Little Suspense Over Russian Vote. What Comes Next Is Less Certain.


Maria and her husband, Aleksandr, are certain that President Vladimir V. Putin will secure a fifth term as Russia’s leader in the presidential election this weekend.

But the couple, who live in Moscow with their three children, are not so sure about what will follow. Foremost in their minds are fears that Mr. Putin, emboldened by winning a new six-year term, might declare another mobilization for soldiers to fight in Ukraine. Aleksandr, 38, who left Russia shortly after Mr. Putin announced the first mobilization in September 2022 but recently returned, is even considering leaving the country again, his wife said.

“I only hear about mobilization — that there is a planned offensive for the summer and that troops need rotation,” Maria, 34, said in a WhatsApp exchange. She declined to allow the couple’s family name to be used, fearing repercussions from the government.

Many Russians have been worrying about a multitude of issues before the vote, which started on Friday and takes place over three days. Though the Russian authorities have denied that another mobilization for the war is planned, a sense of unease persists.

The concerns appear to be grounded in the possibility that Mr. Putin will use his unfettered power to make changes he avoided before the vote. Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, one of the few independent pollsters in Russia, said those anxieties were still felt mainly by the minority of Russians who oppose the government.

While a potential mobilization remains the biggest cause of concern, there is unease, too, over finances and the economy. Some Russians worry that the ruble, which has been propped up by the government after plunging last year, might be allowed to depreciate again, raising the cost of imports. Businesspeople worry about higher taxes, and opposition activists expect more crackdowns on dissent.

“People are very anxious,” said Nina L. Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City who regularly visits Russia. “Uncertainty is the worst, as much as Russian people are used to uncertainty.”

The worries reflect a current mood in Russia, where many have learned to hope for the best but expect the worst. The uncertainty has been worsened by a government that experts say has become increasingly authoritarian.

After more than two decades in power, Mr. Putin is not restrained by an opposition party in Parliament or a strong civil society. He is therefore relatively free to act as he pleases.

Some experts say that the Kremlin could use the results of the vote — expected to be a landslide victory for Mr. Putin — to crack down even further on dissent and escalate the war in Ukraine, which was intended to be a brisk “special military operation” but has turned into a slog that has caused hundreds of thousands of casualties.

“In an authoritarian election, the results are predictable but the consequences are not,” Yekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist, said in a response to written questions from The New York Times. “If the system decides that it did well and everything is good, then the post-election period can be the time to make unpopular decisions.”

Ms. Schulmann pointed as an example to Mr. Putin’s last re-election, in 2018, which was followed by a highly unpopular increase in Russia’s retirement age.

Elections in Russia are managed tightly by the Kremlin through its almost total control of the media and state enterprises, whose workers are often pressured to vote. The electoral machine filters out unwanted candidates, and opposition activists have either been forced to flee or have ended up in Russian prisons. The country’s most prominent dissident, Aleksei A. Navalny, died last month in a penal colony in the Arctic where he had been imprisoned.

While the outcome of the vote is not in question, Russians have still been preoccupied by the process. The vote will be the first since Mr. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.

A Moscow consultant who works with Russian businesses said some of his clients had deliberately scheduled new stock offerings on the Moscow exchange so that they would happen in what they expected to be a relatively quiet period before the vote. He requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his relationship with his clients.

Russian consumers also rushed to buy cars at the beginning of the year, after auto-market analysts suggested that the period before the elections might be the best time to buy because the ruble might be devalued once the vote was over. The number of new cars sold in Russia in January and February jumped more than 80 percent compared with the same period last year, according to Avtostat, a news website about the Russian auto industry.

Businesses have been worried that the government will raise taxes after the vote. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin said that the government would draft new tax rules for individuals and private entities, and experts said that most likely meant taxes would rise for both groups.

Yevgeny Nadorshin, the chief economist at the PF Capital consulting company in Moscow, said companies were particularly concerned about a rise in taxes and higher labor costs. “That would jeopardize Russia’s competitiveness,” he said.

Mr. Nadorshin also noted the widespread rumors of another troop mobilization that, if it occurred, could further restrict the labor market for businesses, he said.

Mr. Volkov, of the Levada Center, said that most Russians, after the initial shock of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the mobilization that followed seven months later, adapted to the new world. Much of that was the result of government efforts to raise morale by making sure the country’s economy stayed healthy and injecting money into its industrial sector.

“There has been a serious redistribution of resources in favor of the majority, who feel that they can now live a normal life without getting directly engaged in the war,” he said, referring to salary increases for factory workers and various social payouts.

Still, he pointed to what he said was growing polarization between supporters and opponents of Mr. Putin.

“Mutual misunderstanding today is bigger and more acute than before,” Mr. Volkov said.

Many Russian anti-Kremlin activists — those who remain in the country and those who left — fear a new crackdown on dissent.

Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian businessman and opposition activist in London, said he believed that after the election, dissidents would face a stark choice between fleeing or facing imprisonment.

“Nothing will help; the choice will be either to go to jail or leave the country,” he said in an interview with Zhivoy Gvozd, an independent Russian news outlet.

But some analysts have expressed doubt that Mr. Putin will do much more than he already has to stamp out dissent.

“The system cannot be in the state of mobilization and stress forever,” said Aleksandr Kynev, a Russia-based political scientist who specializes in regional politics. “If you give too much power to the security services, tomorrow they can remove you from power,” he said. “Vladimir Putin understands it well.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.


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