The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, the Kremlin is worried — about Russia’s own presidential elections

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to workers as he visits Chelyabinsk’s Compressor Plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in November. (AP)

It’s a foregone conclusion that Vladimir Putin will win Russia’s March 2018 presidential elections, so why is the Kremlin fretting about turnout? And how is Russia’s big business supposed to help get people to vote? Here’s what’s going on.

On December 6th, Putin declared his candidacy. Russia’s Central Election Commission is expected to formally kick off the campaign season sometime in mid-December. But Russia under Vladimir Putin is not a democracy. The Constitutional Court has deemed the country’s best-known opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, ineligible to register for the coming March 2018 election, citing two controversial financial-crimes convictions. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that both decisions were arbitrary and unreasonable.

In Navalny’s place, the election will feature Ksenia Sobchak, a television personality. Sobchak polls nationally at less than 1 percent — and her supposedly oppositional campaign has refused to criticize Putin.

Why do unfair elections even matter?

Putin’s regime represents what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way term “competitive authoritarianism.” Elections in hybrid systems like Russia are not designed to determine who rules, but rather to signal the regime’s power and resilience to potential challengers.

Elections in these polities are often marred by abuses of state power, but they are nonetheless held and can be bitterly fought. It is tempting to disregard the results of such elections because of the extent to which they are manipulated by elites in power. Yet counterintuitively, the level of state control over the electoral process is itself a reason to pay close attention.

In his book “Patronal Politics,” Henry Hale points out that authoritarian regimes deploy every available resource to dominate elections, even when opposition candidates would not win a free and fair contest. Competitive, if unfair, elections send a potent message about the power of incumbent regimes.

A crushing electoral victory signals to potential opponents that they can expect the regime to remain in power and that open opposition will be futile. But low turnout can communicate the regime’s potential weakness. Challengers may become empowered, while erstwhile allies consider defection to avoid falling on the wrong side of a revolutionary wave.

The Kremlin has high turnout goals for 2018 …

The “great power of expectations,” as Hale labels this phenomenon, drives Russian politics — and the Putin regime has set a high bar for itself. Last year, the Kremlin’s top political technologists established a “70 at 70” objective for Putin’s reelection in March 2018 — 70 percent of the vote with 70 percent turnout. In a recent interview, Russian political expert Tatyana Stanovaya remarked, “Putin just needs to be elected quietly and quickly, without fuss, with good turnout, and a good result.”

… but may struggle to meet them

September’s regional and municipal elections, though, showed Russians aren’t particularly excited about voting. The low turnout has left the Kremlin scrambling to boost voter enthusiasm for next March. Putin remains popular, but protest activity is rising, particularly in the provinces.

According to the Russian government’s own polling, public support for government policies is at the lowest level in nearly a decade. Russia’s regional governments remain under the Kremlin’s tight control, but they are increasingly at odds with federal policies.

The Kremlin and Russia’s regional governments are at odds. That’s a problem for Putin.

In three regions, fiscal problems have become so dire that their governors circumvented official channels and appealed publicly to Moscow for bailouts. Foreign policy adventures — first in Ukraine, then in Syria — may have temporarily distracted Russians from problems at home, but public interest in both conflicts is waning.

The Kremlin has enlisted help from big business

Putin has publicly downplayed Russia’s low turnout but Kremlin policy tells a different story. Russian authorities have long included state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in their voter mobilization efforts, but “corporate mobilization” has taken on new significance this election cycle. Following record low turnout in Russia’s 2016 parliamentary elections, reports emerged that SOEs, rather than the ruling party United Russia, would drive get-out-the-vote efforts and socioeconomic monitoring in future elections.

Here’s how this played out in September’s regional and municipal elections. State-run energy giants Rosatom and RosHydro funded initiatives to monitor pre-election risks in the regions, and report the findings to the Kremlin. With the presidential contest approaching, Rosatom recently hired a contractor to file reports on socioeconomic conditions in the remote “closed cities” in which the company operates power plants. Rosatom’s former chief executive, Sergei Kiriyenko, is first deputy head of the Presidential Administration tasked with managing domestic politics.

Many Russians aren’t protesting against Putin — they want his help

The Kremlin increasingly expects SOEs to deliver investment and social services that struggling regional governments cannot provide. For instance, state-run Gazprom ratcheted up its spending on development projects this year, according to Bloomberg reporting. Despite initial plans to slash “noncore expenditures,” outlays on charity were up 60 percent 2017, reaching 26.3 billion rubles ($438 million).

Here’s how Alexander Hamilton would understand Russia’s regional debt crisis

The company built a patriotic theme park and a sports complex in the Siberian city of Irkutsk — projects that may provide temporary jobs and boost support at the polls for Putin next March. SOEs routinely subsidize economically impractical investments across Russia, especially in the country’s single-industry towns. Economists Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes have referred to a political imperative to “keep the lights on” in the Russian provinces.

A Reuters report, meanwhile, suggests the Kremlin ordered major energy and utility companies to supply the Presidential Administration with news items that cast Russia’s leadership in a positive light. A memo to industry leaders requested stories “where it’s possible to say that state support helped lift the economy out of crisis” and benefited local residents. State-run media outlets are supposed to disseminate the stories to the public.

Prioritizing short-term political goals hinders Russia’s growth

During the past decade, the Kremlin has allowed SOEs to monopolize and dominate the Russian economy. The regime is asking SOEs to leverage their weight and reach to ensure Putin wins a convincing mandate in the March 2018 election.

But the tacit trade of market share for political help comes at the cost of competitiveness in Russia’s economy. Relying on corporations, rather than regional and municipal governments, to fulfill the state’s development goals also risks further atrophying of the country’s federal structure. Under Putin, the Kremlin has increasingly sought to circumvent lower levels of government, preferring instead to dictate policy from Moscow.

Choosing political goals over economic efficiency harms minority investors and will limit Russia’s potential to improve its ranking in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” report, once a key goal of Putin’s third term.

According to a Levada Center poll from late November, 67 percent of likely voters would vote for Putin, with anticipated turnout between 53 and 55 percent — not the 70 percent figure the Kremlin hopes to see. Trailing far behind are the nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Russian Communist Party’s Gennady Zyuganov, each with just four percent.

Nonetheless, the logic of patronal politics demands that the authorities pull out all the stops to encourage a high turnout in an election Putin will surely win, even if their methods hinder Russia’s future development.

Editor’s note: This post was updated to reflect Vladimir Putin’s announcement this morning that he will run for president in the March 2018 elections.

Christopher Jarmas is a master’s candidate in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian area studies at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @jarmascm.