Russia faces the prospect of Vladimir Putin extending his two-decade stranglehold on power until at least 2030, with an announcement that he will run for president again in March 2024.
The 71-year-old Russian autocrat has been in power since 1999, bar a four-year stint as prime minister under Dmitry Medvedev, during which he was widely regarded to still be at the helm of the Kremlin. Given Mr Putin’s domination of the Russian political and media landscape – and the jailing of opposition figures like Alexei Navalny who could challenge him on the ballot – there is little doubt about the result when the elections take place next year.
Mr Putin announced his widely expected decision to run after a stage-managed Kremlin awards ceremony, where war veterans pleaded with him to seek re-election.
“I won’t hide it from you – I had various thoughts about it over time, but now, you’re right, it’s necessary to make a decision,” Mr Putin said in a video released by the Kremlin after the event.
“I will run for president of the Russian Federation.”
Only hours after the Russian Election Commission announced on Thursday that the vote would take place on 17 March next year, paving the way for Mr Putin’s announcement, further crackdowns on potential opposition groups were underway.
The Russian courts announced that they had extended the pre-trial detention of two of Mr Navalny’s lawyers to 13 March.
Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist who led Russian separatist militias in eastern Ukraine prior to the full-scale invasion last year, and who had announced his intention to run for the presidency prior to his arrest this year, also had his detention extended by six months as he awaits trial on extremism charges. The Putin critic is unlikely to be listed on the ballot.
Opposition politicians cast the election as a fig leaf of democracy, where a handful of unthreatening candidates will be put up to run. In a daring move, allies of Mr Navalny in the Anti-Corruption Foundation on Thursday placed anti-Putin billboards disguised as New Year’s greetings that said “Russia” and “Happy New Year” in several major cities. But a large QR code on the signs led to a website titled “Russia without Putin”.
The latest polling by Levada Centre, an independent pollster, reported that roughly 80 per cent of the Russian population approves of the job Mr Putin is doing in office. But in a country where dissent is heavily punished – a woman who placed anti-war stickers in a St Petersburg supermarket was recently sentenced to seven years in prison – those polling figures will be met with scepticism by many.
He became acting president on New Year’s Eve in 1999 when Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned. He was elected to his first term in March 2000. Mr Putin has overseen amendments to the constitution so he could theoretically stay in power until he is in his mid-80s. He already is the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin.
While Mr Putin may face no real competition in the election, he is confronted with a serious set of challenges. His invasion of Ukraine has triggered the biggest confrontation with the West for decades, while Western sanctions have delivered the biggest external shock to the Russian economy for decades. Mr Putin also faced a mutiny by Russia’s most powerful mercenary, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in June. Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash two months after the mutiny.
It is believed that the election will be used by Mr Putin to show the country’s elites his grip on power has not slipped. The announcement coming during a ceremony honouring soldiers also makes clear that he will want to link his campaign to the war, and that he is standing up to the West.
Speaking from prison this week, Mr Navalny urged Russians to vote for anyone but Mr Putin. “For Putin, the 2024 elections are a referendum to approve his actions, to approve the war,” Mr Navalny said in an online statement posted by his supporters. “Let’s disrupt his plans and make it happen so that no one on March 17 is interested in the rigged result, but that all of Russia saw and understood: the will of the majority is that Putin must leave.”
In 2008, when he stepped aside to become prime minister due to term limits but remained Russia’s driving force, presidential terms were extended to six years from four. When Mr Putin announced he would run for a new term in 2012, public protests brought out crowds of 100,000 or more.
Another package of amendments he pushed through three years ago reset the count for two consecutive terms to begin in 2024, giving Mr Putin a clean slate.
Evgenia Kara-Murza, whose husband Vladimir was jailed for 25 years this April for speaking against the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, told The Independent that the father of her children is being kept alone in an entire prison block in Siberia so he does not “infect” other detainees with his beliefs.
“People who stand up and speak out against the criminal oppressive war against Ukraine, against the oppressive regime of Russia, are being portrayed as criminals, traitors, spies or insane people,” she said. “That is an amazing illustration of Putin’s Russia.”
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