MOSCOW — With his reelection, Vladimir Putin took one step closer to becoming Russian leader for life.
On paper, Putin’s victory gave him a new six-year term as president. But some of his most visible allies quickly signaled that they saw it as a mandate for something greater than that: leader of the Russian people, rising above politics at a time when the country’s very existence is threatened by an aggressive West.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of pro-Kremlin network RT, wrote that Putin had turned from president to “our leader,” or vozhd — a word with medieval roots that was applied to Joseph Stalin in the Soviet era. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist presidential candidate who supports Putin, predicted on national television that “these elections were the last ones.” And a parade of pro-Kremlin commentators, politicians and officials claimed that the 65-year-old Putin’s victory represented nothing less than the unity and determination of a people under siege.
“The road to presidency for life, or some other kind of lifetime post as the country’s leader, opened today,” said Konstantin Gaaze, an independent political analyst.
Russia’s constitution would bar Putin from running again in 2024. But for months, there’s been growing speculation in Moscow that Putin will either change the constitution to allow him to run again or create a new office that would turn him into a supreme national leader, like Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the wake of Sunday’s election, in which the government said Putin won 77 percent of the vote with 68 percent turnout, that speculation has burst into the open. Alexey Chesnakov, a former Kremlin adviser turned pro-Kremlin commentator, said he was sure that Putin “won’t go anywhere in 2024.”
“It’s too early to say for sure what form it will take,” Chesnakov said. “I can’t say if he will leave the office of president, or perhaps it will be extended somehow.”
Zhirinovsky, a staple of Russian politics since he first ran for president in 1991, told the Interfax news agency after the election that he expected Putin to follow the lead of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently abolished presidential term limits in his country. On a state television talk show Sunday evening, Zhirinovsky said that because voters seem uninterested in electing a different leader, “we should get rid of elections.”
“These elections were the last ones; you should understand that,” he said. “There will be a state council governed by the president.”
The growing talk of a Putin lifetime presidency is being accompanied by increasingly dire rhetoric about Russia’s confrontation with the West. Putin’s allies are presenting his victory — which was accompanied by footage of ballot-stuffing and many reports of people ordered to vote by their employers — as a response to Western aggression.
International fury over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England, these allies say, is only the latest in a series of Western attempts to keep Russia down. Olympic doping, Syria, Ukraine, hacking and allegations of election interference all fall into that category, too.
Alexey Pushkov, a top lawmaker, said that “the demonization of Putin in the West had the opposite effect in Russia.” Ella Pamfilova, the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, thanked Western leaders for helping unite Russian voters because “our people always come together in hard times.” And Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s best-selling tabloid, said Putin had won an enormous new electoral mandate stemming from a “colossal demand for a response to the piled-up grievances” that Russians have against the West.
“From these heights, Putin will now be able to do everything he deems necessary,” Komsomolskaya Pravda said. “And this will be the will of the people.”
One of the most striking responses, however, came from RT editor Simonyan, who deployed a term for Putin that has rarely been heard here despite his years-long dominance of Russian politics. In referring to him as Russia’s vozhd, she was resurrecting a word for “leader” that was last commonly used in the country to refer to Stalin. In the days of serfdom, it was used in the sense of “master.”
“You have united us around your enemy,” Simonyan wrote, referring to Putin. “He used to simply be our president and he could be changed. But now he is our leader. And we will not allow him to be changed.”
Putin brushes away talk about his future. When a reporter asked him Sunday evening if he planned to run again, Putin responded that the question was “somewhat ridiculous.”
“Am I supposed to be president until I am 100 years old? No,” Putin said.