Russian voters will be reporting to the polls for presidential elections 18 March. These will be the sixth such elections since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The race has already kicked off on 11 March, in Belarus, where early polling was arranged for Russian citizens residing abroad.
Eight candidates are competing in the elections, the front-runner being incumbent Vladimir Putin, a member of the United Russia Party who has nevertheless chosen to field himself has an independent this time.
It has been suggested that he wants to distance himself from the criticisms that have levelled at the current government for its performance on the economy.
Two candidates represent the communist movement: Pavel Grudinin (57) and Maxim Suraykin (39).
Grudinin, a mechanical engineer by training and general-director of the privately owned ZAO Lenin State Farm Company, is running as a candidate for the Russian Communist Party, although he joined the party recently, having been formerly a member of United Russia.
Suraykin, a graduate of the Moscow University of Railway Engineering, represents the Communists of Russia, a party he has headed since 2012.
Representing the conventional nationalist tried is veteran presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky (71) who is running for the highest office for the sixth time this year. He is being fielded by the Liberal Democratic Party.
From the same portion of the political spectrum comes Sergey Baburin (59), the candidate for the conservative nationalist Russian All-People’s Union. A graduate in law from Leningrad State University, he is a professor at the Sociopolitical Studies Academy at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
From the other side of the spectrum comes Ksenia Sobchak (36) running as a candidate for the Civic Initiative. Perhaps the most controversial of the candidates, Sobchak is a prominent opposition figure and a media celebrity.
Boris Titov (57), running for the Party of Growth that champions a liberal free market economy, is a businessman and Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneurs’ Rights.
Lastly, Grigory Yavlinsky (65), the candidate of the liberal Yabloko (Apple) party, which represents the centre left. This is the fourth time he has run for president.
Earlier this year, supporters of the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny staged demonstrations calling for a boycott of the presidential elections after the Central Elections Board had rejected his candidacy on the grounds of two highly controversial criminal cases brought against him for embezzlement and theft.
The recent wave of protests was considerably smaller than those in which Navalny took part in 2011.
Less than 5,000 participants took part in the demonstrations in support of Navalny that were held in Moscow and several other Russian cities.
A survey of Russia’s approximately 109 million registered voters conducted from 16 to 18 February by the Public Opinion Centre, a non-profit social research organisation, found 66.5 per cent of those polled plan to vote for Putin.
Grudinin and Zhirinovsky followed second and third by a huge margin, both garnering only around six per cent of the vote. None of the remaining candidates scored above one per cent.
Regardless of how they fare in the polls, the candidates’ campaign platforms and speeches reflect the concerns and priorities of the Russian public as a whole which are shaped to a large extent by the economic straits Russia has been suffering as a consequence of the shape decline in oil and gas prices.
Domestic concerns accounted for about two-thirds of the issues President Putin addressed in his speech to the Federal Assembly on 1 March.
In this two-hour speech, which served as a kind of progress report and a campaign speech at the same time, Putin stressed that the quality of life and prosperity of the people was of the highest priority as it was also the hinge on which all aspects of development were contingent.
He said that in order to secure its place among the world’s five leading economies, Russia had to increase per capita GDP by 50 per cent by the middle of the next decade and to ensure a labour productivity growth rate of no less than five per cent.
He added that over the next six years, Russia planned to attract 1.5 trillion roubles ($26.8 billion) of private investment for the modernisation of the power generation sector and to double the volume of non-resource, non-energy exports to $250 billion.
Other candidates paid a similar degree of attention to domestic concerns.
Pavel Grudinin’s “Twenty steps” programme “for the sake of all” aims to overhaul the country’s economic strategy in order to restore Russia’s economic sovereignty and guarantee prosperity for the general public.
He proposes a series of economic and social reforms that prioritise the fight against poverty, free education and health services and benefits for pensioners.
Maxim Suraykin, the other communist candidate, launched a platform dubbed “Ten Stalinist Blows Against Capitalism”, which calls for the restoration of a Soviet-style socialist economy.
This would entail nationalising major sectors of the economy related to defence, energy, transportation and industry in order to double the national budget. His platform also calls for wage increases and a fight against corruption and illegally acquired wealth.
Sergei Baburin pledges free education and social services, as well as introducing legislation that would facilitate a reduction in the national economy’s dependency on the petroleum sector.
Vladimir Zhirinovsk, for his part, promises radical social and political reforms, not least of which would include abolishing the criminalisation of “extremism” and “violating the demonstration law”, charges which he claims are heavily politicised.
If the liberal candidates share a greater focus on democratic reforms, they also home in on social and economic concerns.
Sobchak has billed herself as “the candidate against all” (which refers to the unavailable option of selecting “none of the above” on a ballot).
Her programme, called “123 difficult steps”, brings a more politically liberal perspective to domestic and foreign political issues. It calls for a reduction in the influence of Orthodox Church, the abolition of the law banning “homosexual propaganda”, and the release of “political detainees”.
Titov, on the other hand, focuses more on economic liberalism. He calls for broader economic freedoms, reducing the dependency on basic commodities and resources, developing the business and commercial sectors, and promoting free competition.
Nevertheless, the role of foreign policy issues in the elections should not be underestimated, especially as concerns the Russian-US relationship and the questions of the Ukraine and Syria on which the gap between the liberals and other candidates was considerably broader than on most socioeconomic issues.
Putin, whose campaign slogans are “For a strong Russia” and “Honourable victories”, dedicated the last third of his address to the Federal Assembly to the question of how to handle relations with Washington and the challenges posed by US/NATO missile systems.
In the latter regard, he boasted of Russian defence systems that are unparalleled in the world, mentioning in particular the Sarmat and Kinzhal missile systems.
Such developments, he stressed, were in response to the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of their missile defence systems both in the US and beyond their national borders in territories near Russia’s borders.
He added that the US had rejected all of Russia’s proposals for resolving problems related to the US missile shield, which is why Russia had no alternative but to develop a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles and to develop its nuclear arsenal in the hope that this would help persuade Moscow’s Western partners to sit down and talk in the interest of global peace and the preservation of strategic parity and the balance of forces in the world.
The Kremlin has charged that US sanctions against Russia were a bid to influence the Russian presidential elections and, specifically, to prevent Putin’s election to another term by turning members of the Russian business community against him so they would fund protest demonstrations.
Russia had previously accused Washington of secretly funding anti-government protests and demonstrations against the election of Putin in 2012.
Ksenia Sobchak, by contrast, undertook a tour of the US as part of her campaign strategy. She has suggested that Russia should join NATO and has called for a partnership with the US and Ukraine, and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.
Grigory Yavlinsky has vowed to stop “geopolitical gambling” if elected and to normalise relations with the West. He also questions the legitimacy of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and holds that an international conference should be held in order to determine the peninsula’s legal status.
He calls for a halt of forms of support for Ukrainian separatists and for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.
Even though the results of the Russian elections appear a foregone conclusion, the campaigns still offer Putin an opportunity to bolster his popularity.
For the other candidates, it is a chance to air the principles and ideas of their parties and to broaden their grassroots bases with an eye to increasing their membership in parliament.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly