Vladimir Putin aspires to rule Russia for 30 years by running in an election without competitors

The president confirms that he will participate in the three-day presidential election to be held on March 17. Under current law, he could remain in office until 2036

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin during an event at the Kremlin on Friday in Moscow.SPUTNIK (via REUTERS)
Javier G. Cuesta

With the opposition behind bars or in exile and the rest of the parties allowed by the Kremlin waiting for the Russian president to say so, Vladimir Putin has confirmed what everyone already knew: he will run for a fifth presidential term in the three-day presidential elections to be held on March 17, 2024. Should Putin win the election — a certainty, given his iron grip on the state apparatus and the lack of any rivals — and complete the six-year term, through 2030, he would match Stalin’s three-decade grip on the Kremlin’s reins of power.

Despite the importance of his candidacy, the Russian leader did not announce it publicly himself. Rather, Artiom Zhoga, the current speaker of the self-proclaimed Parliament of the separatist Republic of Donetsk and the father of a leader of the pro-Russian Sparta battalion killed in the war against Ukraine last year, made the announcement. The leader confirmed the news to journalists after the separatists met with Putin behind closed doors.

“We asked him to participate in the presidential elections… He replied that these are different, difficult times, but he will be with the people and will run in the elections at this time,” Zhoga said.

Putin literally has no rivals. The Russian president would obtain 70% of the votes, according to a survey published by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), a percentage that the Levada Institute put at 58% in a poll published last Thursday. The other contender is Guennadi Ziuganov, 79, the Russian Communist Party’s leader since 1993, but his party has not confirmed the candidacy. The party is loyal to the Kremlin, and its candidate would barely get 1.3% of the vote, Levada’s poll predicts.

According to two Kremlin sources quoted by the daily Meduza, one of Putin’s “political strategists,” Sergey Kiriyenko, has established that Putin’s “rivals” cannot be younger than 50 years old or enjoy great popularity. Banned by the Russian authorities, the newspaper points out that the presidential administration wants to prevent citizens from thinking that Putin “is no longer the same person who came to power with a firm hand.”

Putin’s approval ratings remain high despite the stalemate in the war against Ukraine. According to polls by the independent Levada institute, in November 85% of Russians approved of his leadership. Putin’s support increased thanks to the invasion of the neighboring country in February 2022: since 2018, when the World Cup was held in Russia, Putin’s popularity had been in decline and his approval rating hovered around 65% at the end of 2021.

“Similar levels of support for the current president were observed after 2014 — the year of the illegal annexation of Crimea, which triggered a wave of euphoria in the country — and in the mid-2000s — with the economic and social stability Putin achieved after the turbulent 1990s,” Levada notes. “Most Russians would like to see Vladimir Putin as president after 2024″, the institute concludes.

Putin’s candidacy was confirmed a day after the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, set March 17 as the final date of the presidential elections. For the first time, the contest will be held over the course of three days, starting on the 15th, because of the introduction of voting by internet. This new system devised by the Kremlin has been criticized both by dissidents and some members of the ruling parties. The former head of the Moscow chapter of the Russian Communist Party, Valeri Rashkin, is one of those critics. He led protests in the capital against alleged electoral fraud in the September 2021 legislative elections. A month later, Rashkin was arrested on charges of poaching.

Eliminating the competition

Two of Putin’s possible competitors within the ultranationalist sector have been eliminated. The head of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died at the end of August in an airplane crash just two months after he led mercenaries in a rebellion over the management of the war in Ukraine. Putin attributed the crash to an alleged mixture of drugs and grenades on the plane, although the results of the investigation have not been made public. Thanks to his irate criticism, Prigozhin, nicknamed Putin’s Chef, had gained great popularity in Russia. Another of Putin’s critics, one of the Russian military officers who instigated the separatist movement in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, former commander Igor Girkin Strelkov, is in prison for disobeying the high command and fears he will be killed. “What I fear most is that instead of imposing the usual criminal punishment on me, I will be amnestied like the chef,” he said wryly this week.

As for the democratic opposition, only the anti-war Yábloko party remains within the system, although it does not have a presence in the Russian Parliament. The party’s founder, Grigori Yavlinski, no longer leads the party but does not rule out running as Yábloko’s candidate, if he can gather 10 million signatures. “It is urgent that Russia and Ukraine engage in dialogue to put an end to the slaughter,” Yavlinski told this newspaper in a recent interview.

For its part, the movement of imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny has called on Russians to vote for anyone but Putin, although he considers the contest to be “a parody of the electoral process” and believes that the results “will be falsified, as usual.”

Navalny’s organization, which the Kremlin has labeled as extremist, managed to hang posters reading “Russia without Putin” in several Russian cities on Thursday. Their leader, whom Levada says had barely 9% support among the population at the beginning of the year, is strictly isolated in prison. His lawyers charge that the authorities are preventing them from visiting the activist, who has failed to appear at two scheduled videoconference hearings this week without any official explanation.

A fifth presidential term

Next year, Putin will run for his fifth presidential term. A former KGB agent, his dizzying ascent to power began after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, when he began working as an advisor to Anatoli Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg at the time. That catapulted Putin into the circles of President Boris Yeltsin, who appointed him as the head of the Federal Security Service — the former KGB — in 1998 and as prime minister in 1999. With Yeltsin’s surprise resignation, Putin assumed the presidency on an interim basis on December 31, 1999, and he was elected president in 2000.

The Russian leader is about to complete a quarter of a century ruling the country. The Russian constitution prevented him from acting as president during the 2008-2012 term, so on paper he served as prime minister while one of his eternal successors, Dmitry Medvedev, assumed the presidency. But the situation in 2024 will be different: following a referendum in 2020 during the pandemic, the Kremlin thoroughly amended the Basic Law and “cleansed” Putin’s term record. Under the current law, Putin can, in theory, preside over the country for two additional six-year terms, through 2036.

On the campaign trail, the Kremlin’s goal is to convince Russians that there is no alternative to Putin but chaos. “Considering the current situation, the dramatic times our country is experiencing, this decision is absolutely logical and correct. His work as president must continue,” Medvedev said after his mentor’s candidacy was confirmed.

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