MOSCOW, RUSSIA – SEPTEMBER 9: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the concert marking the City Day on September 9, 2023 in Moscow, Russia. Putin and Moscow’s Mayor Sobyanin, who is expected to be re-elected this week took part in the festive events. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)
Contributor | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly decided to run in the March 2024 presidential election and he’s likely to win another six-year term in office, essentially because there’s no one that can oppose him.
The Kremlin continues to refuse to confirm that Putin, 71, is set to run when the vote is held in March next year but six unnamed sources close to the Kremlin told Reuters that Putin is ready to run again.
With little to no political opposition in Russia — given that prominent Putin critics have fled the country or been systematically jailed by the Russian authorities — it’s likely that Putin will be in office until at least 2030, and could continue his tenure until 2036.
Analysts say that the bitter truth in modern Russia is that there is no one who can oppose Putin, for now.
“No open public politics exists so there is no possibility for independence, and political and civic activity is immediately crushed,” Vladimir Milov, a Russian politician who once worked under Putin but now counts himself as part of the opposition movement living abroad, told CNBC.
“We have court sentences right now, with people given prison terms for ‘engagement in extremist activities’ like criticizing the policies of the government. So criticizing government policies is officially a punishable crime, punishable with real prison. So don’t expect any normal, Western style politics. Forget it,” he said.
In this pool image distributed by Sputnik agency, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the regional head of Inigushetia in Moscow’s Kremlin, on August 15, 2023.
Alexander Kazakov | AFP | Getty Images
The Kremlin has been keen to stress that political pluralism does exist in Russia and the Kremlin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov has previously told CNBC that “in Russia there are politicians with different views and positions,” when asked if the Kremlin tolerated any opponents of Putin.
Even the Kremlin expects Putin to win any election hands down. In September, Press Secretary Peskov said in September that if Putin did decide to run in the 2024 presidential election, “then it is obvious that there can be no real competition for the president at this current stage.”
Russia still tries to maintain a guise of political pluralism but while there are, ostensibly, “opposition” parties in the country, they are seen as part of a “systemic opposition.” This means that registered political parties like the Communist Party, Liberal Democratic Party or A Just Russia — for Truth are theoretically part of the opposition but, in reality, they support the government and have acquiesced even more since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022.
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny appears on a screen via video link from the IK-6 penal colony in the Vladimir region, during a court hearing to consider an appeal against his sentence in the criminal case on numerous charges, including the creation of an extremist organization, in Moscow, Russia September 26, 2023.
Yulia Morozova | Reuters
In the meantime, prominent Russian opposition figures and Kremlin critics, with Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza just a few well-known names on an ever-growing list of opponents, have been jailed or have fled Russia due to political persecution.
Others have died in mysterious circumstances, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries who was killed in a plane crash in August.
Analysts believe there’s a strong possibility that Prigozhin was assassinated following his prominent criticism of Russia’s military (and by default) its political leadership. The Kremlin vehemently denies any involvement in Prigozhin’s death and says investigations continue into the cause of the crash.
“The upcoming elections are not going to change anything,” said Sergei Medvedev, a noted Russian academic, historian and author.
“There is no political plurality in Russia, just think of countries like Iran and North Korea [where the situation is similar]. Inside the elites, there might be differences of opinion, but not really a difference of politics,” he told CNBC.
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 17: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian billionaire and businessman, Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum SPIEF2016 on June 17, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images
“The elite is absolutely silenced and fearful, and especially after the assassination of Prigozhin. So I wouldn’t say there are any significant actors in the field, regionally or among the elite [that oppose Putin], it’s just a consolidated dictatorship at the moment,” Medvedev said.
CNBC has asked the Kremlin to respond to the comments and is awaiting a response.
Since the outbreak of the war, the security services have become even more zealous in pursuing political opponents, or indeed anyone deemed to have been critical of Russia’s leadership or military strategy.
While civilians have been arrested and charged with “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces for deigning to criticize the war and then given prison sentences as a result, one of the most brazen challenges to Putin and the Kremlin’s authority took place earlier in the summer with the ill-fated uprising against Russia’s military leadership led by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The rebellion failed and the Kremlin, caught off guard at first, then acted swiftly to crush Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, expelling it to Belarus. Then in August, Prigozhin and other senior Wagner officials died in a yet unexplained plane crash.
Prigozhin’s death was the culmination of the rise and fall of an ally of Putin who had become a prominent figure (and perhaps too prominent) with increasing influence and power. He had also become too openly critical of Russia’s most senior figures in the defense ministry who were long-term allies of the president.
Analysts say that Prigozhin was an “anomaly” in Russia’s political system and that the Kremlin had likely learned not to allow another similar character to rise to prominence again.
A view of site after a private jet, allegedly carrying Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin and other passengers crashed in Russia’s northwestern Tver region, Russia on August 23, 2023.
Wagner Telegram Account | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Still, the Prigozhin episode showed that Putin was not immune to political challenge and analysts have said there could be other figures in the background weighing up whether to oppose the president in future.
This would only be likely to happen if they believed his traditional backers in the elite and security services felt that their own interests were being damaged by his leadership or policies, such as the continuing war or rising public discontent, and turned against him.
Any would-be opposition figures existing under the surface in Russia would have to decide if they had gathered enough powerful backers to mount a feasible opposition to Putin, however.
“We can expect there might be something [political opposition] boiling inside the system but obviously, smart people will try to hide it as much as possible before beginning to collect allies and resources to act,” Kirill Shamiev, a Russian political scientist and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC.
Putin opponent Milov believed cracks were already beginning to show in Putin’s support base, saying negative public opinion trends, mounting economic difficulties and Prigozhin’s revolt had “exposed some serious cracks in the system.”
“I see mounting difficulties on many fronts, I see increasing pressure on Putin and many challenges for him to continue to manage and control the situation. So despite next year’s elections, what we’re seeing is an increasing number of these micro-crises which are becoming harder to manage because they are all coming together at one point,” he said.
“We never know what will be the breaking point and when they [the crises] will peak. But I see 2024 as the year of increasing difficulties.”
Milov said the Russian opposition was not dead and was biding its time to re-emerge from the shadows — and from self-imposed exile.
“What the opposition can do, is to continue to talk to people through broadcasting, which is quite popular, and we have very significant outreach inside Russia, and to prepare the public opinion for action when it will be appropriate — when the system will weaken enough so that it will be possible to organize and to speak up and to re-engage in political activity,” he said.
“When the system is embraced by crisis it usually weakens to the extent that political action becomes possible again, so I’m sure this moment will come. What we are involved now is preparing the ground for this.”