Could Russia’s sham election provoke popular unrest?

Russia’s presidential election on March 17 is almost certain to take place without a hitch, but, given the crazy nature of politics in Vladimir Putin’s brittle domain, it may be accompanied by a surprise or two.

One definite non-surprise is the dictator’s reelection with a smashing share of the vote. Putin is smart enough to know that a fair and free election could have unforeseen and undesirable consequences. He remembers that Poland’s Communist Party tried to stage genuine elections in 1989 and, much to its chagrin, lost to the Solidarity trade union movement, thereby heralding communism’s end in that country.

Putin wouldn’t have to lose to be embarrassed — a strong showing by an opponent would suffice to do rob him of whatever tattered legitimacy he still possesses. Rigged elections are thus Putin’s preferred procedure, as they are of every dictator, fascist and totalitarian.

But rigging elections too much can also be risky. Viktor Yanukovych tried that in 2004 in Ukraine and sparked the Orange Revolution. In 2011-2012, hundreds of thousands of Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg took to the streets in a series of mass protests against what they believed were fraudulent parliamentary and presidential elections. In the latter, then–Prime Minister Putin and his sidekick, then–President Dmitry Medvedev, agreed to switch places in a transparent fix that did not go unnoticed by Russians. In 2020, it was the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s turn to falsify elections and generate months of mass marches that almost toppled him.

Might Russians engage in mass protests in March after learning of Putin’s electoral victory? Militating against such protests are two factors. The Putin regime has demonstrated many times that it is willing to crack heads, kill, arrest and incarcerate critics, and nip protest in the bud. At the same time, the Russian population is not only cowed by the prospect of repression, it has also inured itself to accept things as they are and live in its own maximally apolitical and atomized world.

But the prospects for protest aren’t completely bleak. Putin’s repressive apparatus failed to stem the recent protests in the central Russian Republic of Bashkortostan. Russian women periodically assemble publicly and demand the return of their men from the war against Ukraine. Attacks on conscription centers, numbering 113 since July 2023, have doubled in the last half year. Clearly, Putin’s police state isn’t all powerful, and opposition is possible, if risky.

By the same token, although Russians may be cowed today, there is reason to think that they can do what they’ve done in even less propitious circumstances in the past: show civic courage. Back in the late 1980s, Russians across the entire Soviet Russian state engaged in mass protests, even though the degree of their atomization and the extent of their ignorance about goings-on in the Soviet Union were significantly higher then than now. True, protests in the Baltic republics and Ukraine showed that protest was possible and paved the way, but, even so, Russians proved they were no slouches.

So one shouldn’t exclude the possibility of protests. Their likelihood may be small, but “black swans” and “intervening variables” do occur regularly enough in despotic systems to warrant giving Russians the benefit of the doubt.

Naturally, the likelihood of protest will be greatly affected by whether or not Putin has an opponent. At this point in time, it looks like 60-year-old Boris Nadezhdin will play that role. Nadezhdin has the credentials, having served as the murdered reformer Boris Nemtsov’s comrade in arms and having occupied a variety of more-or-less reformist positions over the last two decades.

That said, there is also credible evidence to suggest that, as Taras Kuzio, the Henry Jackson Society’s Ukraine expert, put it in a personal message to me, “Boris Nadezhdin, allegedly a democratic opposition Russian presidential candidate, is a Putin technical candidate and a Russian chauvinist and imperialist.” Indeed, Nadezhdin has denied the existence of Ukrainians as a separate nation and consorts with some of Putin’s most scandalous propagandists. He is, in other words, a mixed bag at best. He is also testimony to the sad fact that even Russian oppositionists (such as, alas, the currently imprisoned Alexei Navalny) have a broad imperialist and racist streak within them.

Whether or not Nadezhdin is a real opposition candidate or a Putin flunky may be less important than whether or not Russians view him as being a genuine alternative. Imagine that he does in fact run, and that a considerable number of Russians vote for him, thinking, rightly or wrongly, that they are voting for change. Imagine that Putin wins by a wide margin, wider than Nadezhdin’s supporters think is valid.

Would they protest and spark a mini Orange Revolution? Probably not — but, then again, who expected Russians to rally to Boris Yeltsin after the failed hardliner coup of 1991? Who expected them to volunteer to die in Ukraine’s killing fields? They just might surprise us again — in a good way.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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