Cau­tion to the Win

With com­pe­ti­tion ruled out, the Krem­lin is lim­it­ing its elec­tion of­fer to a se­ries of half-hearted re­forms

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK - By Mikhail Fish­man m.fish­man@ime­dia.ru

How­ever con­tro­ver­sial, Rus­sians now count the “re­turn of Crimea” as one of their na­tion’s great­est achieve­ments. In a poll pub­lished by the in­de­pen­dent Le­vada Cen­ter poll­ster in Jan­uary, the event came sec­ond only to the Soviet vic­tory in World War II. It was con­sid­ered even more sig­nif­i­cant than Yuri Ga­garin’s space­flight, a source of glory for many pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

So there can be lit­tle sur­prise at a new idea be­ing mooted in high po­lit­i­cal cir­cles — to move the 2018 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion from March 11 to March 18, the ex­act date that the Crimean an­nex­a­tion was rat­i­fied.

“It’s a very good thing that this day co­in­cides with the won­der­ful event we have been cel­e­brat­ing for few years al­ready,” said Vy­ach­eslav Volodin, Duma speaker and one of the most in­flu­en­tial play­ers in Rus­sian do­mes­tic pol­i­tics.

The Krem­lin says it has, not made up its mind about mov­ing the elec­tion date. But the idea is as good as sold, sug­gests po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Alexei Makarkin: “This elec­tion lacks in­trigue,” he told The Moscow Times. “Tag­ging it to the cel­e­bra­tion of the na­tion’s re­cent vic­tory will bring more vot­ers to the booths.”

The cam­paign it­self is al­ready tak­ing shape. Alexei Navalny, Putin’s sharpest critic, has been blocked from tak­ing part in the elec­tion. “His par­tic­i­pa­tion would have dra­ma­tized the elec­tion, but, as of now, he isn’t al­lowed to run,” says an­a­lyst Mikhail Vino­gradov.

In the ab­sence of drama and com­pe­ti­tion, then, the Krem­lin’s 2018 elec­tion of­fer will be nec­es­sar­ily lim­ited to half-hearted con­ces­sions.

The first is cre­at­ing the im­pres­sion of a po­lit­i­cal thaw ahead of Vladimir Putin’s next term. Within the last two weeks, three con­tro­ver­sial crim­i­nal cases have been closed. Po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist and protester Il­dar Dadin was re­leased from prison. Ev­geniya Chud­novets, charged with dis­tribut­ing pornog­ra­phy af­ter she re­posted a video of an abused child, was also re­leased. Fi­nally, Putin par­doned Ok­sana Sev­as­tidi, who was con­victed of high trea­son for send­ing two mes­sages about mil­i­tary equip­ment she had seen close to the Rus­sian city of Sochi in April 2008.

“This sug­gests the forth­com­ing elec­tion will rep­re­sent a lim­ited — very lim­ited — lib­er­al­iza­tion,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a for­mer Krem­lin advisor, told the Echo Moskvy ra­dio sta­tion. “It’s like you’re get­ting what you want from Putin’s leav­ing, but with­out him ac­tu­ally leav­ing.”

The sec­ond is to im­ple­ment mod­er­ate tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion to the vot­ing process.

A new bill just in­tro­duced in the Rus­sian par­lia­ment will elim­i­nate the com­pli­cated sys­tem of ab­sen­tee bal­lots, mak­ing vot­ing from home much eas­ier. One other mooted change would ease the work of in­de­pen­dent elec­tion mon­i­tors. They will no longer have to spec­ify which vot­ing dis­tricts they plan to ob­serve in ad­vance.

“This is a pos­i­tive move, though not en­tirely nec­es­sary, since we are not ex­pect­ing heavy rig­ging this time,” says An­drei Buzin of the in­de­pen­dent “Go­los” elec­tion watch­dog.“

Many in the elite now bet that this elec­tion will be Vladimir Putin’s last. Igor Bunin, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter of Po­lit­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies, even ex­pects Putin will have to make it clear dur­ing his cam­paign. This is more rea­son for a clean vic­tory: Putin wants this win to look as le­git­i­mate as pos­si­ble.

At the same time, the cam­paign still needs a dose of drama, says Mikhail Vino­gradov.

But if real drama is off the ta­ble, the move to match the elec­tion date with the of­fi­cial an­nex­a­tion of Crimea is a clever next best thing.

A se­ries of pris­oner releases and small re­forms have Rus­sians talk­ing of “Kiriyenko’s thaw”. Sergei Kiriyenko (right) is Purin’s deputy chief of staff.

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