After displaying the current political situation in Russia, mentioning Wladimir Putin’s repeated candidacy for presidency and the countries' difficult situation on the domestic front, as well as its’ foreign-policy, Gerhard Marchl, Karl-Renner-Institute, department European politics, opened the panel asking about the current atmosphere in Russia’s civil society.
Dr. Anna Schor-Tschudnowskaja, Sigmund-Freud-private University, sociologist and psychologist, mentioned that even tough the elections didn’t happen yet, it is clear who is going to be the future president. Putin won’t have much difficulties becoming the head of state, for the simple reason that there are no serious competitors to defeat. Therefore, it’s not right to speak about an election victory of Wladimir Putin on the18th of March, the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Vote rigging is expected, that’s why the number of voluntary scrutineers is increasing. Presumably Putin will “win” the election with 70 percent of all votes. But who are the other 30 percent of voters who are not given a voice? These are people who hope for political change. They have no other options but living with the outcome of the highly manipulated election which is disguised by the name “democracy”. Schor-Tschudnowskaja emphasises that there are no proven numbers of voter participation available to the public. Interesting is also that terms like “freedom” or “democracy” are more and more used with a negative connotation by the government and the media. Generally the Russian population is supporting Putin, but is at the same time criticising the Russian government.
Alexander Baunov, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, gave an example of the invented candidate Sergejew, from whom it was said that he is supported by Putin. Having the connection to Putin was enough reason for the majority of people to give Sergejew their vote. This illustrates the importance of Putin for the Russian population. He is no longer only admired for his personality, but ascended to a state symbol for Russia. A sacral embodiment of the Russian state. Voting for him is voting for Russia. Voting for the opposition would mean loosing this guarantee of the Russian state which Putin embodies. Throughout his presidential term he was able to convince the population of being the maintainer of the Russian state. The opposition is now trying to undermine this legitimacy.
In this election Putin needs a high turnout. An authoritarian regime like Russia legitimates itself through a high voter turnout, but the final percentage of participation should be neither to high, nor too low. As history has shown, having a poor participation would mean that only the opposition was able to mobilise voters, which would mean that only the opposition as well as the independent candidates would gain votes, most likely in urban spaces. On the other side a too high voter turnout, is not preferable either. A certain percentage of people who usually don’t participate in the elections would be mobilised and would probably give their vote to any party, a situation which wouldn’t serve Putin either.
Faking the election outcome is not always possible, especially in regions which are interested in politics and of course scandals want to be avoided. Putin’s wish is a high voter participation to legitimise this election. Therefore, the candidates are very distinct from one another. Baunov concludes with a comment to the unadmitted candidate Alexei Nawalny, who was following a more or less democratic line and by that challenged Putin. He was not approved as a candidate because Putin didn’t want him as a part of the Russian political system. Interestingly Wladimir Putin himself was not very active in this years campaign.
Russia was often accused of having influenced elections in Europe or the USA. The blame has been made also saying that the West had influenced Russian elections. In relation to that Hannes Swoboda, President of the International Institute for Peace, WIIW, Ustinov-Institute und former MEP, posed the question, if the West shares the blame for Putin’s function as a sacral embodiment for the Russian state. Russia never came to terms with the past - with former Soviet countries. In the Russian mind the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of all times and many Russian politicians are still not reluctant of it’s reconstruction. No thoughts are given to post-Soviet countries, no empathy is shared. That’s one of the reasons why those states developed an anti-Russian mindset and favour the development of good relations to the EU and NATO. The Russian leadership is reacting more and more sensitively to a pro-Western orientation of individual states within the post-Soviet area and sees the demand of post-Soviet countries to integrate into the NATO as a red line. Warnings from Putin in the past, regarding the expansion of NATO, have not been taken seriously. He used the existing sanctions to strengthen his position in Russia. Putin always oriented himself towards other authority structures, like for example the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the partnership with China – this can also be noticed through his interventions in the Middle East.
Regarding the elections, there is of course manipulation happening from both sides, from the West and Russia. In the West, Russia is often accused of being guilty for political happenings, even for the outbreak in Catalonia. Stereotypical thinking is unreasonable. Even though manipulation from both sides will continue, dialog needs to be obtained. Just now the differences between states are getting bigger and bigger. Instead of widening division, comprehension and pragmatic collaboration is needed.
Alexander Dubowy, University of Vienna, Coordinator of the Research Department of Eurasian Studies, Senior Researcher at the Department for Polemlogy and legal Ethics, Austrian Defence Academie, made his remarks on the geo-political and security-policy situation of Russia. As Mr. Baunov mentioned above, Russia’s population hopes for security and stability. Looking back in time, accessions of power never happened peacefully in Russia, but Putin’s takeover was and hopefully 2024 will be so as well. Nevertheless a transformation of the system needs to happen. At the moment the country is depending on one person, Wladimir Putin. Throughout his governing, Russia reclaimed its’ power status. Now that foreign policy objectives got achieved, it is important to improve Russia domestically. Russia wishes for a foreign political de-escalation, but not at any price and draws red lines when it comes to the return of the Crimea peninsula or the military defeat of the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. In this context Dubowy referred to the Minsk agreement and calls it the outcome of the Ukrainian defeat. In Russia’s view, Kiyv is responsible for the implementation of the agreement and will orientate its’ collaboration with Ukraine on its’ execution. Russia’s reason to continue to insist on the Minsk treaty, is its function as a mouthpiece to the West.
To understand the relationship between Russia and the EU, it is necessary to look back in time. It is not the Ukrainian crisis that brought up the ongoing difficulties, collaborative problems have been there before. To improve the trans-border cooperation the EU demanded Russia to adopt European values. A mutual appropriation was not an option. Russia’s wish was to be more and more integrated into the West and the EU and to have open and unbiased negotiations. This didn’t happen and therefore two superlative narratives that are set against each other were formed. Serious steps to form a better communication never turned into action. For a long time, Russia tried to regain the progresses the EU had already achieved. Europe served as the Russian reference point, but was always too far ahead on its’ way of becoming a modern state. Catching up was never possible. Bringing all together, no matter who will win the elections on the 18th of March, nothing will change about Russians’ politics and interests.