Putin strengthens power after Russia’s farce election: ‘We have grandiose plans’

The partial count confirms the president’s resounding victory in a vote where he faced no real opposition. The leader also admitted for the first time that, before his death, there were plans to swap Alexei Navalny for a Russian prisoner held in Germany

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to speak after polling stations closed on the final day of the presidential election, in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2024.Maxim Shemetov (REUTERS)
Javier G. Cuesta
Moscow / Belgorod -

“That’s life,” said Vladimir Putin about the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, after winning the presidential elections in Russia on Sunday. It was the first time the president had dared to say the name of his great political enemy since his death just over a month ago. Putin made the comment at a midnight press conference, held at his campaign’s headquarters in Moscow, to celebrate his victory in an election that did not allow for any real opposition.

In his address, Putin did not offer more details about Navalny’s sudden death in a prison in the Arctic Circle. Supporters of the 47-year-old Russian dissident said he was killed when he was going to be swapped for a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) assassin imprisoned in Germany.

“I agreed, I wanted to swap him [Navalny] and for him not to return, but these things happen, that’s life,” said Putin, when, according to the Central Electoral Commission, he was winning the election by 87.2% of the vote, with half the votes counted.

At the press conference, Putin showed renewed self-confidence before journalists and his election campaign team. First, he claimed that the election results showed that the Russian people supported his plans, including the invasion of Ukraine. “The nation is defending its progress with weapons in its hands,” he said, in reference to the conflict.

“[The election win] is a sign of citizens’ confidence and hope that everything ahead of us will be fulfilled,” he told supporters. “We have come up with grandiose plans,” he said, mentioning the goal to “expand the armament” of Russia.

For Putin, the election went “according to plan.” After two years and a month of war, his border regions have become a daily target of Ukrainian drones and rockets. But for the Russian president, what’s most important is that he remains in power.

Nearly 500 miles separate Moscow from Russia’s border with Ukraine. This distance marks the difference between living as though the war was not happening and having to seek shelter in bomb shelters at any moment. In these two very different Russias, Putin has reigned for 24 years, and after Sunday’s vote, his tsardom will be extended for another six years, until 2030. The Russian leader won the election with allegedly resounding support — preliminary results showed him with 87.2% of the vote, even more than the 76.7% he won in 2018. Turnout from the three days of voting was put at 74.2%. It was mission accomplished for Putin. He now can claim to have a mandate to justify his next unpopular moves.

Putin’s rivals have been crushed. But the electoral system is highly suspect, what with the opaque electronic voting, and the fact that Russia’s security forces and courts leave no room for peaceful protest. Voters unhappy with the Kremlin are hardly even able to show their discontent with gestures that are as symbolic as they are harmless. According to Putin, the call by opposition groups to show up at noon at the polling stations and vote for any other candidate as a sign of protest did not “have any special effect.”

“If there were appeals to vote — from the opposition — they are commendable, but the important thing is that some spoiled ballots and that is bad,” said Putin.

However, an important part of the population, if not an overwhelming majority, supports the president. While it is impossible to verify this without free and open elections according to the independent polling center Levada, Putin’s approval rating within Russia is around 85%.

The president has never had fewer rivals in an election. Only three candidacies were approved by his shadow advisor, Sergey Kiriyenko: Nikolai Kharitonov, who is not even the leader of the Communist Party and failed miserably in the 2004 elections; Leonid Slutsky, successor of the populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), who has zero support; and Vladislav Davankov, head of New People, a Kremlin satellite party created in 2019 to engage younger generations. All of the candidates were from parties loyal to the government.

Beyond the cosmopolitan Moscow and St. Petersburg, countless Russian cities are filling the ranks of the army with volunteers. Many volunteer out of patriotism, while others do so for a salary that is near unimaginable in their provinces: 205,000 rubles (about $2,200), between four and six times more than an average job offers. And if they die or are injured, the compensation for their family soars by several million rubles.

Moscow, a liberal city far from death

Moscow is largely oblivious to the war. Its restaurants and nightclubs have never been evacuated due to an air raid alarm, and soldiers are not seen on its streets, except in the train stations, where volunteers and mobilized people from other poorer regions of Russia stop by on their way to the front.

There are also hardly any posters of the presidential candidates, although advertisements encouraging people to vote flood every corner of the city. Candidate Putin’s campaign propaganda is non-existent, but the news and praise of President Putin are constant.

Dozens of Russians queued at 12 p.m. on Sunday at the entrance to polling station 51 in Moscow, where they had been called by Navalny’s team to symbolically protest. The scene at polling station 51 was one of the countless small crowds that popped up at polling stations across the country. They were small, silent protests that did not offer the same moving image of Navalny’s funeral, as voters were dispersed in thousands of points across the nation.

“It’s not an act that will change anything, but it’s a demonstration for myself,” said Alexandra, a woman who came to vote with her young daughter at a school in the Russian capital. “I support Navalny,” she admitted as she waited to vote. Police watched from afar.

“Moscow is a liberal city, it is not Russia,” Andrey, in his thirties, told EL PAÍS while waiting in line. “What’s more, we are also divided here,” he added, before stating that he was going to vote for Putin.

“I never voted for Putin, but in 2022 — the year the invasion of Ukraine began — I changed my mind. I saw the hypocrisy of European values, how they give false hugs. Their sanctions, their hatred of the Russians,” said Andrey, expressing a very widespread opinion in Russia: “Navalny was not the favorite politician of many Russians,” he added, arguing that his importance “has been overstated in Europe, as has his widow, Yulia Navalnaya.”

At least 75 people were detained in 17 Russian cities on Sunday, the third and final day of the presidential elections, according to the OVD-Info platform. This organization for the protection of protesters said that some voters were arrested for introducing invalid ballots or expressing their opinions openly at polling stations.

Russian media revealed that some ballots had messages such as “No to war!” or “Navalny.” In fact, some Navalny followers placed electoral ballots at his grave.

Belgorod, ghost city in continuous tension

In the Russian city of Belgorod, about 30 miles from the border with Ukraine, the elections took place under very different conditions. Belgorod has changed radically in the last year and is now a ghost town. A large part of the city’s population has left as Ukrainian attacks have intensified, and concrete anti-drone shelters have sprung up everywhere in the streets.

Mikhail is a former military pilot, a Russian veteran of the 1979-1989 Afghanistan war, who is not considering leaving Belgorod. He defends Putin: “It is not necessary for Putin to have competitors in the elections. He has the power, it’s about being strong.” Mikhail also justifies war. “There’s no way to avoid it. We invaded Ukraine and I understand that we need it,” he said. His wife Yana points out that the city has changed since the conflict. “But before 2022 they never attacked us,” she said. But both believe that Putin is the best option for Russia and for them.

The train from Belgorod to Moscow was packed on Saturday, especially with children accompanied by their mothers and grandmothers, and soldiers returning from the front. In the much safer capital, Putin was waiting to begin his fifth term after the election farce came to an end.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS