THE BELL WEEKLY: Putin announces re-election campaign

The Bell

Hello. This week we look at Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he will run for re-election next year. We also report on a new travel ban and plans to bring propaganda into kindergartens.

Surrounded by Donbas veterans, Putin declares he will run for presidency again

Vladimir Putin has finally announced his candidacy for next year’s presidential election in a vote which the Federation Council has set for March 17, 2024. Putin officially launched his campaign at a meeting with “heroes of the war in Donbas,” an event seen by political analysts as symbolic. Putin is aiming to win at least 80% in next year’s ballot.

  • In recent weeks, almost every one of Putin’s public engagements has been accompanied by hints that he will formally announce his candidacy in the near future. The announcement finally came at an event for soldiers who have been awarded the “Hero of Russia” medal, the country’s highest military honor. The official who posed the crucial question was Artyom Zhoga, parliamentary speaker of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, one of the four Ukrainian regions that Russia claims to have annexed last year. After the ceremony he approached Putin and asked him to stand for re-election again. The president’s response was brief: “At different times, I had different thoughts. But now the time has come to make a decision. I will run for president.”
  • Artyom Zhoga is a figure who symbolizes not only the importance of the war and what Moscow calls its “new territories'' for Russia, but also represents a continuity stretching back to 2014, the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. Zhoga’s son, Vladimir, was the driver for Arsen Pavlov, known by his nom de guerre “Motorola,” and hailed as one of the great heroes of the so-called Russian Spring of 2014. After Motorola’s death in 2016, Vladimir Zhoga took charge of his “Sparta” battalion. He was killed in the early days of the Russian invasion in 2022, leaving his father, Artyom Zhoga to take charge. Thus, Putin was not called to stand for re-election just by the speaker of a regional parliament in occupied Ukraine, but by a man best known as a pro-Russian militant in Donbas.
  • Back in the summer, Meduza wrote that Putin’s aim for the election was to secure an 80% vote share. That target seems logical from the Kremlin’s point of view. In March 2018, he received 76.7% — anything below that, especially during the war, would be seen as a step backwards. Official polls also suggest a figure of around 80%. On the eve of Putin’s announcement, one of the two leading state pollsters, the Public Opinion Foundation, published a survey suggesting that every single one of Putin’s indicators had risen significantly in recent years. In 2019, only 33% were positive about the idea Putin could return for another term. A year ago that share had risen to 62% and has continued to climb, now at 70%. Naturally, the number of respondents who felt that Putin should step down as president and move to another role in government has fallen accordingly — from 33% to 15%. Those who think Putin should retire altogether fell from 23% to 8%, and those who believe Putin acts in their best interests rose from 52% to 67%.
  • It remains unclear exactly who exactly will be allowed to run as Putin’s sparring partners in the election. Experts agree that the two systemic, or Kremlin-loyal, opposition parties will be involved in some form. The Communists are likely to nominate their 79-year-old leader Gennday Zyuganov for his fifth presidential election campaign. The Liberal Democrats (LDPR) are currently led by Leonid Slutsky, following the death of the outspoken Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The liberal Yabloko party will try to nominate its leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, who picked up 1.05% of the vote in 2018. But this time round, the Kremlin seems not to want Yavlinsky’s name on the ballot. Yavlinsky himself said he would run only if 10 million people signed a petition backing his candidacy — an unrealistic number. Political analyst Grigory Golosov said of the Kremlin’s strategy regarding other candidates: “It is scientifically established, and even without science the Kremlin had long understood, that any additional candidate, however pitiful, takes votes away from the leader. If the target was 70%, then having one ‘liberal’ candidate (however hopeless) would be entirely acceptable. If it’s 60%, you could allow more of them and provide an exciting campaign. But a target of 80% rules out this option. The only candidates will be those who cannot be left out.”

Why the world should care

Russia’s presidential election may seem like a formality, but it is nonetheless an extremely important event for the Kremlin. The symbolism and propaganda surrounding it will tell us a lot about how Putin views his next term in office.

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Russia to confiscate passports of military and security personnel

The state is continuing to make life difficult for anyone it does not want to see leaving the country — especially those eligible for military service. As well as being listed in a database of people banned from leaving Russia, those subject to travel bans will now have to physically surrender their passports.

  • A new law came into force in Russia on Monday requiring Russians banned from traveling abroad to surrender their passports to the police, foreign minister, FSB security service or another relevant state body. Individuals must hand in their passports within five days of being notified that they are subject to a travel ban, and they will not be returned until they are again allowed to leave the country.
  • Russia bans its citizens from leaving the country for many reasons, ranging from national security to financial status. These include people who are subject to court rulings recognizing they have unpaid debts of more than 10,000 rubles (about $100) and those who are bankrupt, as well as citizens working for the FSB, those who have access to state secrets, or some people who have a specific criminal record. Following last year’s chaotic partial mobilization, travel bans were extended to cover anybody who has been called-up for military service. There’s little doubt that the new law is aimed squarely at this latter group. The whole idea of confiscating passports rather than just adding names to a list, came about after the exit restrictions were imposed on everybody called up for military service.
  • Formally, the law doesn’t seem to change much — it doesn’t apply to any new groups of people who weren’t already banned from leaving Russia. But in practice, the requirement to surrender a passport will make it more difficult for people to leave via circuitous routes, such as traveling through Belarus, which is part of a free travel zone with Russia. It could also create new problems for Russian emigrants, including those who left the country to avoid conscription and mobilization. Any visit to a Russian consulate, for example, could lead to the confiscation of a passport and cause major complications for their lives abroad. The Belarusian opposition has moved to issue alternative passports to emigrants who have fled Alexander Lukashenko’s regime — after Belarus also tightened its rules on passports and consular services for those outside the country — and is currently pressing for their international recognition. Russia’s opposition is far from this point, not to mention that there is no globally recognized Russian leader-in-exile comparable to Belarus’ Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

Why the world should care

Russia’s authorities appear to be in a race with the West to see who can erect a new Iron Curtain around the country most quickly. Confiscating passports reminds older Russians of the exit visas that were required to leave the Soviet Union.

Propaganda in kindergartens

Officials are so keen to ensure that Russian children receive a “patriotic” education that they are going even further than their Soviet predecessors. Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov has urged Vladimir Putin to extend the work of the “Russian Eaglets” movement to kindergartens.

  • While preparing for his trip to the Middle East last week, Putin managed to attend a meeting with the council of the “Movement of the First” patriotic youth organization. It was established in 2022 as a modern equivalent of the Soviet Union “Pioneers,” a union that all secondary school students had to join. The Movement of the First is not obligatory, but has already recruited 4 million members. Its board of trustees is headed by Maxim Oreshkin, well known to The Bell readers as Putin’s economy aide and a former investment banker at Societe Generale.
  • At the council meeting, it was made clear that the authorities were not content with simply recreating the Pioneer spirit. In the USSR, children joined the Pioneers at age nine, having previously been members of the “October” organization from the age of seven. Russia also has a modern equivalent of that as well – called the “Eaglets of Russia.” Education Minister Kravtsov took the opportunity to tell Putin how successful the Eaglets have been, boasting of 2.5 million kids in its ranks.
  • Kravtsov urged Putin to extend the Eaglets’ work into kindergartens, recruiting children as young as three. Even in Soviet times, ideological education never began so early. Of course there was talk about Lenin and the “glorious revolution,” in kindergartens but there was no dedicated communist organization. In modern Russia, however, there will now be ideological education for toddlers. And there is still room to start even younger. Minister Kravtsov quoted film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who said: “Education begins from the moment a child starts kindergarten, and perhaps even earlier.” In his response, Putin said the important aspects of education start at birth.
  • According to the Agentsvo media outlet, which has previously researched what the Eaglets get up to, its members study leadership, volunteering and “preserving historical memory.” Ceremonies are accompanied by a chorus of the Russian anthem, with flags raised as children are presented with badges and neckties to mark their achievements and progress.

Why the world should care

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Soviet-style “social activity” has been increasingly mandated from above. The trend began in the mid-2010s, and has accelerated sharply over the past couple of years. It seems likely that for the foreseeable future, the lives of Russian children will be tightly regulated and ideologically controlled, both at school and beyond.


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