Despite a little eleventh-hour drama, Boris Nadezhdin’s bid to become the only genuine opposition candidate in March’s Russian elections has been blocked. What’s interesting is not that he was barred, but what this whole process says about the evolution of ‘late Putinism.’
Once, after all, it was marked both by a – limited but real – degree of genuine pluralism, especially at a local level, and also dramaturgiya, a theatrical facsimile of genuine democratic politics. The elections were stage-managed, of course, and the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ knew that their job was to put on a show rather than actually challenge the regime. Nonetheless, the showrunners appreciated the importance of spectacle, both to attract the punters and to convince them that this was real.
To this end, in the 2018 presidential elections, socialite TV personality Ksenia Sobchak ran as a notional liberal candidate, even though even she admitted that ‘in a system created by Putin, it is only possible for Putin to win.’ She subsequently let slip that she had discussed her campaign with Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy head of the presidential administration and in effect Putin’s political manager, contributing to the widespread assumption that she had really been put on the ballot as a spoiler. The underwhelming 1.68 per cent of the vote she got was advanced by the Kremlin as ‘proof’ that the Russian people were happy with the status quo.
Hence the reason why so many were sceptical when a lesser-known opposition politician, Boris Nadezhdin, put himself forward for the presidency this time, assuming he was another ‘Kremlin project’ there to legitimise the poll, boost the turnout (a key objective of Kiriyenko’s team) avoid making too many waves, and duly go down to ignominious defeat. After all, while Nadezhdin has a lengthy pedigree as a liberal politician, he had never been in the top rank, which may explain why he is not in exile, prison, or a coffin.