Putin’s Political Machinations Delegitimize Russian Presidential Elections

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 34

(Source: Kremlin.ru)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia is scheduled to hold presidential elections from March 15 to 17, which will predictably result in the reelection of President Vladimir Putin.
  • The Kremlin is doing everything in its power to prevent opposition figures from gaining traction in presidential elections, including preventing them from collecting signatures for the Central Election Commission, refusing to register candidates, and killing them.
  • If the West decided to collectively not recognize Putin’s authority, he would likely begin to lose his internal legitimacy in Russia.

From March 15 to 17, Russia will hold presidential elections, the results of which are entirely predictable. Russian President Vladimir Putin will again receive an overwhelming majority of votes. Kremlin propaganda has created the image of a permanent “national leader,” a “tsar.” Not all Russians, however, succumb to this image. Alternative, independent candidates are, nevertheless, disallowed from participating in the elections. This was observed in previous campaigns, but in 2024, it became blatantly obvious, even to the point of political assassinations.

In November 2023, Ekaterina Duntsova, an independent journalist from the Tver region,  announced her candidacy in the presidential elections. Among her goals, she named ending the war against Ukraine and democratic reforms in Russia. As an unaffiliated self-nominated candidate, Duntsova had to collect 300,000 voter signatures by law—hardly possible for an unknown politician. The Central Election Commission, however, did not even allow her to collect these signatures. Russian officials were likely afraid that she had a high chance of success as a woman with an anti-war campaign (DW.com, December 27, 2023).

Boris Nadezhdin made the next attempt to run for president on an anti-war platform. He has been involved in politics since 1990, though not in a leading role. The Civil Initiative party nominated Nadezhdin, and he only had to collect 100,000 signatures to register as a candidate. In January, thousands of people lined up in various Russian cities to sign for his nomination (BBC.com, January 22). People were attracted not so much to the figure of Nadezhdin himself but to his stated idea of terminating the so-called “special military operation.” This became a relatively clear refutation of the Kremlin propaganda thesis that “all Russians” support this war. Although Nadezhdin collected the required signatures, the Central Election Commission refused to register him, finding many “errors” in these signatures. This is the standard method in Russia for eliminating undesirable candidates. Nadezhdin’s appeal to the Supreme Court did not help either—the court sided with the Central Election Commission (Svoboda.org, February 21). On March 4, the Russian Supreme Court declared that Nadezhdin was not allowed to register for the presidential election, dismissing his complaint that the Central Election Commission’s decision not to register him for the election was illegal (Interfax, March 4). In this, it is apparent that the various elements of Putin’s “vertical of power” do not contradict each other.

Nadezhdin has never called himself an “oppositionist.” Throughout his political career, he always remained a “systemic liberal”—that is, people close to the Kremlin who try to promote a moderate liberal agenda. Moscow did not consider, however, the rapid evolution of the Russian political system from formal liberalism to an imperial totalitarian dictatorship under the Putin regime.

Theoretically, the Kremlin could have allowed the “liberal” Nadezhdin to participate in the elections, enabling him to receive a small portion of the votes. This was how businessman Mikhail Prokhorov was allowed to run in 2012 when he received 8 percent of the votes. Today, this would mean Nadezhdin’s admission to direct television debates. Moscow, however, consider openly voicing an anti-war position during the war too dangerous, capable of undermining the “will to win.”

As a result, the pre-election television debates in Russia have been a complete farce. The participants admitted from the three official Duma parties—Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Liberal Democratic Party, and New People—did not criticize Putin at all (Svoboda.org, February 27). The leader of the pseudo-liberal party “New People,” Vladislav Davankov, is advocating “for peace and negotiations, but on our conditions” (RBC.ru, February 15). “Our conditions,” in this case, points to the continuation of the war and occupation of Ukrainian territory.

Putin has never participated in pre-election television debates throughout his entire presidential career. In the United States, such behavior would mean automatic disqualification of the candidate. In Russia, on the contrary, it confirms his status as a “tsar” who does not stoop to arguing with “serfs.” Equality is nonexistent in Russian politics.

In 2020, Putin openly violated the Russian constitution by usurping power. After two terms as president, he was supposed to leave in 2008. He has been ruling, however, for 24 years and plans to continue. The “constitutional amendments” he introduced in 2020 allow him to sit in the Kremlin until 2036. His rule has been accompanied by the destruction of Russian civil society, increasing repressions year by year, and the strengthening of his imperial dictatorship. In 2022, Putin’s push for power led to the outbreak of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Today, residents of the occupied regions of Ukraine are being forced to vote for Putin, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for his illegal deportation of Ukrainian children (see EDM, April 19, 2023).

The free world should not recognize the fictitious presidential elections of 2024 and their “winner,” Putin, as the legitimate president of Russia. This will be a decision similar to when many countries in 2020 refused to recognize dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus (Meduza.io, September 23, 2020). In early February, the issue of non-recognition of the presidential elections in Russia was discussed in the European Parliament, however, it did not come to a clear conclusion (DW.com, February 15).

The murder of Alexei Navalny on February 16 may radicalize the sentiments of Western politicians toward delegitimizing Putin’s rule. In 2020, FSB agents tried to kill him with Novichok poison, but Navalny survived. After treatment in Germany, he returned to Russia, was sentenced to 19 years in prison, and has now been killed (see EDM, February 20 [1],  [2], February 21). Navalny was the clear leader of the Russian opposition for the last nine years following the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov. They both had strong charisma and could rally massive protest demonstrations (see EDM, October 11, 2017, February 1, 2018). To establish his “tsarist” power, Putin was afraid of these democratic competitors. If the still uninvestigated murder of Nemtsov could be attributed to some “Chechen bandits,” then the murder of Navalny proved that this is a systematic Putin policy. Now, if the Western world recognizes Putin as “president” after the elections, it will legalize a political murderer. “A president who killed his main opponent cannot be legitimate,” Alexei Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, told EU officials (Meduza.io, February 20). 

Another well-known oppositionist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, also calls for not recognizing the legitimacy of the March elections. He says: “Declaring the Putin regime illegitimate will also deal a blow to those who continue to do business with the Kremlin despite sanctions and will also contribute to the federalization and democratization of Russia in the future” (Politico.eu, February 16).

If the West continues to call Putin “Mr. President,” Moscow will believe that it has the right to move forward with its criminal plans. Non-recognition will help Ukrainian resistance and may change Russian society. A dictator and murderer, whom the outside world does not recognize as a legitimate president, will soon lose his internal legitimacy in Russia.