5 Questions: Political Scientist Timothy Frye on Russia’s Presidential Election

March 19, 2018
Timothy Frye in front of a map of Russia

On March 18, the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, Russians went to the polls to vote for president. The outcome was unsurprising—but the way that Vladimir Putin won the election and the particulars of the election results will play a role in shaping Russia’s future.

“Those in Russia who might challenge Putin’s rule will scrutinize the election results for signs of weakness,” said Timothy M. Frye, Marshall Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and chair of the Political Science Department. “And officials in the U.S. will examine the results as a means of navigating the deeply strained U.S.-Russia relationship—which will become only more complicated as Russia’s succession politics ramp up in the years to come.”

Frye, who also is co-director of a social science research lab at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, is writing a book about contemporary Russian politics. He believes that, “given Russia’s stagnant economy, a good bit of Putin-fatigue after 18 years in power, and increasing restrictions on political activity, the Kremlin was nervous about the election even as there was little doubt that Putin would win.”

Q. Do presidential elections still matter in Russia?

A. These elections were not important for deciding who will be president, but they matter because they provide a rare public signal of the relative strength of Putin, and potential challengers among the elite and the public. A strong showing of sincere support for Putin at the polls can deter elites from a coordinated challenge against his rule and inhibit mass public mobilization. A weak showing—as revealed either by massive fraud, low turnout, or a smaller than expected vote share— could reveal Putin’s vulnerability.

Q. What role did fraud play?

A. As in past elections, there was ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation, and dirty tricks against the opposition. The most outspoken opposition politician in Russia—anti-corruption activist, Aleksei Navalny—was barred from running on a legal technicality that many see as politically motivated. We saw an unprecedented level of state pressure on employers to turn out their workers to vote and on students to stay off the street. But electoral fraud is a double-edged sword. Fraudulent elections make it easier for Putin to win, but higher levels of fraud also make it harder for him to convince potential rivals and voters that he is actually popular. After all, if he is so beloved, then why does he need so much fraud? This is important because autocrats like Putin are much more likely to be overthrown either via coup or mass demonstrations than through constitutional means such as elections.

“Autocrats like Putin are much more likely to be overthrown either via coup or mass demonstrations than through constitutional means such as elections.”
—Timothy M. Frye

Q. Was the outcome a success for the Kremlin?

A. The Kremlin hoped for a 70/70 solution. That is, it aimed for Putin to win 70 percent of the vote share with a 70 percent voter turnout. Higher figures were thought to be not credible, while lower figures would signal vulnerability. In the end, the Kremlin came very close to these totals. Official reported turnout was 67 percent and Putin won 76 percent of the vote against a historically weak field of opponents

Not all voters were frog-marched to the polls and opinion polls indicate that Putin is a popular leader. At the same time, despite the massive turnout campaign and the large-scale ballot box stuffing, 48 percent of registered voters either stayed home or cast their ballot for a candidate other than Putin.

Q. What should we expect after the election?

A. The most important consequence of the election is that it will encourage discussion of Putin’s successor. Putin will begin his second six-year term in 2018 and the Russian constitution bars the president from serving more than two consecutive terms. Facing a similar constitutional rule in 2008, Putin stepped down as president to become prime minister, but Putin will be 72 in 2024 when his next term ends (barring any changes to the constitution that extend his term) and many observers expect the next six years to be dominated by succession politics. Increased elite infighting over the succession could add uncertainty to Kremlin politics.

Q. What does the election mean for U.S.-Russia relations?

A. U.S.-Russia relations are as bad as they have been in decades and the election is not likely to change this dynamic. Continued disagreements over the Russian-backed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, and an emerging nuclear arms race will likely continue to dominate U.S.-Russia relations. Moreover, with the apparent poisoning of a Russian ex-spy on British territory in early March, NATO may be toughening its response to Russia. At the end of March, the U.S. and its allies coordinated a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from their countries in a strong show of unity

Even after the indictments in February against 13 Russian hackers by Robert Mueller’s investigative team there are no signs that Russia will abort its use of social media to try to influence the 2018 mid-term elections and U.S. politics generally. As the White House seems disinterested in addressing this threat, and it is easy for the Russians to conduct these operations, there is little reason for the Kremlin to stop.

Politics in the U.S. also bode ill for U.S.-Russia relations. The vast disagreements between the White House and Congress about Russia policy make progress on this front difficult. With midterm elections on the horizon, it is hard to see why members of Congress will soften their positions on Russia, particularly if the Mueller investigation continues to provide evidence of Russian attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election.

—By Eric Sharfstein