Is running against Putin pointless? Why some candidates say no.

There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin will win a fourth term in Russia's presidential election on March 18. But despite the Kremlin's orchestration of the proceedings, the race provides also-rans with opportunities to shape Russia's path.

Fred Weir
Grigory Yavlinsky, presidential candidate for the liberal Yabloko party, sits in his office in Moscow.

The idea of Russian democracy has been pretty much a pipe dream through most of recorded history. There are many who claim that only the window dressings on an essentially authoritarian state machine have been changed since the collapse of the USSR a quarter century ago.

And as Vladimir Putin launches his fourth bid to win the supreme Kremlin job in polls slated for March 18, critics deride the coterie of “contenders” that has been assembled to oppose him as Kremlin puppets – or worse, enablers – in a process designed to anoint a preordained result with a few sprinkles of democratic oil.

Grigory Yavlinsky, one of those contenders, tends to agree. He has been running for president of Russia at almost every opportunity for the past 25 years, and he cheerfully admits there’s no chance of winning.

But he disagrees with many of his fellow opposition-minded Russians who argue that it’s pointless – or even playing straight into the Kremlin’s hands – to try.

Mr. Yavlinsky says that the elections represent a small window in which opponents of Mr. Putin can stand forward and receive legally mandated media coverage to say what they think. A staunch pro-Western liberal – a vanishing species in Russia – Yavlinsky is fearless in expressing his views, which include opposition to the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and the Putin-era oligarchic economic system. Even if the outcome is foretold, he says, the election provides the sort of public stage that is otherwise unavailable in Russia.

“Russia has no future under Putin, but someone needs to say this,” he says. “A person has to live in his own time and place. This is mine. So, I have a choice between doing nothing and doing this.”

Changing the process

The debate concerns not just the current state of Russian democracy, but where it might be headed. Even the Soviet Union held elections, with a single candidate embracing the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, but that dissolved one day and the world discovered a Russia that believed it must become a democracy in order to move forward. Both former President Boris Yeltsin and Putin have acted to severely curtail that vision, yet the orchestrated multi-party elections that take place today are a world away from the Soviet variety. For those who believe in evolution, there is hope that pushing the envelope wherever possible might eventually result in lasting change.

“There are two people in this election, [Alexei Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition figure,] and Yavlinsky, who are contributing a lot to make it as real as it can be,” says Nikolai Petrov, an expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “Yavlinsky is trying to shape a positive agenda, to make that part of public discussion. Navalny is an engine pushing the Kremlin, from the outside, in certain directions. What they do and say is noticed.”

Mr. Navalny is one of several opponents of participation in the upcoming election, which he describe as a stage-managed farce, in part due to his own ouster from it. Navalny was barred from running due to a criminal conviction widely regarded as politically motivated. He and 600 followers were arrested in Moscow last weekend for staging unsanctioned street rallies against the elections. 

Quite a few serious Kremlin critics view boycotting the upcoming vote as the only way a Russian citizen can demonstrate free choice. “I cannot change the situation, but I can stay out of it,” says Yevgeny Roizman, mayor of the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, an opposition stronghold. “This is an election without choice. Candidates participate in it because they were asked to, allowed to, and that’s their choice. Mine is to have no part of it.”

But the political excitement that Navalny has generated, especially among youth, Mr. Petrov says, has forced the Kremlin to offer a wider spectrum for Russians to choose from. Indeed, Petrov argues, the participation of two fresh and outspokenly critical candidates, liberal journalist Ksenia Sobchak and the Communist entry, socialist collective farm director Pavel Grudinin, is Navalny’s achievement.

“Navalny has established a huge network that can bring people onto the streets. Though it is unregistered, it is very much part of the election process,” Petrov says. “And the campaign is just beginning. We need to talk not only about how the next elections might be better, but how to improve and broaden these ones.”

The Putin hurdle

Putin’s vaunted popularity is a very real thing. There is no denying that Russia today is a more unified, socially stable, and even prosperous place than the country he inherited from Mr. Yeltsin almost 20 years ago. Though Yavlinsky rages against Putin’s foreign policy adventures, which have brought Western opprobrium and sanctions down on Russia, polls show that these too enjoy overwhelming public support.

Yet there is no doubt that the system is heavily gamed, with unwanted candidates excluded from the ballot and government resources focused on ensuring a single outcome.

“Putin’s support is the product of an information monopoly,” says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer and organizer of the opposition Solidarity movement. “For the past 18 years people have been told that Putin is the state. No wonder few can imagine the country without him. Focus groups show that the mechanism of his support is not positive, but negative. People fear collapse, unrest, a return to the turmoil of the 1990s. Even people who support Putin do so because they believe there is no alternative.”

Another factor is the decline of Western democracy as a guiding light for Russian liberals, Yavlinsky says. Though he strongly opposed the way the US chose to help Russia in the 1990s, by backing Mr. Yeltsin’s undemocratic methods, at least Yavlinsky’s campaigns two decades ago could point to orderly, free, and open Western democracies as a destination for Russia to aim for.

“It's hard to name any shining examples today,” he says. “Europe is in a difficult condition. Let's not even talk about the US. How can it be that after 230 years of constitutional democracy, America has a leader like Trump? We have barely 25 years of experience, we lack the habits and the culture, we are still learning. But now we hear people saying things like: Putin is manipulating elections everywhere, even in America! What kind of elections are we supposed to expect here in Russia then?”

Enemy No. 1: apathy?

Some argue that Putin’s main opponent in these elections is apathy. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, less than half of Russia’s voters turned out, a result that might tarnish Putin’s victory much more than a high vote for any of his rivals. Experts say the Kremlin has set a target of 70 percent turnout, of which Putin should receive 70 percent support. That may not be realizable.

“Apathy is enemy No. 1, but it’s the enemy of all candidates, not just Putin,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “Apathy might grow into protest, as happened in Soviet times” when people lacked any belief that the system might be improved. That’s a problem that might yet be corrected, Mr. Makarkin says, as surveys show the majority of Russian voters do not yet believe that elections are fake.

Yavlinsky says that although he is trying to shape his campaign on values rather than some percentage of votes, it does matter what the ballot box reveals.

“If 5 or 10 million people would vote for what I am saying, that would have positive results on Russia's political direction,” he says. “If my participation had some impact on taking our troops out of Ukraine and Syria, and improving Russia's relations with the West, I would count that as a great success.”

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