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What do the 2018 Russian elections mean for Europe?

 

On Sunday the 18th of March, voters throughout the Russian Federation rallied to elect their president. As it was expected, Vladimir Putin won these elections with a whopping 76% of the votes. While the West was caught up in the Sergei Skripal poisoning case a week before the elections or the alleged rigging of the voting procedure by government officials after, Putin managed to win yet again. Europa United’s Christos Mouzeviris was there and this is the first in a series of reports from the Russian elections.

Despite all efforts from outside and within the country, Russian people seem to have found a figure who as they believe, is the best man to promote Russia’s interests abroad. Resulting of course, in his reign in the country for nearly two decades. We need to understand and accept that Russia is not a Western-style democracy, thus we can not expect them to act like one by force. When we apply sanctions, or ridicule and criticise their country, we only reinforce their support for the establishment.

Something that was indeed confirmed by Andrei Kondrashov, Putin’s campaign spokesman. “Turnout is higher than we expected, by about 8-10 percent, for which we must say thanks to Great Britain,” he stated. One would indeed wonder why Putin would proceed with an attack on foreign soil just before the presidential elections since it would obviously result in further sanctions by Britain and its allies, plus a serious diplomatic incident.

Backfired

If his administration’s aim was to mobilise their voters in this way, then Britain mistakenly just helped them achieve this by its reaction. Perhaps even, the attack was instigated by Mr. Putin’s enemies either within Russia or abroad in an effort to stop him from gaining power once more. If this was the case, they achieved quite the opposite of what they aimed.

I was in Russia during the recent elections and observed the process in the city of Kazan, in the Tatarstan Republic. Prior to the elections I also visited Moscow, where I spoke with some locals about their view of the events and expectations for the outcome. The city of Kazan and the Republic of Tatarstan as a whole, has always voted traditionally for the United Russia party. Consequently, Putin is very popular there despite this time running as an independent, in order to avoid legal impediments that could stand in the way of his nomination or election. Therefore it was expected that he would win in this state.

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A regional voting centre in the city of Kazan

However, the overall Russian public rushed in support of Putin, only partially disappointed about Europe’s stance towards their country. “Over 20 million Russians were killed for European freedom from fascism during WW2,” some stated, expressing their discontent about their country’s image in the rest of the continent. The issues they were truly voting for, had nothing to do with Britain or any of the Western democracies’ actions. They were electing the next president of their country, with the main focus on his government, the choice of the next prime minister, the boosting of the Russian economy and strengthening of the county’s role in the world.

A major factor was also the outcome in Crimea, which many saw it as a second secession from Ukraine referendum, that could lead to its full incorporation into Russia. If Putin is elected here, that could signal the Crimean people’s wish to be part of Russia for good. It was the first presidential elections in the region and thus of specific interest to the Russian people. In the end, the participation in the elections there exceeded the 71% mark, with 92.15% voting for Putin. Naturally sealing Crimea’s fate, according to Russia at least.

At the coalface

From my experience, the elections in Kazan were orderly and organised. In every voting station, there was two cameras which recorded all day during the voting and the counting process. In the stations there was a very communal sense and atmosphere, with markets or fairs being organised selling local products at lower prices, in order to motivate voters to attend. In each station, there were observers from every political party in Russia, plus many independent ones that traditionally volunteer for the elections. You could also see some foreign observers, usually from other former Soviet republics. Everybody was calm and friendly, with music often also added in order to create a very positive and joyful atmosphere.

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Local products on sale 

However the next day of the elections and the announcement of Putin’s victory, western media were reporting images from a widespread rigging of the process. One, of course, could be baffled why would people attempt to place some extra votes in the ballot box, while knowing that there are cameras recording and that they are live on the government’s website broadcasting the process. It doesn’t make sense if you are a Putin supporter to do this deliberately, when you want to give your support for him and his cause. Or perhaps those who were caught wanted to rig the voting process on purpose, in an effort to discredit it? We will never know. However in Kazan things were pretty smooth although understandably, that does not mean that they were so all over Russia.

The people I conversed with in Moscow for instance, did not deny that these occurrences are common, but according to them they only happen to about 1% of the electoral centres. Yet somehow these cases are uploaded on national social media and picked by international news agencies, giving a very distorted image about the elections in Russia. Perhaps trying to grasp this opportunity and explain how Putin wins every time. What I witnessed is pure admiration and adoration for him by many ordinary Russians, since what they see in him is the restoration of the country’s prestige. Additionally, the country’s political mentality differs greatly from the Western one. This is a nation that was a super-power for most of its time, plus it was always inclined to favour a more authoritarian establishment than a fully democratic one.

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The list of ‘candidates’

It is a vast state, comprised of numerous regions, inhabited by many ethnic groups of different religion and race. In order to give this diverse populous nation unity, you need either an authoritarian regime or a very strong central government to keep it together. From its Tsardom to the Communism and Soviet era, Russia opted for authoritarianism so that it could keep all these different populations in order and give them a sense of unity and belonging. It is by no chance that Putin’s party is called “United Russia” and it is very popular in the country. Russia suffered a humiliation with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which saw it losing a large number of its former territories. And one thing that Russians wish to see above all is unity, security plus stability in the remainder of their territories and the relaunching of Russia’s influence in the world. And it is not necessarily by recapturing the old territories, rather by reaching out to new allies and promoting its influence with trade and networking. Russia is a keen supporter of the BRICS group of countries, intensively collaborating with nations that the West views as problematic, of poor economic development or not democratic.

Their need for unity and prevention of another region breaking or slipping away from their sphere of influence is the main reason why some absurd actions are taken or laws adopted. In order to accommodate all ethnic groups or communities, of which some are ultra-conservative, the Russian establishment does not hesitate to implement legislation that does not comply with western mentality like the Anti-Gay Propaganda Law, or the restriction of the freedom of the press and the Kremlin’s critics. Absolute liberalism can pose a challenge in a diverse nation that is still recovering from major economic, political and social changes that it went through during the past few decades. And I don’t think that Russia is totally prepared for such thing just yet.

One example is, of course, that of Alexei Navalny, the Russian lawyer who openly challenges Putin and his government on corruption and the lack of freedom of speech. Some westerners hoped that he could make a difference in these elections, yet he was barred from participating in these elections after he was detained in Moscow facing a number of charges. In reality, I doubt that he could have a real impact, although he could have brought down Putin’s percentage a bit. According to the Kremlin, he is a populist, no different than the Five Star Movement in Italy or numerous others across Europe. And like most of these rising political movements, his aim is to gather support and gain power and legitimacy and by criticising the establishment.

Russia is unique

However, Russia is not Italy or any other European country. Proof of that is the support for Putin in these elections, despite what happened to Navalny and even if all of his claims were true. Imagine if the Italian government jailed Beppe Grillo or barred him from participating in the elections, I doubt that the Italian public would vote afterwards so overwhelmingly for the establishment parties. Navalny maybe fighting the good cause or he may indeed be a populist and opportunist, but the West cannot rely on him to bring down or expose the Russian establishment and Putin or change Russia overnight. The support for him before the elections was low, only polling at about 2% of the intended votes. He is simply not too convincing or popular enough to have any real impact on the Russian electorate just yet although any effort to expose corruption should be applauded.

Additionally, many Russians see their country as a counterpart factor to America’s dominance in the globe. They view Putin as the only person that can help their country achieve this, that is why he is so popular among them and in fact, so unpopular in the West. Because he shows total disregard towards Western agendas or interests, often challenging them. In addition, Russia is keen to keep western meddling media or governments away from their affairs, practically not caring about what they write or say about the country. And why should it? Europe and America often did the same, by starting wars in the Middle East despite the United Nations’ objection, or interfering in elections, referendums, country dissolution and everything else that we accuse Russia of.

An unnecessary new cold war

We are indeed entering in a new form of a cold war, but this time it is different. It is not just Russia, but many other regions that are competing with us for dominance and a greater say in the world’s economy and politics. That is not something that should scare us as long as we have our house in order and establish a strong, united European continent. It could lead to a more equal world and rather the imbalanced one we have at the moment. However, the more we maintain a rift with Russia, the more we give power to Putin or others like him in the country. In reality, this struggle is a power game between America and the Russians for world dominance. Due to our ideological fraternity with the USA, we stand with them yet we forget that we are the ones which have borders with Russia and many of our states used to be under their sphere of influence. It is not in our interests to be constantly following America in its foreign policy, while keeping the Russians outside. By closely cooperating with them, it doesn’t mean that we are becoming their subordinates, rather realising the changes that are taking place on the world stage. We are entering a multi-polar world and we should be “playing” with all parties, most importantly those who we share borders with and depend upon for our energy needs.

Vladimir Putin will stay in power for another six years and he will continue to expand his country’s influence, like any leader should do. Instead of trying to slander him and his government, it would be wiser to see how can we turn Russia into a friendly state. At some stage, even Putin will have to retire from politics due to an old age. Yet who succeeds him and what attitude will he or she have towards Europe will be also of our doing.

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