve always maintained, Russia is a country riven by an identity crisis. This is not the place to expound the etiology of that crisis; at this juncture, it will suffice to say that ever since Peter the Great modernized Russia, which had hitherto been an Asiatic land, Russia has been a battleground between two competing identities: one a European and the other one Asian. In tsarist Russia, the European part ruled the country: the country’s elites were either drawn from Europe or were heavily Europeanized; the base, however, remained Asian. This rift between Russia’s haves and have-nots was reflected in the debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles, which, in a mutated form, still lives on.

The unresolved identity crisis is at the heart of some of Russia’s biggest problems today and might at least in part explain some of Russian’s historic events (the Russian Revolution, for example, can certainly be viewed as a revolt against the European elites). The resolution of this crisis – or the lack of one – will therefore have considerable ramifications for the European continent. Who governs Russia is a question that goes beyond mere academic interest; and a quick look at those who want to govern the world’s largest country by territory in the near term is consequently in order.

Dramatis personae:

Vladimir Putin – the eternal president

The only candidate truly in no need of any introduction – to anyone. To his supporters, he’s a unifier of Russian lands, the avenger of Russia’s honour, the architect of its reawakening. To his detractors, he’s the leader of a mafia state, the author of a renewed Russian imperialism, and perhaps a war criminal. The truth, as they say, is probably somewhere in between, though “in between” is not necessarily a neatly demarcated middle ground. There is no question that, by the end of Putin’s second presidential term, a kind of stability had been restored in Russia, which was a welcome change from the chaotic Yeltsin years. But the annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed everything; and the Russia of today, even if it has once again become a player to contend with in the international arena, is a country characterized by breathtaking corruption levels, a state-run ideology inflamed by hidebound conservatism and jingoism, and an exceedingly uncertain future.

Every observer of contemporary Russia knows that the Putin of today is not the Putin of, say, 2005. His reign before 2014 was characterized by a return to stability, dirigisme, and the emergence of the kind of system that is usually referred to as a “managed democracy”. Something of an unwritten pact had been adopted between the Kremlin and society: society did not meddle in the business of governing, while the Kremlin, for the most, allowed people to go about their business as they saw fit. A middle class seemed to be emerging, at least in the country’s larger cities. Buffeted by rising oil prices, Russia appeared to be moving towards normalcy.

Then something happened. Few know what. The thing about Russian politics is that it’s so opaque that few ever know the whole truth, perhaps no one at all – not even Putin. What we do know, factually speaking, is that a wave of protests broke out in the Russian capital in late 2011, one of the largest of their kind in the history of post-Soviet Russia. A presidential election was looming. As is the case with the election due to take place next month, Putin was the main contender; unlike the upcoming election, at the time Putin was prime minister, having demoted himself to comply with a law that forbids a president to serve more than two consecutive presidential terms (those formalities again). Putin was gearing up to cruise back to the presidency, which, for the past four years, had been looked after by Dmitry Medvedev, who had proved himself to be a trustworthy custodian and was now in turn gearing up to be downgraded to premiership. The protests were a reaction to the cynicism that many protesters saw in the swap of power due to take place. The opposition – real opposition, as opposed to the “loyal opposition” that had provided a symbolic alternative to Putin in the years before – showed signs of life; and it demanded change.

In political terms, the protests were not a threat to Putin. The protesters were too few in number; the protests seemed to be a large-city phenomenon. Yet Putin, who is said to be an avid student of history, is likely well acquainted with the influence that “active minorities” sometimes have on historic events. It must also have been rather disconcerting to see some of the elites participating in the protests. And we have seen how quickly a seasoned authoritarian regime can fold in the age of social media and instant communication. It is quite possible that, bluntly speaking, Putin might have been spooked.

Additionally, there was the question of ideology. Putin had been in power for more than a decade. Whatever the accomplishments of his administration, there was a feeling that the ideological component of his regime was, in financial parlance, underfunded. There was little that could be used to underwrite a Putin legacy or write history textbooks. An idea was needed, an idea that could reinvigorate the Putin era, stifle the nascent opposition, and ensure the durability of his regime, which, in the final analysis, is the primary objective of any ruler.

A new ideology was needed, but its mere articulation to the public would have been unlikely to succeed. The new ideology had to be brokered by a historic event. The annexation of Crimea was that historic event. As far as political and historical symbols go, Crimea is quite up there; and, in the short term, its takeover provided a massive political windfall for Putin.

Putin’s approval ratings went through the stratosphere (said to have been hovering between 80% and 90%, they are a wet dream for many a political leader in the West), the opposition was disoriented (opposition to the annexation – which was billed by Putin as a rescue operation to save ethnic Russians from the excesses, exaggerated or otherwise, of Ukraine’s nationalism – was perceived by many in Russia as treason, Russophobia, or both), and Putin’s Russia could now claim to have a national idea – a strong Russia pursuing its own sovereign path, guided along by road signs erected by the Russian Orthodox Church, moving towards a glorious future that was to be a healthy alternative to the decay and decadence of the West.

Having endured years of humiliation on the outskirts of global political decision-making, Russia had regained its status and was now a force to be reckoned with – a significant accomplishment in a country where domestically inspired intimations of millenarianism have existed for a long time. It is perhaps only a mild exaggeration to say that, had Putin proposed a referendum on restoring the monarchy in Russia – with Putin on the throne – he might have had a decent chance.

In the long run, there is far less room for optimism. Relations with the West have been tense, to say the least, and Russia has faced (or has been forced to face, depending on your point of view) international isolation. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, the benefits of remaining a geopolitical island are questionable. The Russian economy is largely reliant on its natural resources, and its future prospects are highly uncertain. Corruption is endemic at all levels of society, and the politicization of the economy makes doing business in Russia a risky prospect – hardly a healthy environment for an economy to thrive.

More disturbing is the internal situation. Many point to a climate of extreme intolerance and aggression. While Putin’s regime certainly lends itself to all sorts of exaggerations and misconceptions that can be easily fed to naive audiences in the West, there’s no question that those with dissenting views have not had it easy in Russia. The pressure on public figures to endorse the Kremlin’s agenda has been palpable. Prominent opponents of the annexation have been labeled “Russophobes”, traitors, and a “fifth column” – terminology that is reminiscent of some of the darker chapters in European history. Performers who have taken a stand against the annexation of Crimea have run into problems finding venues where to please their fans. Journalists and writers with opinions that are not Kremlin-friendly have been attacked in the streets with an antiseptic known as “brilliant green” or worse (a journalist from Echo Moscow was doused with feces). In some cases they were murdered outright – Boris Nemtsov, a former politician and an implacable critic of the annexation of Crimea, was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin three years ago.

Naturally, one cannot blame Putin directly for these incidents; but he is the man who has spawned the society in which this sort of thing can – and does – happen. In a way, he has unleashed some of the darker forces and reawakened some of the darker demons slumbering in the lairs of Russian history.

His policies can be said to have contributed to the development of other phenomena – it was on his watch that the Russian Orthodox Church has acquired its momentum. The church has experienced a major revival since the collapse of the former Soviet Union – perhaps an inevitability in a country whose dominant ideology is in ruins.

In recent years, however, the revival has taken on hues and overtones that are bound to raise red flags for advocates of secularism. There seems to have been fusion between church and state (in Russia, this has traditionally redounded to the state’s benefit). The church has weighed in on many issues of the day, sometimes adopting positions that bordered on obscurantism and occasionally adding a medieval touch to public discourse. A few years ago, a man was tried in the city of Stavropol. He was accused of having offended the feelings of the religious by posting online messages that denied the existence of God. The case was dismissed last year, but the fact that the case had made it to court in the first place shows the drift of Russian society.

The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church is a curious development in a country where atheism had been a state ideology for nearly three generations in the 20th century. But in Putin’s Russia contradictions abound. Nicholas II, arguably one of Russia’s weakest Romanov tsars, was elevated to sainthood by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin himself is rumoured to have his own confessor; in any case, he has not been shy about assuring his own religious fervour. One can only guess at the sort of moral accounting that it makes it possible to reconcile a KGB past with a Russian Orthodox present. Yet Bolshevik symbols or figures antithetical to the very idea of religion – persecutors of the church par excellence – remain hugely popular in Russia. Stalin, for example, is routinely rated as one of greatest men in world history by Russians – greatness, in this context, has a positive connotation.

Tragically, the annexation of Crimea has also sown internal discord between two closely related ethnic groups. As a result of the many instances of intermarriage between Russians and Ukrainians, the conflict has created fault lines in individual families. Permanent scars, never-ending conflicts, internecine battles – a low point for humanity. A decade ago, the suggestion that Russians could go to war against Ukrainians would have been laughable. Today it’s the reality.

Putin and his acolytes maintain that the annexation of the Crimea and everything that has followed since have been defensive measures. The enemy is Ukrainian nationalism, financed by an anti-Russian West. However paranoid or incoherent some of the claims might be, though, it certainly takes two to tango, as they say. The demonization of Vladimir Putin has been a fetish in the West; and the view that many in the West have of Putin and Putin’s Russia is often one-sided – and, one might well add, lop-sided. One might admire Vladimir Putin; equally, one might resent him. Some of the grievances expressed by the Russian president are no less legitimate for it.

Putin is as right to complain about continuous NATO expansion – perceived by Russians as encroachment on Russian interests, not an unjustified sentiment, if one recalls that the original aim of NATO was to contain Russia – as he is right to complain about the double standards that make it acceptable for, say, the US to circumscribe Russia’s interests within its sphere of influence, while showing little openness to Russia (and other powers) flexing its muscles in America’s own backyard.

Putin is also right to assert Russia’s prerogative to have its own system of values (e.g., family values) that should not be scrutinized and judged by a politically correct, ultraliberal West; and he is just as right to deride what he sees as the West’s hypocrisy. Russia had more reasons to annex Crimea, where most of the population is Russian, than the US to invade Iraq in 2003, where it was to look for weapons of mass destruction that were not there to begin with; and if one evil does not justify another, the US administration responsible for the war in Iraq has not been taken to task, and the US has not been subjected to penalties or economic sanctions.

The economic sanctions imposed against Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea also raise a number of questions. What is the point of these economic sanctions? As the examples of Myanmar, Cuba and Iraq have shown, economic sanctions are usually hard on ordinary people and toothless when it comes to the regimes they’re meant to discipline. Presumably, the goal of economic sanctions is to exert pressure on the people to get rid of a troublesome regime. However, there is a contradiction here. For years Putin has been branded as an authoritarian regime (or worse). If that is true, vox populi should be voiceless in Russia, which renders the economic sanctions all but useless. If, on the other hand, the Russian people can get rid of Putin, then the public has a voice and a say in the way the country is run, in which case Russia is not quite the authoritarian state that we’ve been led to believe it is. If, lastly, the goal of the sanctions is to get Russians to topple Putin at any cost (even that of bloodshed), then they are just cruel.

Putin is right on a number of points, and the kind of systematic maligning of Putin that goes on in the West can be unfair. Yet however valid some of Putin’s assertions happen to be, the way Putin and his regime have gone about convincing the unconvinced has done much to discredit their truth. Those who truly speak the truth, as Putin claims to be doing, rarely feel the need to punish those who are in disagreement. Truth speaks for itself. It is promoted by constructive suasion, not imposed by force or censorship. This point seems to be lost on many of Putin’s supporters. I wonder if the point hasn’t been lost on Putin himself.

This, then, is the man who looks set to preside over Russia for a fourth time. Barring a deus ex machina, his opponents virtually don’t stand a chance. Some supporters of Putin argue that there’s no one in the opposition who can measure up to Putin when it comes to administrative experience and political acumen. That is at best a half-truth; and half-truths are dangerous. Deification of political leaders is rarely a good idea; and if Russia’s opposition lacks a serious and viable alternative to Putin (a big if), it is in no small measure due to the continued efforts of the Putin regime to turn the opposition into a barren land. The opposition does exist in Russia, and its voice deserves to be heard.

Alexei Navalny – the candidate who isn’t

Arguably the most prominent figure of the opposition, Alexei Navalny has one considerable problem: he’s been barred from running in the elections, ostensibly due to a prior conviction that, he and his allies maintain, was politically motivated. Photogenic and a lawyer by training, Navalny has made a name for himself with, among other things, his tussles with Russia’s legal system and with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an NGO that investigates corruption at the highest levels of the government. The NGO has already broken a number of big stories; the latest one to hit the international news involves an oligarch who has allegedly entertained a high-ranking civil servant in the company of prostitutes on a yacht off the coast of Noway. It is impossible for an outsider to verify the veracity of the information that Navalny and his team consistently supply for the public’s benefit (one can only marvel at how they manage to obtain this sort of data), but even if only part of it is true, it is still powerful stuff and is a searing indictment of Putin’s regime.

Navalny has been portrayed in the Western media as Russia’s beacon of democracy. As it is, for many in the West, any serious opponent of Putin is automatically perceived to be a paragon of democracy. In other words, the exact political coordinates of the individual are unimportant; what’s important is that he’s against Putin, as if being against Putin is synonymous with being a certified Western-style democrat – a ridiculous, if not dangerous, illusion. This is a point made by those critics of Navalny who point to his past flirtations with Russia’s far right (one UK-based Russian writer, a quondam supporter, turned away from Navalny due the latter’s sympathy for a nationalist march). The extent of these flirtations and the depth of Navalny’s nationalism, however, are unclear.

The criticism that Navalny does not have “relevant experience” is strange: by that logic, only a former president can run for president, which will disqualify anyone who has never been president, a logical cul-de-sac. Sometimes people ought to be given a chance. A bigger problem with Navalny is not the question of experience, but that of stature. Though Navalny is certainly not unintelligent, charisma – the kind of charisma one expects in a politician – seems to be in short supply. He has also proven to be rather ineffectual during various debates. Finally, while impressions are highly subjective and often superficial, there is an element of smallness about the man. Watching and listening to Navalny, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that one is dealing with an ordinary mortgage specialist or an insurance agent. There’s certainly nothing wrong with mortgage specialists and insurance agents, ordinary or otherwise, but this is not the sort of thing one wants to see in a man aspiring to run a country as complex as Russia.

Unlike Putin, who is a product of the Soviet system, the USSR had ceased to exist by the time Navalny attained the age of majority. This is an asset; and he certainly does inject a breath of fresh air into Russian politics. His desire to eradicate corruption, mend fences with the West, and modernize Russia are commendable. Is he the man to do it, though? No one knows for sure. But it’s hard to take seriously those who claim that his candidature isn’t serious. To determine who presents a real risk to Putin and his regime, one only needs to know which candidate was declared ineligible to participate in the elections. To that end, Navalny’s exclusion speaks volumes.

Ksenia Sobchak – a candidate against all

The only female candidate in the election, Ksenia Sobchak’s path to a presidential candidate is a remarkable one. The daughter of the first mayor of post-Soviet Saint Petersburg, her early life as a prominent (and rather scandal-prone) member of Russia’s jeunesse dorée did not augur well for a career in politics. Nevertheless, Sobchak managed to graduate from Russia’s “It Girl” to journalism and, later, to political activism, which culminated in the announcement late last year that she’d be participating in the presidential election as a “candidate against all”.

The thing about political programs, particularly with candidates in countries where things are fluid and quick to change, is that they are often not worth the paper they’re written on. However, if a political platform provides few indications of what the candidate will do once (and if) he’s in power, it is usually a good guide to the candidate’s political orientation. The first point in Sobchak’s 123-step program, then, is telling. Right from the get-go, Sobchak declares her desire to build a new Russia based on a European-style secular democracy, with human rights as the main pillar of Russian society. In case anyone missed the point, she adds that Russia is geographically, historically, and culturally a European nation; and its fate is therefore a necessarily European one.

Given the cool relations between Russia and Europe, and the distaste that many Russians feel for the ultraliberalism of the West, this is a strong declaration. It is also an encouraging one – certainly for this ardent believer in a European Russia and in the primacy of Russia’s European identity. But its strength is also its weakness. It is easy enough for Sobchak and her allies to identify themselves as Europeans, but Russia is a multicivilizational country. Will the Chechens and Tatars – both groups are Muslim – embrace a European identity? For Russia’s non-Europeans it is bound to be a tough sell. This is before we get to the question of implementation. Sobchak’s entire platform is quaint, herbivorous even; but it’s hard to see how it will all come together in the Russia of today. It is even harder to see how Ksenia Sobchak might be the best person to try and make it all come together. Not to mention that modern ultraliberal Europe, which serves as the inspiration for Sobchak’s platform, may not be the best model to copy at the moment.

Some claim that her candidacy was orchestrated by the Kremlin in order to siphon votes from Navalny’s electorate, which is paralyzed by his exclusion, and further split the Navalny camp, as well as to prop up the illusion that the presidential election is a legitimate exercise in democracy. It’s impossible to say whether there’s any truth to that – we might never find out. But there are other questions pertaining to her candidacy that are no less pertinent. It is worthwhile asking whether, culturally and socially, Russia is ready for a female leader – while Russia did have women at the helm, Sobchak is no Catherine the Great. It is also unclear whether Russians voters will be able to divorce the Ksenia Sobchak of today from the glamorous (and often vulgar) Ksenia Sobchak of her not-too-distant youth.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Ksenia Sobchak, for all her anti-Kremlin activism, is firmly entrenched in the establishment. Putin was the right hand of Sobchak’s father when the latter was mayor of Saint Petersburg. Rumours have even circulated that Putin is Sobchak’s godfather – this might well be untrue, but the existence of such rumours points to the links that Ksenia Sobchak had with the president she’s opposing today. Running on the slogan of a “candidate against all”, Sobchak has tried to position herself as an anti-establishment figure; it is unclear how many voters will find the stance convincing. If the polls are to be believed, not that many: Ksenia Sobchak is unlikely to take more than 1%-3% of the vote.

Pavel Grudinin – Lenin in the age of iPhones

Pavel Grudinin is a new face – the upcoming presidential election is his first. He became the leader of the Communist Party last year, replacing Gennady Zyuganov, who, like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (see below), had been in politics long enough to be considered as Putin’s loyal opposition, but who, unlike Zhirinovsky, had finally decided that it was time to cede his place to someone else. As with Ksenia Sobchak, there has been talk in some quarters that Grudinin is a creature produced by the Kremlin workshop. Whether true or not, Grudinin tries his best to sell vintage communism to the public. In one interview, he had no qualms about whitewashing Stalin’s reign; what most historians view as oppression and crimes against humanity is, in Grudinin’s analysis, “firmness”. Such paeans to the Soviet dictator from the lushly moustached Grudinin will make many uneasy, but there is hardly any need to lay too much stress on this. Reviewing the party’s program is a journey back in time; there’s something ineffably anachronistic about the party’s supreme plan for Russia. Perhaps Grudinin does not quite believe it himself: a well-off individual, he has been forced to respond to questions concerning, among other things, a villa in Spain, which apparently belongs not to him, but to his son. There’s nothing wrong with sons owning villas in Spain, of course, but it’s probably not what Lenin and Trotsky had in mind.

According to polls, Grudinin may come in second.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky – the show must go on

The leader of the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) for as long as the party’s existed, Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the bombastic, crafty and often vulgar face of Russia’s far right. He is well known for his outlandish proposals (he has, for example, expressed his support for legalizing polygamy) as well as for his crude humour. Occasionally, the humour can be rather rich. Russia’s extreme right has traditionally been hostile to Jews; yet asked about his ethnic origin years ago, Zhirinovsky said his mother was Russian, while his father was a lawyer, leaving little doubt as to his father’s real origins and not a little material for psychologists to study.

Zhirinovsky and his party appeared to be a political force back in the 1990s, when Zhirinovsky was considered a serious contender for the Kremlin. In recent years, however, the party has been part of Putin’s loyal opposition, where being the opposition is not a political crusade but a lucrative career. Zhirinovsky (and, until he stepped down, the communist leader Zyuganov) is a sign of Russia’s torpid political ecosystem, in which a man who’s been a party leader and a presidential candidate for a quarter of a century is still both of those things.

Zhirinovsky would be called an archetypal populist in the West, but he’s more a showman and an entertainer than a politician. The worldview and ideology of his party enjoy support among segments of Russian society (as in the West, the level of that support waxes and wanes with Russia’s fortunes), but today it is hard to see Zhirinovsky as anything other than a spent political force. To the extent that it is a one-man show, the same can be said about his party.

Grigory Yavlinsky – an apple a day won’t keep Putin away

The leader of Yabloko (Russian for “apple”), Yavlinsky brings to the elections a vision that, with its strong pacifist bent, should appear to most members of the traditional Russian intelligentsia. In many ways it overlaps with Sobchak’s platform. However, for any observer of Russian politics who was old enough to observe it in the 1990s, it will be hard to regard Yavlinsky, who was very active at the time, as something more than a has-been or an also-ran.

Dreams of European Russia

Aside from the personalities mentioned above, there are a few more individuals running for president; omitting their names, however, should not leave the reader unduly shortchanged. Presidential elections in Russia are based on a two-round system whereby the top two candidates face off in a second round of elections if no single candidate secures an absolute majority. At this point, the first round should be sufficient to ratify Putin’s fourth presidential term.

Russia, though, is much more than Putin – or any other man who’s ever governed it. Russia has outlived all of its tsars and dictators; barring some apocalyptic disaster, it will outlive Putin, too. The big question is not the destiny of Putin, but that of Russia – specifically, for this author, the destiny of European Russia. Russia’s contributions to Western civilization since the 18th century are immense and, for anyone familiar with European history, require no further commentary. None of the masterpieces and great works produced by Russia during that time would have been possible without European Russia. Even those who attacked European Russia – the Slavophiles, for example – typically did so with European tools. The double-headed eagle serving as Russia’s coat of arms might find it expedient to turn both heads towards the West.

But who can inspire the eagle do so? Putin once spoke of his vision of a eurozone stretching from Lisbon all the way to Vladivostok. Should his next term resemble the ones that have preceded it, this will remain but a dream. To be fair, advancing the Europeanness of Russia has always been an uphill battle in that country. Pro-European Russians have traditionally been associated with liberalism; and, as Chaadaev wrote, a Russian liberal is like gnat beating about senselessly in a sunbeam, of which the sun is the sun of the West. Chaadaev came to a sorry end: reprimanded and chastised by the tsarist regime, he was officially declared a madman, his Western sun remaining nothing but a hazy hyperborean smudge. Things might be no more sunny today. Yet if Russia had a Peter the Great to create a “window on the West”, is it naive to hope for another Peter the Great to enlarge that window? No one knows. One thing is clear, though: if such a Peter the Great exists, for any European Russian he can’t come soon enough.