Moscow — Mar 17, 2018, 2:46 PM ET

Russia prepares for election, and another Putin victory

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Alexey Navalny thought he'd be in jail by now.

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Russia’s presidential election is tomorrow and the opposition leader, along with many other observers, expected he'd spend it behind bars.

But the Kremlin’s most troublesome opponent, known for his investigations exposing officials’ alleged corrupt wealth and who is backed by a grassroots movement he has brought onto the streets against President Vladimir Putin in unusually large numbers in the past year, will likely be free -- and apparently out of the way when Russian voters go to the polls.

PHOTO: Russian politician Alexei Navalny in his office on April 11, 2017 in Moscow.Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images
Russian politician Alexei Navalny in his office on April 11, 2017 in Moscow.

In February, he was charged—- as often happens —- for holding an unauthorized protest. Surprisingly, though, he was not immediately given the standard 30-day sentence, leaving him free but uncertain about when he may be jailed again.

Not that being locked up would be new for Navalny, who says he has spent 60 days incarcerated in the past year. A volunteer at his headquarters checks the websites of Moscow’s courts every day to make sure authorities have not scheduled a surprise hearing.

“It’s useless to analyze it,” Navalny said in an interview with ABC News this week at the Moscow office of his organization, the Anti-Corruption Fund. “Everyone thought I was going to be arrested last week, but I was not. No one understands why. Maybe I will be arrested tomorrow. Maybe the police will be waiting for me after this interview.”

PHOTO: Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny (L) and his wife Yulia (R) attend an opposition march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow, Feb. 25, 2018. Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny (L) and his wife Yulia (R) attend an opposition march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow, Feb. 25, 2018.

As of Saturday afternoon, Navalny had not been arrested again.

Navalny may be a free man, but he has been removed from the presidential race. For a year he ran what he called a presidential campaign, touring Russia’s regions and building up a movement of tens of thousands of volunteers around calls for free elections and condemning corruption.

But in January he was barred from the ballot over a fraud conviction from 2013, a charge he says is trumped up. The European Court of Human Rights ruled, too, that the judgment was arbitrary.

Navalny’s exclusion reflects a broader feature of the controls being applied to tomorrow's election. Russia’s election is a strange beast: If you were to watch only on television, it would seem to have the usual trappings of any campaign season -- candidates, campaign ads, rallies and television debates.

In reality, though, the election activity all occurs around a strange void -— an absence of actual competition.

In most elections, journalists closely watch the polls, looking for last-minute swings, tightenings in the race. In Russia, there is little point. The day before the vote, the polls would look the same as they did during the first week -- with Putin dominating with a looming 60-point lead.

PHOTO: An activist distributes election leaflets in support of presidential candidate, President Vladimir Putin on a street in downtown Moscow, March 16, 2018.Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
An activist distributes election leaflets in support of presidential candidate, President Vladimir Putin on a street in downtown Moscow, March 16, 2018.

After 18 years in power and accumulating control of Russia’s media, institutions and political scene, Putin has effectively cleared the field of serious opponents. There are seven other candidates, but none believe they are running to win.

Putin is also genuinely popular among Russians, undergirded by a media that unstintingly backs his line. Two December polls by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent national pollster, found that 81 percent of adults approve of Putin, and 60 percent would would vote for him.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a rally to support his bid in the upcoming presidential election, at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, March 3, 2018.Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a rally to support his bid in the upcoming presidential election, at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, March 3, 2018.

His nearest competitors were around 7 percent. There is virtually no doubt he will be elected on Sunday -- and serve a new term that runs through 2024.

A much more concerning number for authorities, however, is how many of those supporters will bother to vote on Sunday. With the vote effectively a referendum on Putin’s popularity, officials have become focused on ensuring a maximum show of support.

“The Kremlin has identified its main opponent in the 2018 presidential elections —- a low turnout,” Andrey Pertsev, a political commentator wrote in an article for the Carnegie Center.

The figure being circulated by officials in Russian media is a 70 percent turnout. The problem is, the certainty of Putin’s win is suppressing the number of Russians, even his supporters, who feel they need to vote for him.

PHOTO: A member of a local electoral commission walks out of a voting booth at a polling station during preparations for the upcoming presidential election in Moscow, March 16, 2018.David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
A member of a local electoral commission walks out of a voting booth at a polling station during preparations for the upcoming presidential election in Moscow, March 16, 2018.

The Levada Center’s independent poll in December showed only 28 percent of people definitely intended to vote. By contrast, a poll conducted in March by the state pollster, VTsIOM, showed that number at a healthy 74 percent.

The Levada Center has been banned from polling closer to the election and dubbed a "foreign agent." That means there are no non-government polls voters can rely on.

To make sure that 70 percent is realized, authorities have therefore mounted an unprecedented effort to make the voting itself more entertaining. Authorities have been told to make election day like a “holiday,” the independent RBC newspaper reported.

The result is, as in Soviet times when free food was offered around polling stations, there will be concerts and competitions for tomorrow's vote: voters can win iPhones by taking selfies at voting stations; and the airline Utair has dropped its ticket prices to $8 for the election weekend so people can fly home to vote.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a rally in his support as a presidential candidate at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, March 3, 2018.Krill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a rally in his support as a presidential candidate at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, March 3, 2018.

Putin himself has shown little interest in campaigning, appearing mostly only in brief made-for-TV events. At a triumphal closing rally in Crimea, Putin spoke for just two minutes.

The president has staged one large public meeting in Moscow before a crowd of 100,000. But many of those in attendance had been ordered to attend by their employers, or were paid. The event was a good example of the paradox of this election -— many of those forced to attend still supported Putin, but saw little reason to rally for him.

The attempt to inject novelty into the election has also been applied to the candidates. Ksenia Sobchak, a celebrity journalist, former reality TV star, and daughter of Putin’s political mentor, is running on a Western-orientated protest platform.

The Communist Party put forward a new candidate for the first time since 1996, Pavel Grudinin, a billionaire owner of a former Soviet collective strawberry farm.

PHOTO: A member of a local electoral commission attaches a broadsheet with information about the candidates during preparations for the upcoming presidential election at a polling station in St. Petersburg, March 17, 2018.Anton Vaganov/Reuters
A member of a local electoral commission attaches a broadsheet with information about the candidates during preparations for the upcoming presidential election at a polling station in St. Petersburg, March 17, 2018.

Most observers -- often even their supporters -- believe the Kremlin has allowed these candidates onto the ballot. Critics refer to them as “spoilers,” meant to give the illusion of competition while making all alternatives to Putin look hopeless.

That was the effect most spectators took from the pre-election debates hosted by state TV, which Putin avoided. Sobchak, the celebrity journalist, tossed a glass of water over Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist candidate, after he called her a "whore."

“I am horrified to think what the viewers watching at home must think of the level of political culture here,” said the moderator, Vladimir Solovyov, one of Putin's favored interviewers, known for his slavish portraits of the Russian leader.

Even while seeking to boost turnout, though, the Kremlin has kept a close hand on things. Grudinin, the Communist candidate, proved to be surprisingly popular, at one point reaching 15 percent.

Stories then appeared in pro-Kremlin media that he had foreign bank accounts, grounds for barring a candidate. Grudinin denied the reports but it appeared to dent him and the possibility of disqualification now also hangs over him.

PHOTO: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny leaves the European court of Human Rights after a hearing regarding his case against Russia at the court in Strasbourg, France, Jan. 24, 2018.Vincent Kessler/Reuters
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny leaves the European court of Human Rights after a hearing regarding his case against Russia at the court in Strasbourg, France, Jan. 24, 2018.

In this context, Navalny, barred from the vote, has called for people to boycott the election.

“It’s not an election,” Navalny said.

The aim is to target the turnout and highlight what Navalny argues is a “myth” of Putin’s popularity. Navalny argues that, in reality, Putin's support is brittle and largely passive, protected by creating the impression there is no alternative.

“It is the classic situation of an authoritarian country,” he said. "Where an authoritarian leader gets 85 percent of the vote by using propaganda and scaring people. People do not see other politicians. Putin chooses dummy candidates, about which people say: ‘Of course, we have a load of clowns and there is great Putin who has been sitting for 18 years, let him stay on.’”

There are suspicions that authorities may turn to cruder measures to boost turnout. In previous elections, including last year’s parliamentary, Putin and his party’s numbers were allegedly padded by vote rigging -- carousel voting where supporters are bussed around to vote several times, or hundreds of votes are simply added to final tallies at polling stations.

People cast their ballots at a polling station in Yelizovo, about 30 kilometers ( 19 miles) north-east from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, capital of Kamchatka Peninsula region, Russian Far East, Russia, on Sunday, March. 18, 2018. Polls have opened in RuThe Associated Press
People cast their ballots at a polling station in Yelizovo, about 30 kilometers ( 19 miles) north-east from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, capital of Kamchatka Peninsula region, Russian Far East, Russia, on Sunday, March. 18, 2018. Polls have opened in Ru

Navalny’s organization and other liberal parties, including Sobchak’s, have been mobilizing volunteers as election monitors. His group claims they will have 40,000 monitors across Russia.

Large-scale fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections prompted mass demonstrations against Putin. The situation is very different this time: observers say any fraud will focus on turnout figures, rather than suppressing that of other candidates.

Navalny told ABC News his group currently had no plan to hold streets protests.

Other opposition figures have criticized Navalny’s boycott, saying in the final accounting it will be impossible to know who stayed away from conviction and not apathy. Supporters of Sobchak, who is polling around 2 percent according to VTsIOM, argue that a strong showing for opposition candidates in the election could help push the Kremlin into selecting more liberal voices down the line, including perhaps her.

The election is "like a very big focus group" for the Kremlin, Leonid Preobrazhensky, 25, a media producer, at a Sobchak rally this week. "The only people who will have real data about this election is the Kremlin. Maybe they will look at the data and realize they have to change something."

PHOTO: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny delivers a speech near a commemorative plaque in honor of slain Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov during a ceremony in Moscow, March 17, 2018.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny delivers a speech near a commemorative plaque in honor of slain Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov during a ceremony in Moscow, March 17, 2018.

Navalny rejects the idea Sobchak is influencing the Kremlin, calling her "Putin's marionette" in this election. He said he does not believe government polls showing voters are unaware of the boycott.

"If no one knew about the boycott, they wouldn’t fight that much with us," Navalny said.

Police have raided Navalny’s organization’s offices in some cities ahead of the rally; some of Navalny's monitors have been detained in the days before the election.

The mobilization of election monitors is unusual, reflecting Navalny’s appeal in a certain section of young, well-educated Russians.

But in reality, Russia’s youth are actually Putin’s strongest supporters. A Levada Center poll in December found 86 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds approved of Putin, higher than among the general population.

“Contrary to Western fantasies, Russians under the age of 25 are among the most conservative and pro-Putin groups in society,” Ivan Kravtsev and Gleb Pavlovsky, two political scientists, wrote for the European Council of Foreign Relations last month.

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  • Иван Калинин

    I voted for V. Putin (when I was young, I participated in the opposition. But then I became disillusioned with it I am educated enough to see the shortcomings of the current government. However, in my opinion, all the most harsh and tyrannical measures were taken by the government precisely in response to the "orange" revolutions provoked by the countries of the West in the post-Soviet space). Our government does not like to be dictatorial. This is economically unprofitable and looks ridiculous in the world of modern communications. However, we are compelled to be such as to preserve our country, which seems to someone too big and strong. And Yes i used VPN becouse you banned russian ID. Seem to be - you are so sencitive to russian voices (makink article about Russian elections)

  • Joshua Paul

    I worked in Russia. Putin is very popular in Russia, he managed to turn the country around after disastrous Eltsyn era. It will be his last term in office. I wonder who will run Russia after Putin.

  • tatertaut

    No surprise here. When one kills or jails the opponents, this is what happens. Sure, eliminate the competition and an "election" is easy.

  • wd65

    I'm sure Trump is jealous of Putin and Xi (who can remain China's president for life) and wishes he could lockup all challengers and amend the constitution to eliminate the two term limit. We're lucky Trump is so old that a life term wouldn't last too long.
    I think Devin Nunes would back an amendment to eliminate the 22nd amendment for Trump.

  • Bill

    Surely, win or lose, Navalny will come down with a mysterious illness.

  • S L Andrew Palms

    This is what Trump wants to do to our country.

  • Truthful Opinion

    Putin will now do what China's president has done which is become president for life. That will freak Trump out and he will want to follow in Putin's footsteps.

  • RohnertPark1

    The mere fact that Putin and Russia are calling this event an election is absurd.

  • John Springer

    Putin is very, very popular . Anyone who has visited Russia realizes it and that he does not have to get his hands dirty, so many believe in his leadership, they zealously protect him.
    In Syria , Assad is not as popular, but was elected and remains popular , would win any election in Syria.

  • Peter Warlock

    Putin is so corrupt that he has become president in two countries, Russia and the USA..

    "What is thy bidding, my master?" ~ Donald Trump, shoeshine boy for Putin

  • Mg85

    America should screw with their election and vote Putin out of office.

  • mm

    That would be so funny if Hillary meddled in his election and Putin lost ha ha. (hypothetically speaking of course)

  • Boxingwithangels

    He polls well because people are afraid to say otherwise. They are being strongly enforced to vote by employers, schools, etc. No competition and it's a sure thing. People of Russia: when will you stand up? You have no freedoms. You want another 6 years of this or more? Your President is a thieving, lying killer wreaking havoc on the world.

  • SarcasTex

    Still making preparations? I would have thought they'd have all the ballot boxes stuffed by now.

  • MS2789

    Little Trumpy is soooo jealous. Ohhhh, president for life.

  • Facts_matter

    Putins way of winning is just killing off anyone negative against him .Trump likes Putin.

  • JuPMod

    Putin will win again, given Russia's election is easily manipulated by Putin. They're only bothering with having an election to just show the world that they are a democracy. Not going to fool anyone. Putin just might as well declare himself he will hold office for *life* as China did.

  • GreensKeeper Maralago

    Should dispatch a battalion of black hat Americans to assist Russia with their "election" process.

  • FlorMedDoc

    Putin sure knows how to rig elections getting himself and Trump elected

  • Peter Warlock

    Putin has guaranteed himself 99.9% of the Russian vote, true, but Kim Jong Un will outdo him at 100% in North Korea. To top that, Chairman Xi of China doesn't even have to run for reelection because he's in for life!

    Eat your heart out, Donald Trump. You got to be prez by coming in second to Hillary Clinton.

  • The_Splurge

    Russia: The one country the US can't deliver democracy to, via B52's

  • mtntrek3

    Someone else said it earlier... the people of Russia deserve better than KGB thug Vlad.

  • Discrimination is not a right.

    no justice in Russia

  • kritikosman

    What a setup!

  • Robert D

    The article spends a lot of time on Navalny, which is odd, considering his real popularity isn't very high.

    It's almost as if he's a western favorite, but we wouldn't have a choice for another country, would we?

  • ROBOTIX JONES

    Putin is taking Russia down a very dark path. The people need to realize this before it's too late.

  • BODADDY

    What is the most comical is that putin tries to portray this "election" as a truly democratic process.

  • Sal Monela

    Wonder if Trump and his minions are hard at work trying to repay the favor and get Putin elected? Who knows, he might need the help.

  • concernedvoter

    5" 4 inch Putin seems to be suffering from a severe case of Napoleon Complex.. Tiny Man Syndrome.. and then with the Theresa May Smack down.. He will be as big a mess as Donald Trump is now.

  • Robin

    Did Donnie get his vote in?

  • PaulCrozer

    I predict 100% of votes for Putin...same as Kim Jong Un's "election" percentage.

    laughable.

  • Chet Cline

    Maybe some rich guy running against Putin will pull off a stunning upset, sort of like another electoral upset a couple years back...

  • DJ

    Russia, so efficient, they can certify an election result before the election even takes place!

  • DJ

    Dear Russia, Please write in Trump on your ballot.

  • bibleexpert

    Trump is, no doubt, green with envy that he doesn't have as much power in the U.S. as Putin has in Russia.

  • Terry Stein

    I look forward to the day we regain our independence from Russia.

  • BostonBrick

    I guess we're not good enough to hack their election system and have, oh let's say Hillary Clinton win?

  • novamcln

    We should have hacked their election.

    RT broadcast:
    “Results are in and new president is... what an upset, this is unexpected... Yakov Smirnoff!”

  • cephalo

    85 percent approval rating! We haven't seen numbers like that since Saddam Hussein!

  • Pat Baxter

    Stick it in your ear despot, war criminal, murderer Putin.

  • ROBOTIX JONES

    Putin is the single biggest threat to world stability right now, followed by Trump.

  • JohnC

    Trump's been listening to what has happened to Putin's opponents and taking notes. Just kidding -- Trump doesn't take notes.

  • JohnC

    So exciting! Who do you think will win?? Who is Trump rooting for? So much excitement.

  • RohnertPark1

    Russian definition of the word election: D I C T A T O R S H I P

  • AG99

    Must be strange to live in a country where the "election" is always decided beforehand. At least we genuinely don't know who will win on election night.

  • Your Worst Nightmare

    Trump approval ratings are only 60 points below his idol Putin's.

    Putin 99%
    Trump 39%

    Trump said he if could have control of the govt like Putin has, his approval ratings would be 99% as well.

  • klaudeNYC

    Why even bother? We all know putin is going to win and all opposition will end up dead.

  • Jim Enright

    The Russian people deserve better than Putin.