By: Will Chim, Columnist
Photo Credit: The Atlantic
The election of Vladimir Putin to a fourth term as president of Russia appears to be a foregone conclusion. After all, the world has already experienced 18 years of Putin’s tenure spread over three presidential terms and a stint as prime minster. However, the upcoming March 2018 presidential election in Russia is shaping up to be much more than a rote landslide for the incumbent leader. Putin has yet to announce his candidacy or party affiliation, and a number of other developments are turning the election into political theater. Opposition candidates, fake opposition candidates, Putin’s views on his own future and legacy, and the dark horse theory that Putin will not run (or deliberately lose) all promise to enthrall the Russian public and the world until March. This is exactly what the Kremlin wants.
What is different this time around? For starters, it is not even clear that Vladimir Putin is running for reelection. As of November 2017, he has not announced his candidacy or party affiliation in the upcoming election, compared to his September 2011 announcement ahead of the 2012 election. Putin cruised to victory with 64 percent of the vote in 2012, 72 percent in 2004, 53 percent in 2000, and carried his United Russia party to broad popularity across the country. Kremlin officials are playing coy about whether Putin will even run again, amid rumors he is “tired” and wants to retire. The Kremlin is likely building drama and suspense around Putin’s candidacy to increase public interest in this election season, as Russian voters are very used to the Putin election cycle. The Kremlin has also been vague about whether Putin will run as a United Russia candidate and rumors suggest he may instead run as an independent. Such a departure would play to the idea that Putin is not a typical party politician but instead the “leader of all Russians” who transcends the political system. Putin is expected to announce his candidacy in December 2017 and then his party affiliation (if any) in January 2018, but the possibility remains that he does not run at all.
Putin’s self-removal from Russian leadership would shock the world. Why would one of the most powerful men in the world abdicate at the height of his rule? Other rumors suggest Putin is considering his lasting legacy and seeks to legitimize his rule by perhaps creating the illusion of a genuine transition away from his reign. This may come via the creation of a ceremonial position above the presidency, allowing Putin to serve as a figurehead atop the Russian political system and pull the strings of whoever ascends to the presidency. Or, instead, via a graceful bowing out and the election of a seemingly legitimate successor. This is where the opposition enters and the political theater begins.
The slate of other candidates this time around is also raising eyebrows. Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny is perhaps the most visible and independent opposition figure in Russia. He announced his candidacy for president in December 2016. Navalny is also politically savvy, and popular among young Russians and those alienated by corruption and economic strife. For this reason, the Kremlin has actively targeted him ahead of the election. Navalny has been barred from participating in the election by Russian courts due to an ongoing criminal fraud case against him, largely viewed as politically motivated. Navalny’s barring has created broad dissatisfaction among his base of support, which the Kremlin would like to avoid bubbling over into mass protests, as seen during the previous election cycle.
The Kremlin would ideally like to create a controllable outlet for those dissatisfied Russians. In 2012, billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets Mikhail Prokhorov served that role, running in the presidential election as an independent, though his campaign offered little genuine opposition to the status quo and failed to significantly mobilize support or convince the electorate that he was a legitimate opposition figure. Putin and the Kremlin seem to have learned from 2012; this time around, they are offering a much flashier option.
Ksenia Sobchak, Russian socialite-cum-journalist, announced her candidacy for president in October 2017 to conspicuous confusion. Sobchak was widely known in Russia in the early 2000s as a reality television host and media personality before evolving into a talk show host and journalist on the independent Russian television channel Dozhd. Sobchak’s late father, Anatoly, was a close friend of Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, and Putin is even rumored to be Ksenia’s godfather. Russian government sources have suggested for some time that the Kremlin sought a female candidate for president to add excitement and variety to an otherwise repetitive campaign season. Sobchak has also fallen out of the spotlight in recent years, leading some to assess that her faux campaign for president is part of a “tit-for-tat” arrangement with the Kremlin in exchange for a center stage position in Russian media.
While Sobchak insists she is an independent candidate standing “against everyone else,” the consensus is that she is Kremlin-approved faux opposition designed to increase voter enthusiasm, voter turnout, and also split or co-opt the political base of Navalny to prevent unrest during the election period. This is supported by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s statement that Sobchak can “of course” run for president—real opposition figures often receive bans or bullets instead of Kremlin approval. However, Sobchak has also stirred controversy during her campaign, such as when she asserted “Crimea is part of Ukraine,” deviating from the Kremlin line after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014. It is likely the Kremlin is allowing her leeway to appear as a true independent opposition candidate—something Navalny and his base are not buying. He has referred to Sobchak as a “caricature liberal candidate.”
It remains to be seen what role Sobchak is playing in the Kremlin’s election theater and what the Kremlin’s ultimate goal will be for the upcoming election. There remains a persistent dark horse theory that Sobchak may be Putin’s chosen successor as part of his legacy-building activity and also to shame the United States after it failed to elect its first woman leader. Such a possibility is tantalizing theater but ultimately unlikely, especially given the controversies Sobchak has ignited. If Putin does choose to designate a successor, it will come from the ranks of his inner circle or protégés and be someone familiar with the Putin style of rule, such as Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
It is certainly more likely than not that Putin will soon announce his candidacy and continue into his fourth term ruling over the Russian Federation. But so far in this election cycle there are elements previously unseen that indicate possible stage-setting for the day when Putin no longer reigns. Whatever March 2018 may hold, creating a global buzz and teasing out a carefully crafted and structured plot is a main Kremlin goal. So far it is succeeding.
 James Brooke, “Putin Announces Run for President in 2012,” VOA News, September 23, 2011. https://www.voanews.com/a/medvedev-proposes-putin-for-russian-president-in-2012-130492568/145660.html
 Damien Sharkov, “Why Putin Won’t Confirm Whether He Is Running For President Next Year,” Newsweek, May 31, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/putin-wont-confirm-president-next-year-618136.
 Neil MacFarquhar and Ivan Nechepurenko, “Across Russia, Protesters Heed Navalny’s Anti-Kremlin Rallying Cry,” New York Times, June 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/12/world/europe/russia-aleksei-navalny-kremlin-protests.html.
 Simon Shuster, “Is Putin’s Fake Rival the Real Deal?” Foreign Policy, February 3, 2012, http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/02/03/is-putins-fake-rival-the-real-deal/.
 Shaun Walker, “Putin mentor’s daughter Ksenia Sobchak to run for president,” The Guardian, October 18, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/18/putin-mentors-daughter-ksenia-sobchak-to-run-for-president.
 Oliver Carroll, “Russian opposition candidate Ksenia Sobchak says she won’t go after Putin,” The Independent, October 24, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-presidential-election-ksenia-sobchak-putin-criticise-kremlin-moscow-conference-a8017656.html.
 “Kremlin Eyeing Woman for 2018 Presidential Elections, Russian Paper Says,” The Moscow Times, September 1, 2017, https://themoscowtimes.com/news/kremlin-eyeing-female-flair-for-2018-presidential-elections-58829.
 Mike Eckel, “TV Personality Sobchak Announces Candidacy for Russian Presidency,” RFE/RL, October 19, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-sobchak-presidency-putin-candidacy/28802539.html.
 “Sobchak Stirs Controversy In Russia By Saying Crimea Is Part Of Ukraine,” RFE/RL, October 25, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/sobchak-stirs-controversy-russia-saying-crimea-is-part-ukraine/28815695.html.
 Tom Balmforth, “ ‘Caricature Candidate?’ Sobchak, Navalny, Clash Over Her Rumored 2018 Kremlin Bid,” RFE/RL, September 25, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/sobchak-navalny-putin-kremlin-election-presidency-rumors/28756447.html.