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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Behind Putin’s Potemkin vote, real support. But no other choices.

A polling station for the Russian presidential election in Moscow, March 17, 2024. Many Russians say they back their president, but it is far less clear what they might do if they were given alternatives. (Nanna Heitmann/The New York Times)

By Paul Sonne

The Kremlin stage-managed Russia’s presidential vote over the weekend to send a singular message at home and abroad: that President Vladimir Putin’s support is overwhelming and unshakable, despite or even because of his war against Ukraine.

From the moment the preliminary results first flashed across state television late Sunday, the authorities left no room for misinterpretation. Putin, they said, won more than 87% of the vote, his closest competitor just 4%. It had all the hallmarks of an authoritarian Potemkin plebiscite.

The Kremlin may have felt more comfortable orchestrating such a large margin of victory because Putin’s approval rating has climbed during the war in independent polls, owing to a rally-around-the flag effect and optimism about the Russian economy. The Levada Center, an independent pollster, reported last month that 86% of Russians approved of Putin, his highest rating in more than seven years.

But while the figures may suggest unabiding support for Putin and his agenda across Russia, the situation is more complex than the numbers convey. The leader of one opposition research group in Moscow has argued that backing for Putin is actually far more brittle than simple approval numbers suggest.

“The numbers we get on polls from Russia don’t mean what people think they mean,” said Alexei Minyailo, a Moscow-based opposition activist and co-founder of a research project called Chronicles, which has been polling Russians in recent months. “Because Russia is not an electoral democracy but a wartime dictatorship.”

In a late January survey, Chronicles asked one group of Russian respondents what they wanted in key policy areas and a different group what they expected to see from Putin — and documented a substantive difference between desires and expectations.

More than half of respondents, for example, said they supported restoring relations with Western countries, but only 28% expected Putin to restore them. Some 58% expressed support for a truce with Ukraine, but only 29% expected Putin to agree to one.

“We see that Russians want different things from what they expect from Putin,” Minyailo said. “Probably if they did have any kind of alternative, they might make a different choice.”

Compelling alternative choices, however, have been systematically eliminated over the near quarter century Putin has been in power in Russia.

Opposition figures have been exiled, jailed or killed. Independent news outlets have been driven out of the country. And a wave of repression unseen since the Soviet era has led to lengthy prison sentences for simple acts of dissent, such as critical social media posts.

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure who carried the hopes of many Russians for an alternative to Putin, died under mysterious circumstances in an Arctic prison last month. After declaring victory late Sunday, Putin called Navalny’s death an “unfortunate incident.”

The war has only further closed what little space used to exist for alternatives to Putin’s agenda to gain traction in public.

“There is a sophisticated case to be made about why this war is so much against Russia’s interest, and that part of the spectrum is missing,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “It is now happening in exile, and the government is erecting a lot of barriers to people tapping into this content.”

By casting those against the war as saboteurs, he said, Putin’s regime has succeeded in making “the opposition something that is really unattractive — more for outsiders, not for mainstream people.”

In years past, Russia’s so-called “political technologists” allowed a semblance of competition and open debate in presidential elections to drive turnout and give the race a patina of authenticity. But this year they took no chances.

Yekaterina S. Duntsova, a relatively unknown TV journalist and former municipal deputy from a city 140 miles west of Moscow, tried to run for president on an anti-war platform but was swiftly disqualified. So was Boris B. Nadezhdin, another under-the-radar politician who collected more than 100,000 signatures required to enter the race but could not get on the ballot.

“They deemed both of them dangerous enough not to let them on the ballot,” Minyailo said. “That tells a lot, to my mind, about the nature of the regime and about how stalwart Putin’s position is. If his regime thinks there is a danger to letting a provincial journalist collect signatures, that tells a lot.”

Russian opinion polling regularly shows that a relatively small segment of the Russian population are die-hard supporters of Putin and a similarly sized group are aggressive opponents, many of them now abroad.

The majority, pollsters have found, are relatively apathetic, supporting Putin passively, with no other alternative coming onto their radar. They are particularly influenced by the narrative on television, which is controlled by the state.

“Deep wells of social inertia, apathy and atomization are the real source of Putin’s power,” Gabuev said. Many Russians, he said, don’t have a sophisticated framework for thinking about certain issues, because there is no public discussion taking place.

And those Russians who do articulate desires that differ from Putin’s actions are not necessarily willing to fight for what they want, Minyailo noted. Many Russians believe they have no influence on the country’s course of events.

Still, the increase in support for Putin among Russians in the two years since he ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is unmistakable across multiple polls.

Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, said that a number of metrics showed consolidation around Putin.

“We monitor many indicators, not only approval rating,” Volkov said. “We ask open-ended questions. We ask about the economic situation. We ask about the mood of people. All these indicators are pointing in one direction.”

Armed with a vast propaganda apparatus, Putin has convinced millions of Russians that he is valiantly defending them against an antagonistic Western world bent on using Ukraine as a cudgel to destroy their nation and their way of life.

“The state narrative has generated this idea that it’s Russia versus everybody else,” said Katerina Tertytchnaya, a comparative politics professor at the University of Oxford. “It’s very important, this narrative of being under siege. The lack of an alternative is also cited as one of the reasons that people support Putin. People cannot conceive of an alternative.”

It is not only that Putin seems superior to the alternative candidates the Kremlin allows to appear on state television. He also comes across as a better choice compared with nearly all his historical predecessors.

Gabuev noted that despite the war tarnishing much of Putin’s legacy, his first two terms in particular brought the greatest combination of material prosperity and relative freedom Russians had ever seen — and for those uninterested in politics, goodwill remains.

“That’s the paradox, they really are the happiest life in the country’s history,” Gabuev said. “Because the combination of wealth and material prosperity and freedoms being present at the same time was never higher.”

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