Russia: presidential election throws country’s rule of law crisis into sharp relief

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 12 March 2024

Image caption: Russian paraphernalia, text reads: Election of the President of Russia, 15-17 March 2024. Антон Скрипачев/AdobeStock.com

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address on 29 February began punchily. After the usual justifications for Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, he warned the US against entering an ‘arms race’ and said Western powers risked provoking a nuclear war if they sent troops to Ukraine.

The President also hailed Russia as a ‘pillar of democracy’ in a comment clearly designed to push back against Kremlin critics two weeks ahead of the country’s presidential election on 15–17 March. He outlined his key economic, cultural and social policy measures, including perks for soldiers returning from Ukraine. As expected, there was no reference made to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny whose death two weeks earlier had provoked such global outrage.

Putin came to power in March 2000. After being re-elected for a fourth term in 2018, by law he would’ve been required to step down in March 2024. However, in 2021 he quietly changed the constitution to allow him to run for not just one, but two further presidential terms.

As Russia enters its third year of war in Ukraine, Putin is only the third sitting head of state ever to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. Despite this, these constitutional changes could mean he stays at the helm of the Kremlin until 2036.

The death last August of Yevgeny Prigozhin, former leader of the Wagner Group, and of Navalny in February, eliminated two of Putin’s most dangerous opponents. The country’s Central Election Commission (CEC) barred Navalny from running in the 2018 presidential election on charges that he claimed were politically motivated.

Recent Russian laws that censor anti-war speech are manifestly contrary to international law and must be repealed

Grigory Vaypan
Senior Lawyer, Memorial

Navalny’s recent death in prison shows that Putin still felt threatened by him even from behind bars, says Mark Stephens CBE, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute and a partner at Howard Kennedy in London. ‘Even though he was in isolation at a remote Arctic penal colony, he was still considered a sufficient threat to Putin’, he says. ‘That shows a level of vulnerability on Putin’s part.’

Three other politicians remain on the official candidate list, according to local news agency TASS. All have pledged their support for the war. The CEC has already barred two anti-war candidates. Former journalist Yekaterina Duntsova was banned for alleged ‘errors’ in her registration documents. In February, opposition politician Boris Nadezhdin was barred for alleged ‘irregularities’ in the collection of signatures supporting his candidacy. Russia’s Supreme Court upheld both of the CEC’s decisions.

With Nadezhdin ruled out of the race, there are no credible candidates left to rival Putin, says Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, Director of the Russia Institute and Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London. Although there are some indications of growing domestic fatigue with Putin’s military goals in Ukraine, a January poll by the Levada Center found his approval rating had rebounded to 85 per cent. By effectively removing opposition candidates, commentators believe Putin has controlled his opposition, legitimised his candidacy and created the illusion of a democratic process.

Sharafutdinova says many citizens prefer to remain silent and will support the current regime at the ballot box. ‘Election results will be determined by the administrative machine that counts and reports on the voting results, unless millions of people come to the streets in different parts of the country’, she says. ‘I do not expect that to happen given the state of the economy and society at the moment.’

Local monitoring group Golos has alleged widespread ballot fraud in previous elections. In August, the group accused the Russian authorities of trying to block scrutiny of upcoming regional elections after police raided the homes of a dozen of its members and detained its chair Grigory Melkonyants over charges of cooperating with an ‘undesirable organisation’, which he denies.

In December, a Moscow Court ruled that Melkonyants’ pre-trial detention should be extended by a further three months until mid-April – a month after the presidential election.

More worrying still, no international observers will be present over the election period. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued a statement in January saying the CEC had not extended an invitation for its observers to monitor the election. This marks the second consecutive time that the ODIHR has not deployed observers to national-level Russian elections.

The election also comes amid intensified efforts by the government to clamp down on freedom of speech and dissent. Prominent Russian rights defender Oleg Orlov was recently sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison on charges of ‘discrediting’ Russia’s armed forces. He was fined last year for the same charges, but prosecutors argued his punishment was too lenient and demanded a retrial.

Orlov is co-chair of Russia’s oldest human rights group Memorial. Grigory Vaypan, a senior lawyer at Memorial, described the verdict as ‘harsh and shameful’ and said it pointed to the authorities’ increasingly repressive methods of silencing critics of the war. ‘Oleg Orlov has been convicted solely for peaceful expression of his opinion and his criticism of Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine’, Vaypan tells Global Insight. ‘[He] is a courageous civil society leader who was not afraid to speak truth to power. Recent Russian laws that censor anti-war speech are manifestly contrary to international law and must be repealed.’

One of Putin’s leading political rivals, Vladimir Kara-Murza, remains in prison, also on charges of discrediting the armed forces. His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, told Global Insight that the election would be a ‘sham’ from start to finish. ‘This procedure cannot be called an election and cannot be seen as a legitimate process considering the fact that it will take place in the occupied Ukrainian territories where people are forced to accept Russian citizenship in exchange for humanitarian aid’, she says. ‘People are [being] coerced to become Russian citizens in exchange for medicine. And no results can be seen as legitimate in such a process.’

Early voting has already begun in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s widow, has called on the EU to refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the election results.

Image caption: Антон Скрипачев/AdobeStock.com