There Will Be No Bad News!
August 7, 2023
  • Ben Noble
    Associate Professor of Russian Politics, University College London
    Associate Fellow, Chatham House
Ben Noble writes about the Russian Presidential Administration’s plan to place a moratorium on the adoption of unpopular initiatives in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. What does this tell us about Russian politics?
Presidential Administration First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko. The Presidential Administration reportedly plans to create a festive atmosphere around the presidential election in March 2024, with the Kremlin aiming for Putin to secure more than 80% of the vote. Source: Wiki Commons
Vladimir Putin will most likely stand for re-election in March 2024. True, Putin hasn’t yet formally declared his candidacy. But that fits a pattern seen in previous elections, with a clear reluctance to commit publicly to running.

As is well known, the 2020 constitutional changes gave Putin the formal veneer of authority to run again in 2024 and 2030. These changes – denounced by some as an “unlawful anti-constitutional coup” – could, of course, be part of some plot to keep us all guessing, with Putin not actually planning to stay on in the Kremlin. But the simplest explanation is that he will run in 2024 – and win.

But win by how much? Before the 2018 election, the Presidential Administration settled on the “‘70/70’ formula” – 70 percent support on 70 percent turnout. In a predictable development, the Administration is reportedly now aiming for more than 80 percent support in 2024 – and, in a statement that has caused many eyebrows to be raised, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, predicted that the president would secure more than 90 percent of the vote, adding that “[o]ur presidential election is not really democracy, it is costly bureaucracy”.

How will the Kremlin ensure such a high level of support? According to the Levada Center, Putin’s approval rating stood at 82 percent in July. But the uncertainties about polling in an authoritarian regime, especially one during a time of war, might prevent those around Putin from being complacent.

The “menu of manipulation”

Elections in Russia are often rightly dismissed as being undemocratic – that is, of not giving Russian citizens a meaningful way to choose who ends up in positions of elected office in free and fair conditions.

Media coverage pointing out the non-democratic nature of elections in Russia often focuses on ballot stuffing as the key way by which the electoral playing field is unlevelled (or, rather, completely dug up). And the impact of such fraud is far from insignificant: analysis of the September 2021 State Duma elections suggests that United Russia’s actual level of support was likely just over 30 percent, in contrast to an official result of 50 percent.

But there are, of course, other items from the “menu of manipulation” beyond ballot stuffing that are used by the authorities to get the results they want. These include forms of coercion, including repressing opposition figures and putting pressure in the workplace for employees to vote a certain way.
Presidential Administration First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko. The Presidential Administration reportedly plans to create a festive atmosphere around the presidential election in March 2024, with Putin targeting 80% of the vote. Source: Wiki Commons
They also include methods of manipulating information about the regime, so that voters are more likely to pick the authorities’ candidate(s). That might involve providing wall-to-wall positive coverage in state media of Vladimir Putin. It might also involve outright censorship, such as the March 2022 “law on fakes” – or the fostering of a “holiday” atmosphere around elections. According to a source of Meduza in the Presidential Administration, this focus on electoral festivities is like a “cosplay of developed socialism” – something apparently favoured by Sergey Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff in the Kremlin.

But the manipulation of information need not be restricted to positives: it can also include avoiding (or delaying – or not reporting on) decisions that might cast the authorities in a less positive light.

A moratorium on bad news… but not quite yet

And that’s where recent planning by the Presidential Administration comes in. Reporting by Vedomosti suggests that
“Plans are being discussed to place an informal ban on making unpopular decisions from September 2023 to April 2024 – that is, from just before upcoming elections on 10 September to after the presidential election next year.
This focus on information makes the initiative a classic case of “spin dictatorship”, as described by Sergei Guriev and Dan Treisman. The crux of their argument is that support for authoritarian regimes, including Russia, can be engineered, in part, through the manipulation of information, rather than simply – or primarily – through repression.

But it’s not September yet. And that could explain the rush to pass a raft of legal changes at the end of the State Duma’s spring session at the close of July. This included a deeply unpopular measure to expand the military conscription age range for men.

It’s worth noting that this didn’t go unopposed within the Federal Assembly. The original plan had been to shift the age range from 18–27 to 21–30. But this was then dropped, resulting in the wider 18–30 range finally adopted by the Russian parliament and signed into law by the president on 4 August. (See Russia.Post on the revised conscription law here and here.) Senator Andrei Klishas argued that the U-turn on the measure was “ill-conceived”, “destroyed consensus” in society, and “undermined confidence in the legislature”. For a political leadership that is at pains to cultivate a sense of the “Donbas consensus” – the idea that the whole of society is united behind Putin in his war against Ukraine and the West – one might say that the “spin dictatorship” has spun too much.

Other parliamentarians made the case for the changes, however. Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov – State Duma deputy and chairman of the lower chamber’s Defence Committee – argued that the broader range was “written for a major war”, the “smell” of which is “already in the air”. This sense of preparing for significant military escalation was compounded with the approval by the Government of a template for call-up papers for “mobilisation”, with the word “partial” notable by its absence.

But these preparations reveal a basic problem with the Presidential Administration’s plan.

Events on the ground

It’s one thing, say, to wish for good weather. It’s quite another thing to get it. Likewise, it’s all well and good to plan a moratorium on unpopular decisions before the 2024 election; actually implementing such a ban is a different matter entirely. What happens if the “major war” mentioned by Kartapolov becomes a reality before the presidential election, including because of gains by the Ukrainian armed forces? In that case, realities on the front line would deprive the Kremlin of the luxury of simply delaying unpopular decisions.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has already seen the shift from a “spin dictatorship” to a “fear dictatorship” – and there are only so many ways that this is compatible with a decision-making landscape that makes voters feel warm and fuzzy on the inside before voting at the ballot box.
The moratorium idea smacks, then, of hubris – or a basic disconnect from reality by some in the Presidential Administration, concocting a plan that appears to face basic implementation issues.
And that tells us something that was already apparent: that many people in Russia, including senior members of the political establishment, are trying to carry on as normal – burying their heads in the sand, living in another reality in which the Russian state is not carrying out an illegal war, with all its disastrous consequences.

It seems likely, then, that, even if the moratorium idea goes forward, it will be impossible to implement for reasons beyond the Presidential Administration’s control. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin will look to a record-breaking result in the 2024 election to renew his mandate – but will have to rely even more on fear and manipulation to get there. And Russian officials will point to articles like this as a sign of “foreign interference” from the “collective West”, intent on delegitimising the country’s elections.
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