Written by Megan Burnham, RSW graduate affiliate
Vladimir Putin coasted to victory on March 18th, winning his fourth term as President of the Russian Federation. Figures place the voter turnout at about 67.5% of the registered voter population, with incumbent Vladimir Putin receiving about 76.7% of the popular vote. These results are hardly surprising: enjoying overwhelming support from the population, and with no real opposition to be found, Putin’s reelection was widely anticipated by most followers of Russian politics. While the results of the election may have been preordained, what can be expected from the future of Vladimir Putin’s presidency is far from certain.
It was under this premise that the Russian Studies Workshop organized a panel of experts to discuss challenges and expectations surrounding Vladimir Putin’s fourth term. Contributors to the panel included Maria Lipman, Visiting Professor to IU and Editor-in-Chief of the Counterpoint journal, Nikolay Petrov, Professor of Political Science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and Michael Kimmage, Professor of History at the Catholic University of America. The panel was chaired by IU’s own Regina Smyth, Professor within the Department of Political Science and expert on democratic development post-Communist states. Each of the panelists’ unique backgrounds and fields of expertise resulted in a night of lively discussion and engagement from audience attendees.
Maria Lipman focused much of her discussion on the subject of media and public perception in Russia. She discussed how state television functions as a shaper of public opinion, putting forth propagandistic content which acts to reify uneasy feelings Russians may have already held about the domestic or foreign state of affairs. Both the nation and the elite are able to rally around common narratives that state television puts forth, two of which seem particularly profound for understanding Russia and future foreign policy: the belief in Russian greatness and the need to carve the nation’s own path, and the belief in Russia as a “fortress under siege” from malevolent actors all around the world. These state narratives—combined with effects from sanctions—have contributed to feelings of discontent expressed as anti-Americanism. Putin has been able to capitalize on these narratives and feelings, contributing to his widespread support. The fact that the elections are not even being talked about in Russia is evidence of Putin’s widespread support and mandate for rule, Lipman argued. Turning to the future, Lipman highlighted the challenge of pension and income tax reform, arguing this issue—which risks harming Putin’s popularity and support—cannot be delayed any further.
Nikolay Petrov drew audience attention to particularities of elections in Russia, which function quite differently than in other states. The incumbent tends to win in most positions, resulting in little transfer of power. Working alongside this is the fact that elections tend to be brief and lacking in visibility—a stark contrast to the situation in the United States, where presidential elections are highly covered in the year (or more) preceding them. Finally, this election did not really represent a “competitive” election, but rather a competition with Putin himself, which he was able to successfully win by meeting his goal of receiving 70% of the popular vote. In discussing where the roots of Putin’s popularity rest, Petrov pointed out the “Schizophrenic mentality” that exists within the population, where the very top of the political hierarchy is spared from the populace’s negative feelings. “Tsar is good, boyars are bad,” explained Petrov. These positive feelings towards Putin result in the population accepting his promises of economic development and change, rather than pushing for concrete programs. Turning towards the future, Petrov echoed some of Lipman’s viewpoints—pension and tax reform are inevitable, he argued, and will also be met with widespread social unrest. Additionally, Petrov warned how Putin’s presidency faces the risk of quickly turning into a “lame duck” if measures to appoint a successor or reform the archaic political system are not quickly undertaken.
An expert on diplomatic history and US-Russian relations, Professor Michael Kimmage used his knowledge of diplomatic measures to prescribe policy recommendations for US-Russian relations during Putin’s fourth term. The first two were fairly straightforward and common recommendations: fix piecemeal approaches at sanctions and half-hearted policy on the conflict in Ukraine by forming a unified approach to action and rhetoric with other Western nations, while also continuing to promote relationship-building on the societal level through cultural and educational exchanges. Kimmage’s third recommendation—to restore normal diplomatic relations with Russia—might initially sound contradictory to his first recommendation. Kimmage specified that “normal” diplomatic relations do not mean appeasement or accommodation, but instead is merely referring to the restoration of regular talks. Although these talks may not lead to any concrete solutions in the present, they will act as an investment in the future by demonstrating the willingness of the United States to listen and understand.
After the annexation of Crimea, the meddling in elections and affairs of other nations, and the bold brandishing of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Putin’s fourth reelection and continued widespread support may give him the appearance of being invincible. While Putin’s popularity and the tensions between US-Russian relations will probably not be shifting anytime soon, each of the panelists pointed to concrete problems and solutions that may lead to change in these areas by the end of Putin’s tenure. If many of us can’t toast to Putin’s victory, perhaps we can at least toast to the prospects of change and a better future.