Structures of Force

Sadakat Kadri

Yulia Navalnaya’s call for protest votes and spoiled ballots in Russia’s presidential election was heeded by thousands. Outside the Russian Embassy in London yesterday, a queue stretched for almost a mile along Bayswater Road throughout the afternoon. It’s unlikely that many had given up their Sunday to contribute to Vladimir Putin’s 87 per cent share of the vote.

A duller campaign could hardly have been scripted. The three non-entities allowed to compete for second place didn’t once criticise Putin, and he barely acknowledged their existence. And yet, to achieve a result preordained by the Kremlin, loyalists pulled out all the stops. State employees and United Russia party members were given quotas of voters to mobilise. Apps, QR codes and two extra election days made it easier than ever to conform. At some polling stations, residents were lured by raffles; at others, they were rewarded with pancakes, porridge or free blood tests.

Even sceptics know that Putin commands support in Russia – so why try so hard? Herding a population is a show of strength, but that’s circular logic. Like an old joke about the Soviet Union – its citizens pretended to work while the government pretended to pay – it says nothing significant about popular beliefs. Though plenty of Russians voted, a state-sanctioned poll reported last month that only one in a hundred expressed actual interest in the election.

Putin’s motives will always be mysterious, but he’s probably aware at some level that his triumph is a duplicitous charade. Vitaly Mansky’s documentary Putin’s Witnesses, released in 2018, is made from footage the director shot in the Kremlin at the turn of the millennium. Putin, preparing to take over from Boris Yeltsin, was still working on the badass persona he’s now perfected, and he seems quite reflective. Ensconced in a limousine, gliding through Moscow in the dark, he explains why it’s better to serve as a president than to rule as a king:

It provides an opportunity of living a normal life after having performed your official duties, after the end of your term. It is necessary to understand that … everything you do with the state and society today you will have to face in a few years as an ordinary citizen. This is … probably the essence of the advantages provided by democracy … It’s one of the reasons democracy and democracies are more resilient and effective.

Within months of that interview, Putin turned on the oligarchs who were hoping for a pliant dictator, but at the same time weakened safeguards against abuses of power. A self-perpetuating securocracy, known in Russian as ‘the structures of force’, has been silencing journalists, suppressing NGOs and liquidating opponents ever since. Far from respecting presidential term limits, Putin pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2020 that reset them. He has already ruled Russia for longer than anyone since Stalin.

He’s hardly the first authoritarian ruler to cling to office. Latin American dictators pioneered the dismantling of term limits, a strategy known as continuismo, and it’s been tried almost a hundred times since 1945. Overweening ambition invites failure though. In countries where checks and balances are weak, according to Alexander Baturo in The Politics of Presidential Term Limits (2019), leaders have failed to see out their extended terms more than half the time. Twenty-seven were forced from office, nine stepped down, twelve died naturally and nine were assassinated. Premature exits are dramatically less common among power-hungry leaders in settled democracies.

Putin’s fate, like his legacy, remains to be seen. Again, however, history is suggestive. The only Soviet ruler before Gorbachev to leave office alive was Nikita Khrushchev, and he sounded almost proud to be ousted as Stalin’s successor. ‘Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us any more and suggesting he retire?’ he asked a confidant in October 1964. ‘Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different … That is my contribution.’ As Yulia Navalnaya could tell you, there’s no shortage of wet spots in Putin’s Russia.