THE BELL WEEKLY: Putin’s election procession

The Bell

Hello! This week our main story is President Vladimir Putin’s plans for re-election and what his campaign will look like. We also cover the growing trend of anti-abortion measures and public outrage over convicted criminals now returning to society after fighting in Ukraine.

The Kremlin gears up to launch Putin’s re-election campaign

President Vladimir Putin is preparing to announce his plans to run in the 2024 Presidential Election. The Kremlin is already assembling a working group of “social activists” who will officially announce and back his candidacy. The group may include the singer Shaman, who has become the latest symbol of Russian military propaganda. It’s expected that the campaign will start in mid-December.

  • The Presidential Administration is setting up a working group of high-profile backers to nominate Vladimir Putin for re-election, the Kommersant newspaper wrote on Monday. The newspaper lists several potential supporters: Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space and architect of the constitutional changes that allow Putin to extend his reign; movie director Nikita Mikhalkov; pediatrician Leonid Roshal; ultra-patriotic singer Shaman; and Artyom Zhoga, leader of the Sparta battalion and speaker of the People’s Republic of Donetsk parliament.
  • Last week Dmitry Peskov, responding to a Reuters article about Putin’s imminent campaign launch, once again pointed out that there had been no official announcements. But there is no intrigue here. Putin himself already said that he would announce his candidacy once the election date was confirmed (according to the law, this announcement should be sometime between December 8-18). United Russia has its congress planned for December 17, which can only be to support the president’s bid for re-election. A few days earlier, on December 14, Putin will stage his traditional direct line phone-in with the public, which this year will be combined with his major end-of-year press conference. Logic suggests this will be the date of the official announcement.
  • Back in spring, various media outlets published details about the Kremlin’s plans for Putin’s re-election. The president should poll more strongly than six years ago, they outlined. That means a turnout of 70% (compared with 67.5% in 2018), with Putin securing at least 75% (compared with 76.7% last time). Local authorities are expected to ensure people’s trust in the election results and will be asked to limit themselves to persuasion, rather than coercion. The independent Meduza site later wrote that Putin’s target was to secure 80% of the votes and that this would be ensured by the use of electronic voting.
  • The campaign focus will be conservative, leaning heavily on traditional values. It is effectively seen as a referendum, with no anticipated problems for Putin’s re-election, Kommersant reported, citing a source. Therefore, the make-up of the working group is not all that important to the Kremlin. The key thing is to bring the pro-Putin electorate to the polling stations, “since many who support him know about his high ratings and might assume that he will win so there is no need to participate in the process,” the newspaper wrote.
  • Meduza reported in August that the Kremlin had already drawn up its requirements for Putin’s rival candidates. According to the publication, no candidate should be younger than 50. Gennady Zyuganov, who poses no threat to the president, will presumably run for the Communists, while LDPR leader Leonid Slutsky is expected to stand. Boris Nadezhdin, a former duma deputy in Boris Nemtsov’s ex-party, could represent the liberal wing.

Why the world should care

The lack of intrigue over Putin’s re-election was summed up by the Russian internet’s sarcastic reaction to Reuters’ “exclusive” that Putin planned to remain in power through 2030 – as if there was any doubt. The economic context is more interesting. The Cold Calculation Telegram channel recently researched the correlation between economic data and political ratings using data from the Levada Center. It turned out that the most important thing for the president’s popularity is the flow of news about topics that are directly within his competence, plus the “military consolidation” factor – or rally-round-the-flag effect – that plays out in war time. Exchange rates and unemployment significantly affect approval levels, but other macroeconomic indicators are secondary. Therefore, in the build-up to polling day we can expect to hear plenty about how the rouble has been stabilized and Russia’s record-low unemployment rate. After the election, we will likely see an abrupt reduction in support measures.

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Russian regions’ anti-abortion drive

Russia’s war on Ukraine is proving to be no obstacle for the battle to promote “traditional values” – the conservative social program and messaging that Vladimir Putin has long placed at the heart of his domestic ideological agenda. The latest part of that agenda has now emerged, with the state making cautious moves towards restricting women’s right to abortions. An initiative over the summer to take abortion services out of the country’s compulsory health insurance failed, but the authorities are now preparing to ban private clinics from carrying out the procedure.

  • Regional administrations in Crimea and Kursk this week announced that private clinics had voluntarily said they will refuse to perform abortions. That follows similar moves in August and September by clinics in Tatarstan and Chelyabinsk. Such “voluntary decisions” were made at the authorities’ request. Soon, though, it looks like a formal ban will be implemented across the entire country after the State Duma vowed to impose a total ban on abortions in private clinics by spring 2024.
  • In other regions, the authorities are battling against what they call “abortion propaganda.” In Mordovia and Tver, regional laws have been passed in recent months that threaten fines for “encouraging pregnant women to have abortions.” This week Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, hailed the example set in these regions and urged federal lawmakers to introduce similar legislation nationwide.
  • President Vladimir Putin has also recently spoken of the harm done by abortions. “Of course, abortions are a serious problem,” he said at a Nov. 3 meeting with members of the Civic Chamber. “The question is what to do. Ban the sale of abortion drugs? Or improve the socio-economic situation in the country, raise the level of well-being, real wages, social services and support for young families?”
  • The Russian authorities believe increasing numbers of abortions are one reason behind Russia’s demographic problem. The latest official estimates suggest that by 2030 Russia’s population will fall by 3.1 million people. In a worst-case scenario, by 2100 Russia's population could drop by 25-40%.
  • Nonetheless, the authorities are reluctant to impose an active ban on all abortions. It’s not just because these kinds of restrictions have done nothing to ease demographic problems elsewhere. The reality is that even after a decade of conservative state propaganda, Russians generally support a woman’s right to abortion. State pollster VTsIOM carried out a survey in summer of 2022 which found that 51% of Russians believe that the government should not regulate abortion at all. Some 36% agreed that a woman should have the right to choose an abortion in any circumstances.

Why the world should care

Propaganda is not omnipotent and works slowly. Despite everything that is happening, Russia still remains largely a European country when it comes to values.

Kremlin says criminals are “atoning with blood” on the battlefield in Ukraine

With every passing week, more attention is being paid to the thousands of criminals, including brutal murderers, receiving pardons after being released from prison to serve with the Wagner private militia and other paramilitaries fighting in Ukraine. The problems stemming from the policy were inevitable. Unlike draftees, pardoned criminals are allowed to return home after a matter of months, while those who were mobilized are obliged to serve until the end of the war. Despite the public anger, the Kremlin signaled last week it will not change course. The criminals are “atoning for their crimes with blood,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

  • There was public outrage last week over a pardon handed to Vladislav Kanyus, who had been convicted of one of Russia’s most brutal murders in recent memory. In 2020, Kanyus murdered his former girlfriend, Vera Pekhteleva, by beating, strangling and torturing her for several hours as police failed to respond to calls for help from her neighbors. The case became a symbol of Russia’s lack of interest in tackling domestic violence. In 2022, Kanyus was sentenced to 17 years in jail, but earlier this year managed to join the ranks of Russian troops and ex-convicts fighting on the front lines in Ukraine. Last week it emerged that he had been pardoned and was now back at large in Russia.
  • Pekhteleva’s family was outraged and the story garnered widespread media coverage. So much so that Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov was forced to respond. Peskov is renowned for his ability to use many words to say nothing meaningful, but this time he stated the official position very clearly. There are two ways to pardon a prisoner in Russia, Peskov explained. The first is the familiar legal path, which involves an admission of guilt and petitions to the president. “But there is a second path: when those convicted – even of the most serious crimes – atone for their crimes on the battlefield. They are atoned by their blood, by (serving in) assault brigades, under bullets and artillery fire. That’s all I can say on this occasion,” he told reporters.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group began actively recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine back in 2022. Today, the practice has continued for other paramilitary groups, including those set up by the Defense Ministry. According to estimates from the “Russia Behind Bars” NGO, Wagner recruited 50,000 convicts for the war, of whom no more than 10,000 survived. At present, the Defense Ministry has about 30,000 in its ranks. All convicts who fight in the war receive a presidential pardon before they arrive at the front.
  • Contracts with Prigozhin’s Wagner ran for six months, after which the ex-convicts were freed from both military service and prison and could return home. Therefore, Wagner's first recruits started returning home at the beginning of this year. In June, Prigozhin claimed that 32,000 convicts who served with him were already free. After the summer mutiny and the dissolution of Wagner, there was another wave of people returning from the front. There were dozens of stories in the media at that time, describing how returning criminals were terrorizing their communities. The Agentsvo media outlet calculated that Putin had pardoned at least 17 individuals that had been convicted of high-profile murders – and these were only the cases that it could find publicly.
  • There is particular outrage among the families of those who were drafted in the September 2022 mobilization drive and who have not yet returned home. In August 2023, the authorities said that mobilized soldiers would serve indefinitely until the Kremlin issues a formal decree on demobilization. The logic is clear: the Kremlin cannot risk the social unrest that would be triggered by attempting to recruit another 300,000 troops, just to replace the conscripts it already has. Relatives are trying to set up pickets against this “indefinite” mobilization, but the protests have so far failed to become a mass movement.

Why the world should care

The Kremlin’s decision to recruit prisoners for its war on Ukraine is typical of the underlying cynicism of the Putin regime. This is a decision that will undermine social stability in Russia for years to come. However, it poses no direct immediate threat to the government – for the Kremlin, it is more effective to send convicts to the front than to launch another round of mobilization among the general population.


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