“How did it look to have an elections where everyone knew what the outcome would be?” That’s the question Dr. Ellen Carnaghan of Saint Louis University wanted to answer by visiting Russia during the March 18 presidential elections.
She shared details of her trip as part of the World Affairs Council of St. Louis’ Great Decisions series April 5. One example of the strangeness: The presidential debates, which often devolved into shouting matches between the challengers to President Vladimir Putin, reflecting badly on all involved. Putin, meantime, stayed above the fray, “looking presidential and doing presidential things” in state-controlled media coverage.
Putin as expected won handily, but his victory might not be fully satisfying, Carnaghan said. “Autocrats seem to be secure in their regimes to outside observers but they don’t FEEL secure,” she said.
“Regimes near him have fallen,” she said, noting the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and Euromaidan unrest in 2013-14. She said Putin’s regime is vulnerable on issues such as corruption, a potential economic downturn or unseen popular sentiment.
Operating in Putin’s favor: The GDP of Russia has grown during Putin’s regime and with it, the living standard of most Russians.
Also operating in his favor: Control of the press allows Russia to shape opinions of the unrest in Ukraine and assertions of Russian interference in U.S. elections.
On that topic, she said the U.S. response has been rather mild: sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats.
In general, “the checks and balances that we political scientists know are important don’t exist in Russia,” she said. “There’s no free press and no independent judiciary.” Both factors were crucial to controlling the March election and assuring Putin a third six-year term.