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RUSSIA ELECTIONS

Putin set to tighten grip on power despite noon protest by opponents

Putin set to tighten grip on power despite noon protest by opponents
A Russian dissident holds a placard reading 'My candidate Alexei Navalny killed by Putin's regime' as she waits in line in front of the Russian consulate on 17 March 2024 in Milan, Italy. (Photo: Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images)

Putin, who rose to power in 1999, was set to win a new six-year term that would enable him to overtake Josef Stalin and become Russia’s longest-serving leader for more than 200 years.

President Vladimir Putin was poised to tighten his grip on power on Sunday in a Russian election that was certain to deliver him a landslide victory, though thousands of opponents staged a symbolic noon protest at polling stations.

Putin, who rose to power in 1999, was set to win a new six-year term that would enable him to overtake Josef Stalin and become Russia’s longest-serving leader for more than 200 years.

The election came just over two years since Putin triggered the deadliest European conflict since World War 2 by ordering the invasion of Ukraine, which he cast as a “special military operation”.

War hung over the three-day election: Ukraine repeatedly attacked oil refineries in Russia, shelled Russian regions and sought to pierce Russian borders with proxy forces — a move Putin said would not be left unpunished.

While Putin’s re-election was not in doubt given his control over Russia and the absence of any real challengers, the former KGB spy wanted to show that he had the overwhelming support of Russians. Several hours before polls were due to close at 1800 GMT, the nationwide turnout surpassed 2018 levels of 67.5%.

Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine

Supporters of Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison last month, had called on Russians to come out at a “Noon against Putin” protest to show their dissent against a leader they cast as a corrupt autocrat.

There was no independent tally of how many of Russia’s 114 million voters took part in the opposition demonstrations, amid extremely tight security involving tens of thousands of police and security officials.

Reuters journalists saw an increase in the flow of voters, especially younger people, at noon at some polling stations in Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, with queues of several hundred people and even thousands.

Some said they were protesting, though there were few outward signs to distinguish them from ordinary voters.

When Navalny’s widow, Yulia, appeared at the Russian embassy in Berlin where Russians were waiting to vote, some cheered her and chanted “Yulia, Yulia”. 

Exiled Navalny supporters broadcast footage of protests inside Russia and abroad on YouTube.

“We showed ourselves, all of Russia and the whole world that Putin is not Russia, that Putin has seized power in Russia,” said Ruslan Shaveddinov of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “Our victory is that we, the people, defeated fear, we defeated solitude — many people saw they were not alone.”

Leonid Volkov, an exiled Navalny aide who was attacked with a hammer last week in Vilnius, Lithuania, estimated that hundreds of thousands of people had come out to polling stations in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other cities.

Scattered incidents

At polling stations at Russian diplomatic missions, from Australia and Japan to Armenia, Kazakhstan and Georgia, hundreds of Russians stood in line at noon.

Over the previous two days, there were scattered incidents of protest as some Russians set fire to voting booths or poured dye into ballot boxes. Russian officials called them scumbags and traitors. Opponents posted pictures of ballots spoiled with slogans insulting Putin.

But Navalny’s death has left the opposition deprived of its most formidable leader, and other major opposition figures are abroad, in jail or dead.

The West casts Putin as an autocrat and a killer. US President Joe Biden last month dubbed him a “crazy SOB”. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has indicted him for the alleged war crime of abducting Ukrainian children, which the Kremlin denies.

Putin casts the war as part of a centuries-old battle with a declining and decadent West that he says humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 by encroaching on what Putin considers to be Russia’s sphere of influence, such as Ukraine.

Russia’s election came at what Western spy chiefs say is a crossroads for the Ukraine war and the wider West, which Biden casts as a broader 21st-century struggle between democracies and autocracies.

Support for Ukraine is tangled in US domestic politics ahead of the November presidential election contest between Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose Republican party in Congress has blocked military aid for Kyiv.

Though Kyiv recaptured territory after the invasion in 2022, Russian forces have lately made gains after a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive last year.

The Biden administration fears Putin could grab a bigger slice of Ukraine unless Kyiv gets more support soon. US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns has said that could embolden Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Putin said the West was engaged in a hybrid war against Russia and that Western intelligence and Ukraine were trying to disrupt the elections.

Voting also took place in Crimea, which Moscow took from Ukraine in 2014, and what Moscow calls its “new territories”, four other regions it partly controls and has claimed since 2022. Kyiv regards the election taking place in parts of its territory controlled by Russia as illegal and void. DM

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