'Mr. Putin will be president without my vote': The role of apathy in the Russian election

In Sunday's election, Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming to secure another six years in power - and he's unlikely to be stopped, writes Chris Brown.

Don't expect a cliffhanger in Russia's presidential election

If Russian President Vladimir Putin wins re-election on March 18 and carries out the full term, he will have been leader for 24 years - almost as long as Josef Stalin. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

With all the accusations and retributions Vladimir Putin has had to deflect from Britain this week over the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal, one thing the Russian president hasn't had to fret about is his re-election.

The vote, which has seemed like a footnote compared to the espionage-related events of recent days, will happen on Sunday, when approximately 115 million Russians get to cast a ballot in the presidential election.

Putin's guarantee of another term as president — made largely possible through a combination of opponent elimination and a Kremlin-friendly media landscape — is assured. If he stays the full six-year term, his reign atop Russia's political pyramid will stretch to 24 years. Since the Russian Revolution a century ago, only Josef Stalin has ruled longer.

Putin's biggest adversary, anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, was banned from running. So the only drama election night will be watching how many Russians get off the couch to cast ballots.

'I prefer to stay home'

One change from previous Russian elections is that foreign media have been given the opportunity to observe (but only rarely talk to) the president on some of his campaign trips, which CBC did earlier this week on a visit to the southern city of Krasnodar.
Winemaker Andrey Kulichkov of Sober Bash Winery said he won't be voting in Russia's presidential election, because he believes it is a foregone conclusion. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

While Putin can count on support across age groups and income levels, the Krasnodar visit was striking for the number of Russians I met who were openly willing to suggest that after 18 years, it's time for Putin to go.  

This agricultural hub of 750,000 people not far from the Black Sea has bucked Russia's trend of sluggish economic growth. Tens of thousands of newcomers have moved into the region to benefit from expanding agriculture-related industries.

The city's skyline is punctuated by new condo towers, and municipal parks are full of young families, many of which have escaped the harsh winters and crazy traffic of Moscow for a less hectic existence.

Andrey Kulichkov left his busy office job to become a vintner in Krasnodar's emerging wine industry. While his Sober Bash Winery is doing well, selling to restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg, he said heavy bureaucracy and a lousy investment climate is holding it back.
Earlier this week, Putin visited the agricultural region of Krasnodar. (Kremlin.Ru)

"Mr. Putin will be president without my vote. I prefer to stay at home and drink coffee — even better, wine! " he said while standing next to a row of huge wine casks.

The sting of sanctions

Russia's outlier status in the international community has made life worse for everyone, Kulichkov said.

"The economy is not growing," he said.

"We have survived and we have stayed here without European cheese, we can survive without apples from Poland, " he said, a reference to the sanctions and counter-sanctions imposed after Russia's takeover of Crimea in 2014. "But I think it's not good." Kulichkov said that in order to improve the economy, Russia needs to engage more with the rest of the world.

In Krasnodar's main pedestrian area, Putin supporters and detractors were about 50-50.
Supporter Roman Starostin, middle, was part of the welcoming committee for Putin in Krasnodar. (Kremlin.Ru)

"People are getting tired [of having Putin for] so many years," said one man named Nicoli, who was out with his wife and two young children. "It would be better to change."

But 23-year-old Roman Starostin, who was part of the welcoming committee that greeted Putin, said the president is a long way from outliving his welcome.

"I think, if I'm not mistaken, [U.S. president Franklin] Roosevelt was elected four times? We love Putin. We want him to be the president."

Zara Myet and Mariett Sabsokova, both strong Putin supporters, suggested he would get their votes — largely because they didn't see any other option.
Zara Myet, left, and Mariett Sabsokova said they will be voting for Putin, in part because they don't see another alternative. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC News)

"Under Putin, it didn't get worse," said Sabsokova. "I hope it will get better."

"If we would have a serious alternative, then we would see," said Myet.

Voter fatigue?

The fact that many Putin supporters are either tiring of him or demonstrating outright apathy is being taken seriously by the Kremlin — to the point where officials have enlisted the help of public relations firms to dream up novel ways to entice people to the polls.

Russians have been treated to videos produced by the Russian version of Maxim magazine, featuring lingerie-clad models tempting young men to cast ballots, as well as a TV commercial in which a pregnant woman appears to go to the polling station rather than give birth in the maternity ward.

Other get-out-the-vote approaches have played to much darker themes in Russian society. One bizarre video seemed intent on trying to scare Russians by suggesting black immigrants might take over the army if Putin wasn't reelected. Another played on homophobia by suggesting that if Putin isn't returned as president, church-going families will have to take in gay men who can't find partners.

Predicting turnout

The Kremlin has said it is aiming for a voter turnout of around 65 per cent, with Putin expected to capture about 70 per cent of the votes. That would put him roughly on par with his results six years ago.

Dominant state media such as RT and TASS, where most Russians still get their news, have skewed heavily toward favourable coverage of Putin. At one point, the Kremlin's top spokesperson all but dropped the facade of a contested election by proclaiming that Putin was unbeatable.

At times, Putin's own approach to the campaign has reflected that inevitability. Putin skipped the election debates and didn't release a campaign platform. At one of his final rallies in Sevastopol, supporters waited hours to hear him speak — only to see him for less than two minutes before he was helicoptered out.

The Kremlin has banned independent pollsters from taking surveys during the campaign, so the only barometer of the contest has been from state-run sources. One surprising poll last month revealed there has been a 12-point drop in Putin's support in the major urban areas.

Given Putin's outward confidence, it's unlikely anyone on his campaign team is worried.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.