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Russia embarks this Friday on three days of voting to reconfirm the inevitable, which is another six-year presidential term for Vladimir Putin.

Given the fact this is simply a matter of going through the motions for Putin and for the public, why does it matter and why does his administration go to such lengths to try to secure a resounding so-called victory?

First, the war-time context.

If turnout and support flag in line with a generalised anxiety regarding how this war ever reaches a conclusion – particularly a war which is pitched as a never-ending conflict with the West – then it will look as though Putin has made a terrible mistake. This he cannot allow.

“It’s like Churchill saying that dictators ride on tigers they dare not dismount,” says David Kankia of the Russian electoral monitoring movement, Golos.

“We have a war crisis, a political crisis inside and outside the country. And if he gets less than he did six years ago, that will mean he doesn’t have the support of his people and that will crush his system.”

It is also a way of proving to those who might feel at the very least some disquiet about the course their country is taking, that they are in the minority.

More on Russia

And a warning, if ever they needed one after the death of Putin’s only real political rival Alexei Navalny, that those who might consider acting on those political reservations do so at huge personal risk.

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Image:
The Kremlin reportedly has a target for Putin in this election. Pic: Reuters

“It is a way of demonstrating that they are outcasts,” says Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre.

“You must be mainstream, otherwise we will treat you as traitors, as foreign agents, as pariahs in this society. It is better to be mute, to follow the rules.”

This was a message also driven home by the fact that Boris Nadezhdin, the only independent candidate campaigning on an anti-war ticket, was not even allowed to run.

The three alternative candidates on the ballot from Kremlin-supplicant parliamentary parties have all declared themselves supportive both of the president and of his war.

They may secure some votes from those who cannot bring themselves to vote for Putin, but that vote will end up counting for little given the various ways and means by which both over-zealous electoral officials administering the polling stations and electronic voting can be massaged to fit the Kremlin’s requirements.

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How has Putin been in power so long?

For the majority in Russia, it is easier to stay passive, to go along with the Kremlin’s voracious messaging, to tick the boxes on all things including at the ballot box and to hope that Putin’s shiny new economic promises filter down their way.

Money in this militarised economy is flooding into regions which haven’t traditionally seen much of it by way of army salaries and payouts to soldiers’ families.

The military-industrial complex is working apace, bringing employment and salaries in its wake. Russia’s economy is robust and Putin mentions it at every chance he has.

Kolesnikov calls it Putin’s Barbieland, an imaginary, happy Russia flush with cash that is buying people’s silence.

“It is not just money as a factor of silencing,” he says.

“Fear is also significant. Not in every case, for sure. Some people can’t say that they are scared of persecution. But the atmosphere in the country is not pleasant.”

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Adverts for the Russian election

Remember that when you see the government’s turnout numbers, when you see polling for Putin at 80% which is reportedly the Kremlin’s target.

This is a country purporting to be normal, holding normal elections, crushing, imprisoning, even killing its opposition, waging war on its next-door neighbour in the name of “self-defence”.

But people know and feel that there is something wrong. The war is a disquieting factor. The atmosphere is not normal and it is not pleasant.

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“We will no longer tolerate criticism of our democracy. Our democracy is the best,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told a youth forum last week, as though democracy is anything the Kremlin wants it to be.

But it is not. Democracies allow for a free and fair vote, they do not encourage state workers to vote a certain way, knowing that their jobs hang in the balance if they do not.

Democracies do not change the constitution to allow the incumbent to stay in power into his third decade. Democracies allow for vibrant competition and here there is none.

Black is not white, whatever the Kremlin says.

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