We can all exhale now. Vladimir Putin has been re-reelected. Or re-coronated. Or whatever.
“This is not an election,” Lev Gudkov, the director of the only remaining independent polling firm Levada Center (which the Russian government lists as a “foreign agent”) said a month ago. “We have to find another term [for what happened], perhaps a plebiscite or an acclamation. It is a ritual re-affirmation of the power of the person already in power.”
What sets this “election” apart, however, is its context, far darker and more foreboding than Putin’s previous three.
First, there is the date. A Sunday in March is the only criterion for the Presidential election. Any Sunday. Suggesting a pattern, two previous elections were held on the first Sundays of the month: March 4th in 2012 and March 2nd in 2008. Putin chose the third because March 18 is the date of Putin’s triumphant address to the extraordinary joint session of the Federal Assembly where he “requested” the ratification of the treaty on “admitting” the occupied and annexed Crimea into the Russian Federation. For last’s week victory rally on the Manezhnaya Square next to the Kremlin, Putin chose a “concert” titled “Russia, Sevastopol, Crimea.” The message could not be clearer: no second thoughts, not to mention remorse in seizing part of the neighboring country. On the contrary, Putin must have felt that this theme would boost the turnout and the vote.
The second portentous feature of the pre-election context is the assassination attempt of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. It is possible, of course, that this could have been a “rogue” operation. Possible but very unlikely. By protocol deploying nerve gas in Britain, something that even the Soviet Union did not dare do, should have required the green light from the very top. Living openly and without protection, Skripal could have been killed at any time and in any other manner. Attempting to do so ten days before the election with an agent traceable to the hidden Soviet stockpile of chemical weapons sent another message of defiance.
Did Putin hope that Britain’s reaction (and that of its allies) would boost turnout and push up his share of the vote by spotlighting his key legitimizing theme of Russia’s being under attack by the West? The Co-Chair of Putin’s “campaign” Elena Shmelyova thought so: “This is a consolidated response to the pressure that is currently exerted on Russia.” And she may be right. Taken with a large grain of salt, of course, the numbers seem to bear her out: More people voted for Putin yesterday, in a country where incomes have gone down for a fourth year in a row and with GDP increasing barely 1.5% last year, than for Dmitry Medvedev in March 2008 with GDP growing at 8.5%. And he received 10% more votes yesterday than in 2012, before he unleashed the patriotic mobilization culminating in the seizure of Crimea and war against Ukraine.
And there we have it. Aggression and annexation, plus an attempted murder in a key NATO country as the loudest leitmotifs of a presidential campaign.
A few years back, Russia’s brilliant satirist Igor Irteniev wrote prophetically:
Моя страна идёт ко дну,
Со мною заодно.
А мне обидно за страну —
И боязно за дно
My country is sinking to the bottom of the sea,
Taking me along.
And I am hurting for the country —
And scared for the bottom of the sea.
Welcome to Vladimir Putin’s war time presidency.
From - AEI.org - by Leon Aron