There are no surprises in Russia’s upcoming elections. Putin will win.

Opposition leader Alexey Navalny has energized younger Russians despite being banned from the race. Here, at a protest in central Moscow, attendees hold signs reading “It’s no choice and I won’t come” and “Elections without a choice” in support of Navalny’s calls for a boycott.
Credit:

Charles Maynes/PRI

Russian voters go the polls on March 18 to choose a president, but there’s not much to truly decide.

Vladimir Putin will win his fourth term after 18 years in power. But behind the scenes of an election with a foregone conclusion — an event that should be drama-free — a more complicated picture emerges.

For Putin, the real concern is not winning but the optics of how the race is won. Turnout — getting enough people out to vote to make this victory feel like a mandate — is key to giving his fourth term a legitimacy the Kremlin clearly craves.

Related: In Russia, a ‘ghost empire’ rises

One of the calendar’s pages shows Putin in power — and a space helmet — through the year 2057.

One of the calendar’s pages shows Putin in power — and a space helmet — through the year 2057.

Credit:

Courtesy Slava Nesterov

In recent weeks, everything from sponsored lotteries to free medical check-ups to food discounts have been used to lure Russians to the polls on Sunday. Kremlin officials promise a record turnout.

But many acknowledge an enthusiasm gap for Putin after so many years dominating Russia’s political scene.

“I do respect Vladimir Putin. He did a lot for the country,” says Slava Nesterov, a 29-year-old artist who lives in Moscow. “But I was 10 years old when he was elected. Power should change hands from time to time. Otherwise, you end up with stagnation.”

That sentiment is at the heart of Nesterov’s project, “Putin Every Day,” an imagined (but very real gift) calendar that tracks Putin’s hold on power far beyond Sunday and into the year 2120.

“It’s not meant to insult the president, but there should be new people in the political scene,” Nesterov says.

A young man poses with an oversized calendar against a brick wall. The cover of the calendar has an illustration of Vladimir Putin wearing an alien-shaped helmet.

Slava Nesterov poses with his “Putin Every Day” calendar that tracks Putin’s power into the year 2120. Nesterov says he respects Putin but is looking for a change in leadership. The graffitti reads: “The Worse the Better.”
Credit:

Charles Maynes/PRI
Simulated competition?

Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader and arguably Putin’s only true political rival, has been barred from the race on a legal technicality. In response, he has called for a nationwide boycott of the election — arguing attentive vote monitoring will take the shine off Putin approval ratings that, Navalny argues, are inflated by state polling, media and manipulation.

Other candidates, by turn, appear as simulated competition who pose no threat. Fundamentally, observers agree that the candidates are either in the race — or allowed to be in the race — simply to generate public interest.

Take celebrity-socialite-turned-newcomer candidate Ksenia Sobchak. Sobchak has used the election season to attack Putin’s positions on everything from the annexation of Crimea (she’s against it) to LGBT rights (she’s for them). But Sobchak is also running a conceptual “Against All” campaign given Navalny’s absence from the ballot. Her father, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, was Putin’s mentor — a fact that raises questions about her motives.

Pavel Grudinin, a successful businessman who made his fortune reviving a Soviet-era collective farm, now tops the Communist Party ticket and has generated some genuine voter curiosity. Or he did — until state television ran an expose claiming he had foreign bank accounts.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has run in every election since 2000, is also back again. The perennial returning candidate is an outrageous nationalist and “official” Kremlin-endorsed court jester whose mission this time seems to be dragging the other candidates down with petty insults. The presidential debates have often devolved into shouting matches or worse.