Russian President Vladimir Putin (65) announced, on December 6, that he will in fact be running in the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for March 18, 2018. His main potential opponents from the official Duma opposition parties (the Communist party boss Gennady Zyuganov and the flamboyant nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky) have acknowledged him as the leading or “absolute” favorite (RIA Novosti, December 6). Next year’s election will probably be more of a coronation than a democratic campaign, with Putin’s opponents accepting defeat well beforehand.
Putin took over Russia in 2000 and has since ruled unopposed. The 1993 constitution stipulates a limit of two consecutive four-year terms as president. In 2008, Putin used the legal loophole of switching to being prime minister in 2008–2012, while his subordinate Dmitry Medvedev served as a figure-head president. In 2012, Putin was reelected for six more years in the Kremlin as prior to this, the constitution was amended to increase the presidential term. Next March, Putin in all probability will be reelected for another six-year term until 2024—by which point he will be 72 and may well have been the country’s supreme leader for 24 years. Putin may possibly decide to run again in 2024—ether some legal loophole will be found by the Kremlin to allow for this, or the constitution will again be rewritten. Last month, the possibility of enacting legislation to convene a special constitutional convention (Konstitutsyonnoye Sobranye) was floated in the Duma (Ekho Moski, November 19).
Putin has become a de facto lifelong tsar. Putin in power in the Kremlin would seem to be a constant characteristic of Russian politics for the foreseeable future. But Putin’s future political and economic agenda seems hazy: the survival of the regime and its leader are paramount, but there are different ways in which this may be achieved.
Putin’s announcement of his imminent reelection was apparently originally planned for later in December. But it was moved up, according to Russian political experts, to December 6, to divert public attention from a December 5 decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). On that day, the IOC announced it was banning Russian athletes from participating in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, under the Russian flag as punishment for an extensive state-backed doping program that apparently helped win additional medals during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Verifiably clean Russian athletes will be allowed to participate in Pyeongchang under a neutral flag, but the Russian anthem will not be played. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) has been suspended from the Olympic movement. Russian officials including Vitaly Mutko, the sports minister at the time of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, have been banned from ever attending any Olympic games. The success of the Sochi 2014 Olympics was seen in Russia as one of Putin’s major achievements, though it was soon overshadowed by events in Crimea and Ukraine. Mutko was promoted for his service and is now a deputy prime minister. Hosting the Sochi 2014 Olympics cost Russia over $50 billion (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 6).
The IOC decision was denounced in Moscow as a deliberate humiliation of Russia’s national dignity. The Russian people are not much interested in sports en masse, but major achievements at prestigious events generally promote patriotic fervor. Putin has accused the IOC of imposing collective punishment on Russian athletes on the basis of flimsy evidence. Moreover, Putin accused foreign athletes of constant doping, cheating and using medical prescriptions to cover up. The Russian president further denied he ever gave Mutko or other officials directives to strive for medals in Sochi at any cost. The Sochi 2014 Olympics were organized “magnificently,” according to Putin, so Russia’s enemies found another pretext to undermine this achievement—the doping scandal. The IOC decision to ban the Russian national team from the 2018 Winter Olympics was “preplanned and politically motivated,” declared Putin, but the Kremlin will not stop individual Russian athletes from going to Pyeongchang (Kremlin.ru. December 6).
Putin’s reelection campaign could be built on fanning mass anti-Western paranoia—on an image of a great Russian nation besieged by enemies from all sides and on the need to unite in the face of those unscrupulous foes. Running a major political campaign on the national security agenda, on military greatness, and on victories and glory has repeatedly proven to be an effective strategy in Russia. Putin and his generals have already declared “full victory” in Syria. “ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—a former name for the Islamic State] forces have been eliminated and the territory freed,” declared the chief of General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, “Russian military advisors organized and coordinated action by Kurdish and local militia and Syrian government forces, supported by Russian [air force] bombers and special forces” (Mil.ru, December 6). On December 7, Putin handed out medals to workers of Rostekh, a massive state-owned defense-sector conglomerate: “Without your work, our military could not have been able to demonstrate its current strength, to be modern and effective” (Militarynews.ru, December 6).
Russian state TV channels have been pressing the “victory in Syria” agenda for some time, but this overseas campaign has never been particularly popular. Further militarization and military confrontation are a serious drag on the budget and national economy. According to Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, Russia “spends about 1/3 of its [consolidated federal] budget on defense and national security,” which is way over 5 percent of GDP (Interfax, October 17). The appetites of the military-industrial complex are gobbling up the national wealth, while the economy is stagnating and household incomes are steadily decreasing since 2014.
Putin has reportedly invited Siluanov’s former boss, Alexei Kudrin, to be part of his reelection staff and write an economic program for the next six years (Vedomosti, November 15). Kudrin was Russian financial tsar [finance minister and deputy prime minister] until 2011—a time when the economy was booming on an influx of trillions of petrodollars and government coffers were overflowing. Putin may want Kudrin to somehow repeat that trick. Rumors have been swirling in Moscow that Kudrin may be offered the post of prime minister after the March elections. But Kudrin is known to oppose excessive militarization and insists the economy can begin to grow only if Russia’s standoff with the West is somehow resolved (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 23).
Putin seems intent to have his cake and eat it by trying to reconcile paranoid anti-Western militarization and liberal economic reform within one administration—a breathtaking balancing act indeed.