Vladimir Putin: Many Russians see no alternative candidate as election looms

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Vladimir Putin sits on stage at election headquarters in Moscow, Russian Federation with a big screen behind him showing his face on 31 Jan 2024Image source, EPA

In an exhibition hall opposite the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin walks onto a stage.

There’s rapturous applause, a standing ovation.

No surprise there. The invited guests – many of them Russian celebrities – are officially supporting Mr Putin’s candidacy in the presidential election in March.

The Kremlin leader is running for a fifth term in office. The audience here is only too pleased.

“[Putin’s] an extraordinary leader, the most courageous and wise person,” gushes filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky.

“The Russian people have never been so united in their support for their president,” claims singer Nadezhda Babkina. “And anyone who tries to prevent that will fail.”

The idea behind the event (and this high-profile celebrity support) seems to be to show that candidate Putin is in a league of his own: Premier League Putin.

Keep in mind, though: this is a league he created and of which he’s in charge. Russia’s political system is Mr Putin’s political system; his rules of the game; his election. Mr Putin’s most vocal critics have long been relegated. They’re either in exile or in prison.

Which makes elections here rather predictable.

Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Russia Today, sits in a crowd of Putin supporters in Moscow on January 31, 2024.

Image source, Getty Images

That wasn’t always the case.

Thirty years ago in Moscow I remember watching one of Russian TV’s first ever election night results programmes – it was for a parliamentary election. No-one had a clue who was going to win.

I’ll never forget the astrologer they had on to make a political forecast. Quite appropriate really, because three decades ago, Russians had stars in their eyes about democracy, freedom, and their country’s future.

For a Russian election today you don’t need astrologers or crystal balls. I can tell you now how the 2024 presidential election will end: with a Vladimir Putin landslide.

The reasons for such confidence?

First, although his will not be the only name on the ballot, Mr Putin’s challengers will not include arch-rivals like jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Putin v Navalny? Matches like that just aren’t allowed to happen in the Putin Premier League.

True, another Kremlin critic, Boris Nadezhdin, is pushing to be on the ballot. But Mr Nadezhdin is not Mr Navalny. He carefully calibrates his criticisms of Mr Putin. He’s also believed to have connections within the presidential administration.

If he does end up running, it will be because the Kremlin has decided it’s in Mr Putin’s interests to face a more critical challenger.

Boris Nadezhdin stands in front of boxes with journalists and camera people behind him at Central Election Commission, Moscow, Russian Federation on 31 Jan 2024

Image source, EPA

Second, in Russia the Kremlin controls television. Mr Putin receives vast amounts of airtime during which he’s much praised and rarely criticised: handy when you’re seeking re-election.

And there’s another reason Mr Putin will do well.

“We all support your decision to run in the election. Because you’ve been in power as long as I can remember,” said Alexander, a young Russian TV reporter at Mr Putin’s end of year press conference.

I’ve met many Russians like Alexander who cannot imagine anyone else in the Kremlin. Not because they idolise Mr Putin. They just see no alternative.

I’ve often heard people say: “Well, if not Putin, who then?”

The Kremlin has engineered that. It has cleared the political landscape removing any potential challengers to the man who has ruled Russia, as president or prime minister, for nearly a quarter of a century. By doing so, it has ensured that little question – “who then?” – is left unanswered.

When I talk to people in the town of Rzhev, 140 miles (225km) from Moscow, about their hopes for the election, many seem to want change – without changing the leader.

“I hope things change for the better because there’s stagnation now,” says a young man called Ilya. “But if you elect someone new, that person might not cope with the burden of government. Someone experienced like Putin can develop the country even in the difficult situation we’re in now.”

“I have big hopes for the election,” says pensioner Lidiya. “I hope that the war will end and the economy will improve. But I do respect Putin.”

“Is there no-one else who could do his job?” I ask.

“Not right now,” Lidiya replies. “Maybe Putin will find someone later. But I think he’ll be in power for a long time to come.”

Even the war in Ukraine and significant Russian military losses don’t appear to have sparked widespread disillusionment in Russia’s president and Commander-in-Chief.

It was Mr Putin’s decision to launch the full-scale invasion. But some Russians believe that at a time of war it is their duty to back their leader, without questioning his motives or the consequences. Others accept the official narrative/alternative reality that it’s the West, not Russia, that started the war.

I meet one woman in Rzhev who does want to see change in the Kremlin. Former TV journalist and regional legislator Yekaterina Duntsova recently tried to run for president herself. She called for peace in Ukraine, the release of political prisoners and a “humane” Russia.

Yekaterina Duntsova sits in an interview in Moscow on 25 December 2023

Image source, Reuters

Russia’s Central Election Commission refused to accept her nomination, citing errors in her paperwork.

“I think the political system here sees me as some kind of alien object, and doesn’t know what to do with me,” Ms Duntsova said. “Because I appeared out of the blue the system doesn’t understand who I am. So it’s decided to keep me well out of harm’s way.”

Now she’s setting up a new party. Isn’t she scared that the system will turn on her?

“We’re not doing anything illegal. We act according to the law. As for being scared, fear mustn’t prevail. I believe in what I’m doing. And this conviction relegates fear to second place.”

Back at the Putin campaign event, I talk to Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT.

“A leader in power for a quarter of a century and more… with no checks and balances. Isn’t that dangerous?” I ask.

“That’s a mantra you guys have been propagating for years,” she replies. “If a person has been in power for a long time, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be worse than if you change a leader every four years. Pol Pot in Cambodia annihilated a third of his population in three years.”

A comforting thought.

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