How does Putin stay in power?

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How does Putin stay in power?
More than a hundred million people are eligible to vote in Russia and Russian-occupied Ukraine. Vladimir Putin looks assured to be declared the winner. Global's Nathaniel Dove explores how he stays in power and what another term means for the world – Mar 15, 2024

There’s an old Soviet joke. An aide of the General Secretary and ruler Leonid Brezhnev rushes into his office during an election. Brezhnev’s communists secured 99.8 per cent of the vote but the aide is still worried.

“We’ve been robbed!” he yells. “Someone broke into the Kremlin vault and stole next year’s election results!”

More than one hundred million people, including those in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, are eligible to cast a ballot in Russian elections, which take place over three days until March 17.

But how they vote doesn’t matter. Vladimir Putin will win.

‘We have a very similar situation (to the joke),” University of Professor Aurel Braun says, adding Putin will not only win but determine the vote’s percentage.

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“And therefore, this is a sham election.”

Putin has been president since 2000, pausing between 2008 and 2012 to take the lesser prime minister role and only because the Russian constitution bans anyone from serving more than two terms in a row.

Through plebiscites and reform, the former KGB agent has changed the rules. He’s due to be elected for two more six-year terms (instead of the usual four) and hold on to power until at least 2036. By then he would have ruled longer than Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

When asked why Putin is holding an election at all, Braun said it’s because Putin “understands that he has a legitimacy crisis on his hands,” and that the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine was also part of shoring up support.

Russians will have to play along, Braun said, and pretend the election is real.

“If anyone disputes that, you will be eliminated physically or incarcerated or tortured,” he said.

By crushing dissent at home and waging war in Ukraine, Putin is ensuring no one can challenge him, Braun told Global News.

“What he’s trying to try to hammer home is basically a gangsters’ message, a mafia-like message. And that is. ‘You are helpless and resistance is hopeless. I have all the power.’”

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On the surface, the election is contested. Three men are running against Putin for the presidency: Nikolai Kharitonov, a Communist; Leonid Slutsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a hard-line nationalist; and Vladislav Davankov from the New People Party.

McGill University Russia expert Maria Popova said who they are isn’t important.

“They’re there to give Putin the opportunity to lie to the West that there is choice within Russia,” she said, speaking from Montreal.

She said the results are already determined and any numbers that don’t conform will be changed, that ballots not for Putin will be destroyed or officials will claim they were faulty.

“There is a whole state machinery involved in producing this outcome,” she said. “In Russian, the word for ‘elections’ is choice, and it’s very ironic because, in fact, there is no choice.”

She said it’s hard to know how popular Putin is because the government controls the media.

Broadly speaking, most Russians seem to support Russia’s war in Ukraine, she noted, and he controls Russia’s security agency the FSB, heirs to the infamous Soviet KGB.

And the most serious threats to Putin’s rule are dead. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of a Kremlin-backed mercenary group died in a plane crash last August after leading a mutiny against Putin. Outspoken politicians and lawyer Alexei Navalny died in a Russian penal colony in February on charges his supporters say were illegitimate.

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Russian opposition and a chorus of world leaders say Putin is responsible for both.

Popova said the political opposition that rallied behind Navalny is disorganized. There have been a few small sparks of protest in the elections so far, with one woman dumping a bottle of ink into a ballot box and a polling booth being lit on fire, but Popova said they seem to be isolated incidents.

She said Putin will likely continue his aims – and that includes Ukraine.

University of Toronto professor Andres Kasekamp told Global News that Russian success in Ukraine would embolden Putin further.

“Once he is finished in Ukraine, then there’s a danger to other NATO allies,” he said. “We need to be preparing for further Russian aggression down the line.”

He said Putin’s re-election should wake up NATO members to the reality things won’t improve.

“There is no redeeming feature about this person. I mean, he has caused more death and destruction in the 21st century than anyone else,” he added, mentioning how the Russian air force bombed Syrian civilians to prop up dictator Bashar al-Assad and supporting military juntas in Africa.

The Kremlin, which exports a lot of oil, also plays spoiler on climate change and in the Arctic, he said. The alliance won’t change their strategy after Putin’s likely election because they’ve “reckoned that (he) will be around as long as he lives.”

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If the election and invasion are part of a plan to earn legitimacy, Kasekamp said NATO allies should consider the only way to get rid of Putin is to support a Ukrainian victory, prompting the Russian people to “dethrone” him.

“But it doesn’t look like there’s any hope of that,” he said, pointing to American support for Ukraine languishing in Congressional debate.

Putin is 71 and has no apparent successor, so experts said he looked poised to remain in power until “he either die(s) in office” or is removed through an “internal swap” of some kind, as Popova put it.

They said there is some hope for Russian opposition. Protest movements don’t appear to do anything – until they work, they said.

“The impact of dissent is very difficult to measure until you have a collapse of the system,” Braun said.

“This is what happens in highly personal… and highly repressive authoritarian regimes,” Popova told Global News. “The challenge is going to be very hidden and will reveal itself suddenly, so he will appear very powerful until his last day of office.”

—with files from Reuters

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