Elections 2024 – a Priority or a Burden for the Russian Administrative System?
August 10, 2023
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation

Mikhail Vinogradov lays out scenarios for the 2024 Russian presidential elections. Getting Vladimir Putin reelected to a new term, it would seem, should not be difficult, but risks exist and should not be underestimated.
The onset of the 2024 political year in Russia is hardly seeing any great interest. Presidential elections in Russia used to be an important, symbolic landmark. Then, they symbolized the hypothetical possibility of relatively interesting events, heightened political activity, and a way out of the sluggish and inert political life.

The current situation is markedly different. The public space has dried up, and a considerable number of citizens (regardless of their views) are convinced that they continue lacking the tools to influence politics. Meanwhile, the political realities of 2022-23 have been dynamic and eventful. It is hardly possible to remember other periods when major successes of the Russian authorities (the offensive in the south of Ukraine in early 2022, maintaining economic stability, ensuring a neutral reaction of the country to the military operation) and their failures (retreat in Kharkiv and Kherson regions) alternated with such speed.

Against this backdrop, potential conflicts around the presidential elections seem far-fetched. However, it is possible that the people responsible for putting on the elections are not preparing public opinion and calculating risks.

Public processes seem under reliable control, and the likelihood of risks being realized looks insignificant in the eyes of the authorities. The average bureaucrat proceeds from the idea that, on the one hand, he should be involved in the campaign of the candidate from the regime – to show the contribution he made to the common victory. On the other hand, the bureaucrat understands that there is no need to show special zeal – no one can guarantee that the future victory of the regime will be perceived as a special achievement worthy of preferences and prizes being handed out to participants. And to say that the elections will determine the political configuration in Russia for the next six years would be a strong exaggeration.

What are the election scenarios at the moment?

Elections “according to the plan” or time for a change?

The inertia scenario for the elections is obvious: Vladimir Putin is nominated and receives record support. Recall that in 2000, he won 53% of the vote, in 2004 71%, in 2012 63.6% and in 2018 76.69%. The intention to demonstrate that society is mobilized around the regime requires higher voting numbers, especially since neither exciting personalities nor exciting campaigns can be expected from the allowed opposition.

In the 2018 elections and the vote on constitutional amendments in 2020, the level of support in absolute numbers – 56.4 million and 57.7 million votes, respectively – was of great symbolic importance. To increase the absolute number of voters for the incumbent, it may be necessary that the announced turnout should be higher than in previous presidential campaigns: 68.7% in 2000, 64.3% in 2004, 65.3% in 2012, 67.5% in 2018 and 67.9% in 2020.

Alternative scenarios are not difficult to imagine, though they look utopian today.
The first is to switch the candidate. One can discuss the pros and cons of such a scenario for the regime, but after Putin was allowed to run for a fifth term, this topic basically has been banned. Accordingly, it is difficult to imagine a group of high-status officials who could be entrusted with the development of such a delicate scenario. Therefore, even if we assume the hypothetical potential of such a scenario, it will inevitably be a surprise for the administrative “vertical,” which will find out at the last minute and be forced to improvise.

The second way is to cancel the presidential elections under the pretext of martial law being in effect throughout the country or in some regions. This has already happened in Ukraine, where the next elections to the Rada will not take place on October 29, 2023, and the holding of presidential elections on March 31, 2024 is under question.

Technically, such a scenario is quite feasible, especially since the factor of international recognition of the election results has long lost its previous importance. However, the holding of elections on time remains psychologically significant for the Russian authorities – even the regional elections were not canceled either in 2022 or 2023, though the possibility of their being cancelled in the spring of 2022 was studied.

Routine or show?

The general mood to put on elections “as usual” does not give an idea of the aesthetics and style of the election campaign. There can be two approaches.

The first is to conduct a routine and not-too-noticeable, “technical” campaign, explaining that now is not the time for exciting political theater, as the key thing is not to allow external enemies to undermine the country’s unity. In this case, social spending could be squeezed, while efforts to raise optimism across society in general would not particularly be needed. In this case, it would not be necessary to introduce a moratorium on adopting headline-grabbing initiatives that might cause a negative reaction in society. From an organizational point of view, this way looks the most rational and relevant to the moment. But there are no signs that it has been decided on yet.

The second way is to try to position the presidential elections as a show, a “holiday” with street festivals, exhibitions, etc. This would require the announcement of new initiatives for social payments to citizens, while it is also desirable to reduce the intensity of negative news from Ukraine and to spin the idea of the 2018-24 term as successful and inspiring.

It seems that it was for this purpose that the authorities began to neutralize the radical patriotic camp. Take the arrest of Igor Strelkov and the preceding departure of Yevgeny Prigozhin from the public space, which shows that the pro-war critics of the authorities are seeing their freedom squeezed.

At this point, it seems reasonable to expect an intermediate scenario, when optimism is gradually built up, though without much urgency. It can also be assumed that the situation in Ukraine will be frozen over – though it cannot be excluded that the presidential campaign will take place against the backdrop of escalation.

A third scenario – the holding of wartime elections – cannot be completely ruled out. In this case, unpopular steps like a new wave of mobilization would be taken openly, without hesitation, while coming to the polling station and voting for the regime would become an element of fulfilling one’s “duty” to defend the fatherland. Under these conditions, administrative control over elections would be intended to have a unifying effect. Such a scenario would demotivate completely voters who were seriously going to use the voting procedure to express a negative attitude toward the authorities.

Pitfalls of a problem-free campaign
The situation on the eve of the 2024 elections looks suspiciously unproblematic.The idea that, in a significant sense, the elections as such have already taken place long ago has relaxed the administrative apparatus and decreased attention to the possible risks.
The 2012 presidential election campaign took place against the backdrop of massive protests in Moscow (pictured) and other major cities - 63.6% of voters voted for Putin, significantly less than in the previous (in 2004) and subsequent (in 2018) elections. Source: Wiki Commons
The first and most understandable risk is your own mistakes and unsuccessful moves. This was the case in 2011, when the unsuccessful dramaturgy of switching out Medvedev for Putin as president turned out traumatic for a considerable part of society, provoking the Bolotnaya movement.

In recent years, the problem of empathy in relations between the authorities and the population has gotten rather worse. This was quite clearly manifested during the 2020 pandemic, when the authorities tried to distance themselves from resolving the hardships and anxieties that citizens experienced due to the quarantine restrictions.

Even getting into campaign mode can be a problem. This spring, when a smooth start to the campaign could have been expected, citizens heard disturbing news in the form of a new law on electronic draft notices.
Vladimir Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov is quoted by The New York Times as saying that “Mr Putin will be reelected next year with more than 90% of the vote.” Source: Wiki Commons
The words of Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov, quoted in The New York Times on August 6, hinted at the target of a 90% result for Putin. However, in the end, this was partially disavowed by the Russian authorities, and Peskov himself did not add any clarity: in what he said, one can see any of the described scenarios – a “holiday” personifying mass support for Putin; elections taking place simultaneously with mobilization; an emphatically no-alternative administrative procedure; and even the cancellation of elections in the event of martial law.

A second possible weak link is the obvious asynchrony of the tasks: increasing social optimism on the eve of the elections, on the one hand, and on the other, preparing (at least preliminarily) for fresh unpopular measures, including a second wave of mobilization. This is on top of the uncertainty around the economic situation. Overall, the economy overcame the shock from sanctions relatively easily, but by October-November, when the election campaign can be expected to start, a weakening ruble could trigger another surge in inflation.

The military situation remains dangerous. The Ukrainian side, having overcome an internal crisis after the failures of the June offensive, has begun to inflate expectations of some military successes by October-November. At the same time, drone attacks deep into Russian territory have become more frequent: since May, there have been at least four high-profile attacks on Moscow, while the situation in the Black and Azov Seas remains challenging. In 2022, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kharkiv and Kherson regions was not so well known to the average Russian, while if a “big” campaign is launched, new problems on the front would be undesirable for the regime.

In addition, Russia is not immune from the threat (or, at least, from a surge of anxiety) around geopolitical activity designed, if not to disrupt the presidential elections, then to make the atmosphere around them as uncomfortable as possible for the Kremlin. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “march on Moscow” on June 24 has already forced some high-ranking officials in the West to consider whether Russia’s political system is strong enough. A number of countries (including Turkey, China and Saudi Arabia) have again begun to probe the possibility of distancing themselves from the Russian side.

In the ranks of conspiracy theorists, there is a version that the decision to start hostilities in Ukraine was made in 2022 due to suspicions that the “West” might try to prevent Putin from being elected for a new term, using, among other things, Ukrainian arms. Although such a picture seems implausible to experts (or even deliberate manipulation of the Russian elite’s phobias), Russia’s entry into the election campaign objectively increases the international community’s interest in political processes inside Russia and testing its possible vulnerabilities.

In this context, the negotiations in Saudi Arabia on August 5-6 with the participation of the US, the EU, China, India and the countries of South America look like just such a signal of increased attention to Russia on the eve of 2024. The proposal to create “advisory groups on Ukraine,” allegedly made at the meeting in Jeddah, for a part of the especially anxious elites, sounds like the intention of foreign powers to organize “headquarters” for “foreign interference” in the internal affairs of Russia.
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