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9 charts that lay out Russia’s uncertain future — with or without Putin

In a March 16 address, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Russians to vote in the March 18 presidential election on March 18. (Video: Reuters)

This Sunday, Russians will vote for their next president. The result, however, is all but assured: Vladimir Putin will win — again.

Putin, the incumbent, is ahead in polls by an insurmountable margin. The most recent, published by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), showed him with 69 percent. His nearest rival, the Communist Party's Pavel Grudinin, has a tenth of that.

Russia's political opposition says Putin, in power in one form or another since 1999, has contorted Russia's political, media and business worlds to make himself electorally invincible. “It's a fake election,” is how Ksenia Sobchak, a former TV star and now the most high-profile liberal candidate, has put it. Sobchak is polling at 2 percent.

But even if its results are predictable, the Russian election will be worth watching. The nine charts below help explain why, even though Putin will win the election, Russia's long-term fate remains unclear.

1. Putin is very popular.

It may not necessarily be a level playing field, but Putin has consistently been popular since he entered high-level public office in 1999. According to the polling firm Levada Center, Putin closed out 2017 with approval ratings over 80 percent. These are the sorts of approval ratings most Western leaders would die for: It's virtually double what President Trump has in the United States.

A side note: Levada, the only major independent polling firm in Russia, is not conducting political polls in the run-up to the presidential election because of fears it would be accused of political meddling under “foreign agent” laws.

2. But the Russian government in general is not.

Putin's envy-inducing levels of popularity are not present everywhere in government. Indeed, according to Levada's polling, the Russian government has long struggled with its popularity among Russians in general; since 2016, its approval rating has been negative.

3. There are concerns that this growing apathy about government may result in low turnout.

The Kremlin set an ambitious "70 at 70" target for the election: meaning it wants Putin to win 70 percent of the vote at 70 percent turnout. The first part of that equation seems possible, but the second part? Perhaps not. Turnout in a Russian presidential election has not hit 70 percent since 1991, though it has come close a few times. In the last nationwide elections in Russia, a Duma vote in 2016, turnout dropped below 50 percent for the first time.

A more worrying picture comes from regional and municipal elections in September, where turnout was downright embarrassing in some areas — dropping to just 28 percent in Moscow. Levada has estimated that despite Putin's popularity, turnout in Sunday's election could be as low as 52 percent.

4. Why the lack of enthusiasm? One factor may be the economy.

Though Putin may be popular in Russia, there's no denying that his current term as president has led to some domestic struggles. An obvious one is Russia's economy, which earlier in the Putin era was booming but has been stagnating since 2014 — partly a reflection of international isolation after the annexation of Crimea, but also of diminished revenue as oil and gas prices have dropped, as well as general economic mismanagement.

The result is that Russia, despite its vast size, large population, natural resources and educated elite, has an economy roughly the size of New York state's. Its gross domestic product per capita has crashed in recent years. When measured in nominal terms, it is less than a quarter of Britain's and a fifth of the United States'. Russia's own figures found almost 20 million people living in poverty in 2016, the highest number in 10 years.

5. Life expectancy has risen, but it remains low among peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Despite the advances made during the Putin years, a number of signs indicate that quality of life in Russia has not improved at the same rate. One big indicator is Russia's stubbornly low life expectancy at birth, which has improved in recent years but remains stuck near the bottom of a chart of rankings.

Studies have linked the country's low life expectancy to Russian men's alcohol intake in particular. In 2013, Putin himself singled out Russians' relatively short lives as something that needed to be changed, though it remains unclear whether the country can meet his goal of a life expectancy of 74 by 2018.

6. For many people, there remains a nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

Polls show that even a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians still regret its passing. Putin himself made this point at a recent media event, telling a reporter that he would change the Soviet collapse if he could. Levada's polling found that a majority of Russians felt bitterness over the end of the unified economic system, while a smaller group said they felt that Russia was no longer a superpower.

7. An increasing number view the United States as an enemy.

Over the many years that Putin has held national office, negative views of the United States have soared in Russia. Many Russians appear now to view the United States as their nation's preeminent enemy (to be fair, a considerable proportion of Americans may say the same about Russia, according to data from other recent polls).

There are signs that Putin has been able to capitalize on this. The Russian president recently gave a lengthy speech in which he talked about domestic issues such as government spending on roads and health care. In the second half of the speech, however, he announced dramatic new missile  technology that supposedly is able to overcome any missile-defense system.

Experts have played down the significance of this technology — U.S. missile defense would already struggle to cope with a Russian attack, for one thing — but it played well with Putin's base. Polling from VCIOM found that it was the most well-remembered part of the speech.

8. Despite everything, most Russians are optimistic about the country's future.

For all of Russia's problems and citizens' doubts about their government, most Russians say that their country is going in the right direction. Polls show that there was considerable concern about this at the start of Putin's current presidential term, but there was a major shift in early 2014 — shortly after Moscow's annexation of Crimea caused Russia's relationship with the West to deteriorate.

9. But what comes after Putin is unclear.

If Putin wins this election, he should be president for another six years. Though the Constitution limits him to two consecutive terms as president, he could theoretically be prime minister for a term, as he was between 2008 and 2012, and then return. If he wanted to avoid the hassle, he could probably get the rules rewritten.

Even so, many in Russia are starting to wonder what happens after Putin. Many young voters can't remember a time without him — they also tend to be his biggest supporters. His time in office has personalized politics to such an extent that there is no obvious successor.

Before he announced his candidacy for the 2018 election, Levada asked Russians to write down the last name of the person they would vote for if Putin did not run. The top results were an uninspired mix of establishment politicians — Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

None received more than 10 percent, suggesting no obvious heir for Putin. Indeed, some Russians were apparently unable to imagine a life without their current president: The fifth most popular name written in was “Putin.”

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