What does Russia want?

by Tatiana Kondratenko & Isabel Lerch
Russia has the choice: Next year in March, the country will vote a new president. Chances are high that current leader Vladimir Putin will be reelected.

But what does Russia actually want?

The chosen date of the presidential elections next year gives a little hint: Originally, the presidential elections in Russia always take place on the second Sunday in March. But not this time: In the upcoming elections, Russians will vote on Sunday the 18th March 2018 – the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Or as most Russians would say: The "reunification" with Crimea.
Which way one might call it, one thing is clear: With these upcoming elections, Russia wants to symbolically demonstrate its confidence of the current foreign policy course. We dive deeper and try to find out what's behind the official symbolism – what Russia really wants.
Maria, a Russian pro-Putin nationalist and Andrey, a head of the Nawalny campaign in St. Petersburg most likely have never met each other. Even though they live in one country, political preferences and their views on the future of Russia put them in the opposite corners of the boxing ring.

Maria Katasonova 24, blond glamorous Russian lady, works for the Moscow office of pro-Kremlin National Liberation Movement NOD, that strongly supports Kremlin. Katasonova has three "pro" that she holds: "pro-Putin, pro-Trump and pro-Le Pen" - these three portraits cover her Twitter account.

Maria Katasonova Twitter account: pro-Putin, pro-Trump, pro-Le Pen
Andrey Gushkov, 21, directing the political campaign of Putin's current fiercest critic Alexei Nawalny in the local offices of St. Petersburg, works against the current government in Kremlin.

Putin - a strong leader for many, a power-obsessed old man for few

Next year, the Russians will have the chance to elect a new president. Judging from the present situation, it is most likely that Vladimir Putin will be re-elected. Therefore, a closer view on what Russians think about their president reveals some of the division in society.

According to statistics of the independent polling institute Levada Center in Moscow, 83% of Russians were satisfied with the president in August, among the youngsters from 18-24 years, 91% support the current Russian President.
Maria is one of them. Her collection of clothes and accessories with Putin's face perhaps is close to the amount of exhibits in The Hermitage museum: T-shirts, cups, phone covers and trendy hoodies.

"I admire the president," genuinely says Katasonova holding a Russian flag during the parade in Moscow dedicated to the Unity Day on the 4th of November. And adds: „Days like this are important to make it clear that we are all connected. We are united in the love of the Fatherland and the willingness to defend it."

Russians celebrating The Unity Day on the streets of Moscow on the 4th of November
by Isabel Lerch
Andrey however strongly rejects this kind of strong personal cult. "I don't want to build a new cult of personality, this is exactly the thing that we have to change in Russian politics, we have to stop building a cult of personality, we have to understand that politics is about parliament and not about a single person", he says, sitting in his office in St. Petersburg. It is a Friday in October And the day before Putin's birthday. In a way, Andrey and his fellow activists do engage in the personal cult surrounding the Russian President - in today's Russia, this is probably unavoidable to a degree. But they sent their birthday wishes with an ironic undertone: on the day of jus 65th birthday, they marched through Putin's birth city, calling him and his party a liar and a thief.

And Andrey, being in the heart and centre of this movement led by Nawalny, fears nothing: „I know that by joining the protest tomorrow I will run a big risk to get caught, but so what? We have to show to the government our teeth and that we can find them back, we have to show them that nothing can stop us and that arresting is nothing that can stop us."

"I don't want to build a new cult of personality, this is exactly the thing that we have to change in Russian politics, we have to stop building a cult of personality, we have to understand that politics is about parliament and not about a single person,"
Andrey Gorshkov, head of the Nawalny campaign in St. Petersburg
Protests organized by Russian opposition leader Navalny in March, June and October, became the biggest since the time of Bolotnaya square. Only on March 26 around 60,000 people took part in anti-corruption protests across 80 Russian towns and cities and hundreds of protesters have been detained.

The paradox is that although the Kremlin intensified pressure on the legal parties and denied Alexey Navalny's party official registration, it could not interfere with Navalny's ability to build substantial infrastructure in the regions without the official founding of a party cities, Navalny election wardens have been created, with over 50,000 volunteer activists and more than half a million signatures for Navalny's presidential nomination.

Surprisingly enough, but Unlike Levada's poll in August, the most recent statistics in October showed that only 54% of respondents show a strong support of Putin at the moment which shows uncertainty and fragmentation of Russian society at the moment.

Face of Russian opposition Alexey Navalny whose name might appear in the candidate's list
"Young generation always supported Putin more strongly than other groups of society: of course, they are fascinated by such a "hero type". He's this kind of politician and ex-intelligence official who has a lot of power to maintain a "macho-type". Despite the recent mass protests, the overwhelming majority of young Russians are patriotic and loyal to the system"

In our studies, we've been analyzing the Russian society for almost 30 years. The young Russians have been always perceived as a generation of possibilities which transforms society brings democracy and changes, but this is not true in Russian case. Young people will not move the country towards democracy and modernization"

Listen the whole interview here
Natalia Zorkaya. Director, Socio-political Research Department, Levada Center, Moscow.
Photo: Radio Liberty
The current geopolitical situation divides

Another topic which highly divides the Russian society is the current international and geopolitical situation in which Russia finds itself in. Situated between the military intervention in the Syrian civil war, the ongoing unsettled conflict with Ukraine, the diplomatic distance with Germany, France and the EU as a whole and at the same time a rapprochement with the important partner China - Russia's geopolitical position in today's world has a huge influence on how the Kremlin rules the Russian society today. The national public attention is drawn to the foreign sphere, financial resources are being applied for military demands and multilateral cooperation including educational programs and cultural funding are being cut off and shut down. With its foreign policy course of the last few years, Russia has maneuvered itself into an internationally very confrontational position. What some see as dangerous and destructive, others view as a great opportunity for the country.

Maria, the young Putin-supporter from Moscow for example. She believes that due to the confrontational policy that Russia follow and due to the international pressure, the internal system of the country is emerging, both political and economic and national elites are emerging.

"I believe that if you stay loyal to this national course for a long time, Russia will only win - economically and politically. I stand behind Vladimir Putin, who represents us and stands up for the interests of our country," points out Katasonova.

Andrey however does not see a current course of the country promising, therefore he demands changes. "The very problem of Russia is that people think that they can't change anything, they want others to do something for them, it's all because of Communism and because of the very idea of communism to suppress initiatives in people and of course it has still left its traces on our nation, we have to change this," confidently explains Gushkov.

Crimea as a decisive element in Russia's political course

The geopolitical situation of today's Russia is of course very closely linked to the unsettled question of the relation with Ukraine and the status of Crimea. Obviously, this issue is very complex and therefore highly controversial. Even though Putin enjoyed a historical high of support in the polls just right after, the case of Crimea strongly divides the Russian society a few months before the presidential elections. And of course - Maria and Andrey have very different view points of the situation.

As a representative of the National Liberation Movement, Maria aims for "the restoration of Russia's sovereignty". According to their website, the movement stands for "the national course and the territorial integrity of the state."

Putin giving a speech at the festival "We're together!" in Crimea in 2015
"I started watching pretty closely the events in Ukraine and actually I was for Ukraine from the very beginning because I feel like it is the way people get free from a repressive government."
Andrey Gorshkov, head of the Nawalny campaign in St. Petersburg
Thus, the young woman from Moscow see the current political situation as a very positive development - Crimea, for her, is an integral part of Russia. She describes the events therefore as a "reunfication".

And this is exactly the point where the division in the Russian society becomes probably the most visible: the language used to describe the situation with Crimea.

Because "reunification" is a word which Andrey would never describe it. He, in the contrary, belongs to the other linguistics Camp: When the young political strategist speaks about the half-peninsula, he uses the term "Annexation" - the same term which is also frequently used in most Western media.

He simply sees Crimea as part of the Ukrainian territory: "I started watching pretty closely the events in Ukraine and actually I was for Ukraine from the very beginning because I feel like it is the way people get free from a repressive government."
Potential opponent of Putin in the upcoming elections, Oksana Dmitriyava, one of the leaders of the business-oriented Party of Growth: "Apart from economics, my main idea is the realization of the free elections, because we do not have free elections. And every following elections worse than previous."
by Isabel Lerch
Russia - an old country facing the past

Maria and Andrey represent the young generation in Russia. They were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and their image of Russia was shaped by the last almost 20 years of the country's rule under President Putin.

However, this young generation does not play the most crucial role in the upcoming elections. It will be the parents but even much more the grandparents of Maria and Andrey who will decide the elections. Not only because Russia is an old country - 24% percent of Russians are over 59 year old, according to Russian Federal State Statistics Service. Factors for this demographic development of the last decades are a low birth rate, the lowest life expectancy in Europe, high death rates and the aging of the society. This means that older Russians are a key group in any elections. Also because they are the ones who reliably hit the ballot boxes and therefore mark an overall high voting turnout.
The general voter turnout in Russia is very low - during the last duma elections, only an overall of round about 40 percent of Russians voted. And during the last presidential elections in 2012, 65,34% percent voted.

However, this low voter turnout might slightly changed during the next elections, as new candidates enter the stage: in October, the former TV host Xenia Sobchak announced that she will be running for office. Due to her glamorous past and her celebrity status, she might attract new young voters to the polling stations who otherwise wouldn't vote. However, this infamous past including performances of half-naked dancing also make her highly controversial.

Russian TV journalist Ksenia Sobchak is campaigning to be president of Russia at elections in March 2018
By Tatiana Kondratenko
And this is, what Xenia Sobchak currently adds to the electioneering in this year's winter in Russia: On the one hand, she brings in a breeze of fresh air into a seemingly stiff, predictable and boring electioneering. And she has noted some important point about present-day Russia. In a recent interview for CNN, she said: "Putin is not the whole Russia, Russia is not only about Putin." And she's right. At the moment, the country is highly fragmented where some people still support Putin remembering the past and saying that he's the one who поднял россию и российскую экономику с колен, others would аппелировать with his independence from the US and being a strong leader who became a master in Middle East and who was named as the most powerful man in the world by Forbes in 2016.

So Sobchak highlights some new insights about the Russian society and sparks some discussions.
"I don't want people to vote personally for me, I want them to vote against the system."
Ksenia Sobchak is a former reality TV star challenging Putin in the upcoming elections
On the other hand, one could criticize that by grabbing attention, filling the not only the pages of the yellow press but also the prime time of the Russian State television - Xenia Sobchak is taking away valuable attention and time for highlighting her own personality, without addressing the most important issues for the ordinary Russians.

Because discussing her lightly dressed appearance in a music video might be a fun thing to do when you're fancying yourself at your local hair dresser - but these kind of talks won't move the country anywhere politically.

Whatever Russia might want in the upcoming elections - they answers will for sure be formulated in the two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg
by Isabel Lerch
What matters the most is to be found neither in Moscow not in St Petersburg

But this is exactly what the country would urgently need right now - serious political and constructive discussions about the everyday problems that ordinary Russians, especially in the very often overlooked small towns and villages, face. So, the magic buzzword of the moment should rather be: domestic politics. Because in fact, political discussion are plentiful in the Russian public sphere. When one turns on the first State channel, politics dominate. But not domestic politics - it is international politics that seem to almost overshadow anything else. Syria, Ukraine and the relations with the West and EU are on the agenda; passionate discussion about the educational system, fair taxation, health insurance and pension are however completely missing in this picture.

Thereby, the reality on Russian State Television dismisses the reality of the big majority of ordinary Russian citizens: Under all geopolitical talks where some admire Putin for his strategic skills, others criticize - yes. But ordinary Russians do not define these reasons as the ones which appear on their daily agenda. According to the recent Levada poll, 15% of Russians are not satisfied with Putin because "he does not care about ordinary people and he does not know how ordinary people live".

Other reasons they highlight - growing poverty and low salaries and lack of actions to fight corruption.

Putin talking to residents of the village in Zabaykalsky Krai
Maria and Andrey might be seen so far from each other but yet so similar in a way that both of these young Russians share few common characteristics - they live in the biggest and most progressive cities of Russia - Moscow and St Petersburg, where they actually can not simply see the real country while being stuck in their own social bubbles, no matter if it is about a pro- or anti-Putin. The real answer should be found in small towns and villages across 17.1 million square kilometers that are called "real Russia" and where, unfortunately, both - Russian as well as Western media - very often keep a blind eye.

But Russia is historically just as much a vast and rurally dominated country as it is a highly centralized state in which the political, economical and cultural power centre lies in the capital of Moscow.

And therefore: Whatever Russia might want in the upcoming elections - they answers will for sure be formulated in the two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The places where all the main political decisions are still being made.

The places where Maria and Andrey live.
Tatiana Kondratenko & Isabel Lerch
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