Putin’s poll rivals gain a platform but cannot win

Lining up against Putin: from left, Boris Titov; Ksenia Sobchak; Grigory Yavlinsky; Pavel Grudinin; and Vladimir Zhirinovsky © FT montage

If he is lucky, Boris Titov will take 0.5 per cent of the vote in next month’s Russian presidential elections.

Yet the 57-year-old politician and businessman insists his candidacy — he is one of the few allowed to run against Vladimir Putin, who is virtually assured of victory — can help change the country.

“If we didn’t participate, the country would think that there is only support for Putin and nothing else,” says Mr Titov, owner of Russian champagne maker Abrau-Durso and presidential ombudsman for entrepreneurs’ rights. “Through me, you can see there is business which is not satisfied with the economic policy that is being conducted in the country today.”

For instance, Mr Titov recently published a list of Russian entrepreneurs in exile in the UK hiding from Russian criminal prosecution for what he said were trumped-up charges. “Drawing attention to the plight of entrepreneurs during the campaign will get their problems resolved more quickly,” he says. “That is what our elections are good for: we can make people listen and rally support for change in our country’s economic policy.”

Mr Titov’s modest expectations for the March 18 vote illustrate the peculiarly symbiotic relationship between the authorities and those politicians who have agreed to participate in an election Mr Putin is guaranteed to win — the latter gain a platform for their views and their involvement is seen as bolstering the poll’s credibility.

Although the Central Election Commission has barred Alexei Navalny, the lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner who has emerged as Mr Putin’s most serious challenger, it has registered seven other candidates — the largest field of challengers Mr Putin has faced since his first presidential election in 2000.

Pavel Grudinin, 57, the wealthy co-owner of a former state farm on the outskirts of Moscow, is running for the Communist party on a populist platform criticising inequality and corruption. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 71, is an ultranationalist whose party forms the Kremlin-loyal parliamentary opposition together with the communists. Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of the late St Petersburg mayor and one-time mentor of Mr Putin, is trying to win over protest voters. The socialite turned opposition journalist competes with Grigory Yavlinsky, 65, the veteran liberal. The field is completed by Maxim Suraikin, 39, leader of the Communists of Russia party, and Sergei Baburin, 59, a nationalist.

Several of them echo Mr Titov’s line: although the playing field is not level the contest provides a rare chance to voice criticism. None of the candidates envisions a change of power.

They are self-financed, though critics suggest some Kremlin-approved hopefuls have received a helping hand. They also receive some airtime on official media. Ms Sobchak has spoken on federal television about topics normally ignored there, such as Mr Navalny and the annexation of Crimea.

Ms Sobchak wants to use the polls as a springboard for her political career. She hopes to win a seat in the next Duma in 2021, making her strong enough for a presidential run in 2024, when the constitution requires Mr Putin to step down anyway.

“My goal, of course, is not the presidential elections in themselves,” she says. “I’m quite realistic: [In a] casino, [the] casino always wins. In Russian elections, Putin always wins.” Ms Sobchak says there is no point in pressing for change through street protests because the regime will only crack down.

In a casino, the casino always wins. In Russian elections, Putin always wins

“The only way we can try to solve the situation is to go and influence the politics from inside, [by] creating our own power, which will not be marginalised . . . which you can’t just ignore, like they do with other opposition,” she says.

Mr Yavlinsky, 65, whom pollsters forecast will win 1 per cent of the vote at best, harbours no illusions over a presidential future. Having fought for centre-left liberal policies since the dying days of the Soviet Union, he is using what might be the last presidential campaign of his political career for fierce public criticism of Mr Putin’s belligerent policies towards Ukraine.

Although Ms Sobchak, 36, has also acknowledged that Moscow broke international law by annexing Crimea in 2014, Mr Yavlinsky is the only candidate to advocate efforts at resolving the peninsula’s future under international mediation.

Mr Titov, despite his criticism of Mr Putin’s economic policy record, is also far from calling for a change of power now. He argues that Russian society, dominated by civil servants and millions of poor, is not ready for democratic change.

“This path needs to be gradual. This country needs to enter a path of economic growth, and the middle class needs to accumulate strength, and then we can move towards sustainable democratisation.”

For the Kremlin, the seven rivals in Mr Putin’s race are of crucial importance. The president’s campaign planners hope their participation will create enough of a semblance of democracy to bring the apathetic out to the polls, securing a turnout of at least 70 per cent.

Beyond this purpose, even government officials view the arrangement with open cynicism. “Of course our elections are still a bit more democratic than in the Soviet Union. A bit like they used to be in the GDR [the former East Germany]” jokes an official in the presidential administration. “They had their raft of token political parties that were all in fact in the [ruling] SED’s pocket. Of course some of those may have had noble goals.”

Candidates challenging Putin’s hold over Russia

Pavel Grudinin © AFP

Pavel Grudinin

Director of Lenin State Farm since the co-operative became a private company in 1995, Grudinin is running for the Communist party but is not a member.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky © AFP

Vladimir Zhirinovsky

Firebrand ultranationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic party whose rhetoric is a pressure valve for public dissatisfaction, Zhirinovsky is also loyal to the Kremlin.

Ksenia Sobchak

TV celebrity who participated in the 2011 opposition protests, Sobchak is the daughter of a former Putin mentor, giving her direct access to the president.

Grigory Yavlinsky

The head of Yabloko, Yavlinsky drafted market reforms for Mikhail Gorbachev but opposed the ‘shock therapy’ adopted under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Boris Titov © Reuters

Boris Titov

Chairman of the centre-right Growth party and presidential commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights, Titov controls Russia’s leading champagne producer.

Maxim Suraikin © EPA

Maxim Suraikin

The chairman of the Communists of Russia splinter group. Some analysts say his candidacy was approved to deny Grudinin too big a share of the vote.

Sergei Baburin

Former Duma deputy who was part of Rodina, then a Kremlin-backed nationalist bloc, Baburin is candidate of the small Russian All People’s Union.

This post originally appeared on Financial Times

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