Why you should care
Because Vladimir Putin is riding a “Russia First” wave of support to yet another term as the nation’s president.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What is happening? This Sunday, Russians head to the polls to vote in the nation’s presidential election — though there is no real doubt who the winner will be. Polls show that Russian President Vladimir Putin, 65, is a lock to win his second consecutive — and fourth overall — term as president. A victory for Putin, in power since 2000, will take the former KGB agent to nearly a quarter century as Russia’s leader, a feat not achieved since Joseph Stalin.
Why does it matter? The outcome may be a foregone conclusion, but Russia’s election comes as China’s National People’s Congress voted to allow Xi Jinping to remain president for life and as scandal engulfs the Kremlin. In the wake of last week’s apparent poisoning in the U.K. of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her country will expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to an attack that officials believe was organized by the Kremlin. Russia has promised to retaliate.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
The perfect motive? Russia watchers are wondering whether the apparent poisoning of Skripal was deliberately engineered by the Kremlin to rally Russian voters around Putin. After all, the official narrative casting Russia as the besieged target of a Western conspiracy plays wonderfully with Putin’s base, while the attack also sends a stark message to operatives everywhere: Don’t cross the Kremlin.
A one-horse race. It’s a race for second place, and the likely runner-up is Pavel Grudinin. Dubbed “the Communist Billionaire,” Grudinin is the Communist Party candidate despite having privatized a massive strawberry farm to make his fortune. Meanwhile, socialite Ksenia Sobchak, 36, wants Russia out of Crimea and once played Eva Braun in a World War II spoof film called Hitler Goes Kaput! Both opponents have struggled with allegations that they’re pawns of Putin. Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most high-profile critic, has been banned from the race altogether.
Winning isn’t everything. When there’s no doubt about the outcome of an election, turnout can obviously suffer. Last November, only 24 percent of Russians said they’ll definitely vote and another 34 percent said it’s “likely.” Still, the Kremlin is targeting 70 percent turnout — and 70 percent of the vote — to give Putin a clear mandate. To bolster turnout, Putin supporters are running a “Best Selfie” competition and raffling off iPhones, with only those who vote eligible to win.
Numbers don’t lie. Or do they? Putin’s popularity has hovered above 80 percent for four years, but some observers attribute that to the chilling effect of self-censorship among respondents, a lack of credible opposition candidates and the fact that many young Russians have never lived under another leader. Small protests from his middle-class, nonideological base, however, suggest that the center can’t hold forever.
What comes next? Unless he feels like tweaking the constitution (again), this term will be Putin’s last, making the question of succession critical. And that, observers say, is where the real intrigue is: Unlike Russia’s uneventful elections, the struggle for power among various individuals and interest groups is genuine and could spill out into the open in coming years. So far, Putin has given few signals of who — or what — might replace him, though predictions range from shadowy oil czar Igor Sechin to some sort of state council.
WHAT TO READ
The Putin Generation: Young Russians Are Vladimir Putin’s Biggest Fans, by Anton Troianovski in The Washington Post
“The most internationally connected generation in Russian history, with access to more information than any of their predecessors, is now helping Putin solidify his authoritarianism.”
The Day Putin Cried, by Gabriel Gatehouse in the BBC
“Putin is not an actor. Nor is he prone to public displays of emotion. So it’s reasonable to assume that he is struggling with some genuine grief.”
WHAT TO WATCH
BBC Newsnight Examines Russia’s ‘Fake’ Election
“Like in a casino, where the win is always on the house, in Russian elections, the win is always on Putin’s side.”
Watch on the BBC on YouTube:
Russians Are Using Prison Tattoos to Protest Putin’s Inevitable Re-election
“It’s not that the designs themselves are brazenly political, but the act of getting one has become subversive.”
Watch on VICE:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
One place where Putin’s popularity has soared recently: among U.S. Republicans. More than 3 in 10 now say they have a favorable view of him, which has tripled since 2015.