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

March 12, 2018
Timothy Frye in front of a map of Russia

On March 18, the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, Russians will go to the polls to vote for president. The outcome is not in doubt—but the way Vladimir Putin wins 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 Columbia’s 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 is nervous about the election even as there is little doubt that Putin will win.”

Q. Do presidential elections still matter in Russia?

A. These elections are not important for deciding who will be president—Putin will win—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 may deter elites from a coordinated challenge against the ruler 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 does fraud play?

A. As in past elections, observers fully expect ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation, and dirty tricks against the opposition to play a large role. We have already seen 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. What would be a successful outcome for the Kremlin?

A. The Kremlin hopes for a 70/70 solution. That is, it is aiming for Putin to win 70 percent of the vote share with a 70 percent voter turnout. Higher figures may be seen as not credible, while lower figures may signal vulnerability. Hitting these targets can be complicated because regional officials in Russia have been known to inflate their vote totals for Putin because they compete for his affection and want to demonstrate their support. Uncoordinated ballot stuffing by regional governors can create a herding effect of ‘too many’ votes for the Kremlin. On the other hand, the level of apathy among the public toward this election is very high and the regime may struggle to gain 70 percent turnout without engaging in significant ballot box stuffing. Voter turnout in parliamentary elections in September 2016 was just 48 percent.

The Kremlin hopes that voters will split their ballots among the seven other candidates on the ballot. These candidates are allowed to run because they provide a façade of legitimacy and help to split the opposition by forcing them to compete with each other for votes. 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.

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. Sanctions too will continue to rankle the Kremlin. The European and U.S. economic sanctions have sent a strong signal of opposition to Russian activities in Ukraine and have been a drag on Russia’s economy. There is little appetite for sanctions relief in the U.S. Congress so change is unlikely.

Even after the indictments in February against thirteen 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 very difficult. With mid-term 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