Putin’s claim of landslide is ‘farcical’

Putin’s claim of landslide is ‘farcical’

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Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the crowd during a rally and a concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at Red Square in Moscow on March 18, 2024.

Eighty-eight percent! Can any rational person believe Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, enjoys such overwhelming electoral support? One major newspaper called the figure “farcical”. The result quickly vanished from internet news pages as undeserving of serious attention.

It was similar to the victory margin Adolf Hitler recorded in the 1934 referendum which, by merging the chancellor’s and president’s positions, gave him supreme power in Germany.

Both polls were marred by claims of rigging and intimidation. In 1934, storm troopers were stationed at polling stations; at some stations the “yes” votes outstripped eligible voters.

The three days of voting last week — seen as providing scope for ballot stuffing — were marked by the lack of free media, of a credible electoral commission and of impartial monitors.

The electoral commission routinely disqualifies candidates; only Putin and three other officially sanctioned candidates with minimal support appeared on the ballot paper.

Among other violations, voting took place in Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine under the heel of the Russian army.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov conceded to The New Yorker last year that Russian presidential elections “are not really democracy”. 

“It is a costly bureaucracy,” he said. “Mr Putin will be re-elected next year with more than 90 percent of the vote.”

Putin has been accused of serial violence against oppositionists, particularly including lawyer Alexei Navalny, dead in mysterious circumstances, and the media. 

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists’ global impunity index lists at least 38 Russian journalists killed directly because of their professional activities.

But modern dictators understand the war of perceptions — they prefer to control, rather than stifle, the flow of information. 

Russia, where the state dominates television, radio and major newspapers, ranks 164 of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Dissenting voices have been muzzled as “foreign agents”, “extremists” or “promoters of terrorism”.

Also part of this repressive equation is an executive-minded judiciary, unreformed from the Soviet era, that reliably imposes swingeing jail terms for anti-war protest and “discreditation” of the armed forces.

It is important to see that one of the major effects of the Ukrainian war has been Russia’s accelerating descent into a military dictatorship along fascist/Soviet lines. 

In his post-election speech Putin made no mention of a peace process, pledging instead to strengthen the military and Russia’s defences. After the hopeless mess of his initial invasion of Ukraine, his current plan seems to be a war of attrition.

Russia has largely weathered Western sanctions, expanding more quickly last year than the United States or European economies. Undergirding this are increased trade with China and India in place of Western capital and consumer markets, now off-limits; sanctions-busting through friendly intermediaries such as Turkey; and — above all — the growing centrality of war production.

Hitler insisted that “the future of Germany depends exclusively on the reconstruction of the Wehrmacht — all other tasks must cede precedence to the task of re-armament”. As in Nazi Germany, war is Putin’s overweening priority — although he has to pay some attention to macro-balances and satisfying consumer needs.

Like Putin’s Russia, Nazi Germany was a mixed economy where the state developed close partnerships with leading private companies such as IG Farben, Thyssen and Volkswagen. These were awarded lucrative state contracts in return for backing the war effort.

The US treasury department reports that in 2023 Russian defence spending doubled to more than $100  billion, a third of all public expenditure, and is predicted to hit close to 40% of the Kremlin’s budget this year.

By comparison, 12% of the US federal budget is earmarked for defence.

Howard Shatz, senior economist at Rand Corporation, told Voice of America that state support for defence industries in Russia forms part of “a massive fiscal stimulus” which includes other war-related spending, including the payment of bonuses to military recruits and family subsidies for soldiers who are killed or wounded.

Putin’s claims to be fighting a defensive war in Ukraine is obvious drivel — analysts point out that all Russian wars under his 25-year leadership have been fought on foreign soil. 

Like Hitler he is a belligerent expansionist whose aim is to restore Russian glory, seen to have been effaced by the fall of the Soviet Union and the Yeltsin era, when liberal Westerners bossed the Russian government.

He has hurled Russian troops against neighbouring states on five occasions — Chechnya (1999), Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), Donbas (2014) and Ukraine. 

One consequence of the militarisation of the economy has been the increasingly incestuous relation between the Russian state and big businessmen in Putin’s shadow.

The trend first emerged under Boris Yeltsin, who controversially seeded the rise of billionaire “oligarchs” by offering shares in large state enterprises in exchange for electoral support.

Under Putin’s personalised autocracy, some “oligarchs” outside his inner circle have been dispossessed, imprisoned or driven into exile, the best-known being Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who became Russia’s richest man after buying a 78% stake in the state oil firm Yukos for $310  million (it was worth $5  billion).

After publicly challenging Putin over alleged corruption, he was arrested at gunpoint while boarding his private jet, charged with fraud and tax evasion and jailed in Siberia.

“I have a lot of friends, but only a few people are really close to me,” Putin writes in his autobiography, First Person. “They have never betrayed me, and I haven’t betrayed them, either. In my view, that’s what counts most.”

Putin was happy to exploit public loathing of the oligarchs, only to preside over the rise of his own entrepreneurial inner circle, tagged the siloviki (men of force). 

Mainly former KGB officers like himself, they have enriched themselves through government contracts and Putin’s re-nationalisation of extractive industries.

A classic case is Igor Sechin, Putin’s former deputy prime minister, now chairperson and chief executive of the state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, Russia’s largest.

Another is Arkady Rosenberg, who befriended Putin at a judo class in his teens. Greg Rosalsky of Planet Money comments that Arkady and his brother Boris “have emerged as the greatest beneficiaries of a government with a penchant for awarding no-bid contracts”.

“The Russian government has forked out billions of dollars [to them] to construct pipelines, roads and bridges.”

Rosenberg’s biggest coup was Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics, when The New Yorker reported that his companies “received contracts worth $7  billion — equivalent to the entire cost of the previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver”.

After the Crimean invasion he did Putin a personal favour by building the 19km land bridge from Crimea to Russia at a cost of $3  billion. Europe’s longest, it carried major political and logistical risk. 

The war in Ukraine has cemented the state capitalist system à la Putin, who is said to receive kickbacks from his business allies.

On the one hand, Western sanctions and freezing of $60  billion in assets has been costly for oligarchs heavily invested abroad. Bloomberg estimates that the 23 wealthiest Russians have forfeited 20% of their wealth, or $6.5 billion.

On the other, Putin’s inner circle has cashed in royally on government defence spending and public contracts, as well as grabbing Western companies that withdrew from Russia after war broke out.

Analyst Iwona Wisniewski notes that most military contracts fall under the state’s defence conglomerate, Rostekh, which is overseen by Sergei Chemezov, another of Putin’s former KGB colleagues. Rostekh also receives most state funding intended for import subsidies.

The interpenetration of government and business is underscored by the claim that the deputy prime minister, Denis Manturov, has consolidated control of defence procurement and import substitution policy. 

The Federal Agency for State Reserves (Gosrezerv), charged with stockpiling war materiel, is also said to offer the ruling coterie openings for enrichment. Its favoured contractors include Rotenberg, Chemezov and Nikolai Petrushov, secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

Yury Borisov, director general of state-owned Roscosmos, which works closely with the Russian aerospace industry, is also said to have direct access to budgetary resources. Borisov’s family members allegedly profit from state procurement.

The Russian economy has proved resilient — but analysts warn that the war is far from over, and that in the longer term Putin’s cobbled-together response to sanctions will bear an increasingly insupportable cost.

Since February 2022 Russia has lost a million citizens, many highly skilled, to anti-war flight. It has forfeited access to global markets and technology, suffered an estimated $250  billion in private capital flight; and received not a cent in fixed direct investment, which stood at $100  billion a year before the war. 

According to the US treasury, revenue from its primary product, oil, fell by 40% in 2023 because of heavy discounting by buyers.

Putin is pulling out all the stops to present the Ukrainian conflict to the West as an unwinnable “forever war”. He is hoping that Donald Trump, who has pledged to pull the plug on aid to Ukraine, wins the November presidential election.

Which is why Europe, indeed the entire liberal democratic world, must look for a Joe Biden victory.

Drew Forrest is a former political editor and deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian.

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