Russia will vote in presidential elections next month that Vladimir Putin is certain to win. Consider that statement for a moment. An election implies a contest. So how can the current president, who has already served three terms and wielded power in the Kremlin continuously since 1999, be assured of victory in advance? The answer is that Russia’s is an election in name only. In truth it is a sham and a smokescreen, designed to confer democratic respectability on to a corrupt oligarchy. For Russians accustomed to unaccountable rule from on high, this is nothing new. More surprising is the supine acquiescence, bordering on complicity, of western democracies. Putin will win on 18 March because the system he created, politely known as “managed democracy”, removes all elements of surprise. His most credible challenger, Alexei Navalny (who in any case did not expect to win), has been banned from participation on specious legal grounds. Last month Navalny was arrested while urging an election boycott.
Putin’s control of Russia’s television outlets and other media means political opponents are virtually invisible, unless they are in court on a charge. By contrast, his own public appearances receive fawning blanket coverage.
There are no presidential debates, no unsanctioned opinion polls. Rival candidates do exist, but they resemble sparring partners whose task is to legitimise the process while helping the champ show off his best punches. They include Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a sort of ultra-nationalist Screaming Lord Sutch, and Pavel Grudinin, the Communist party’s candidate, who runs a privatised company called Lenin State Farm.