MOSCOW—Vladimir Putin won Sunday’s presidential elections with 77 percent of the votes, the highest on record in Russia’s modern history, and thus, after 18 years in power, he prepares to hold on for at least another six.
Nobody was surprised at the results. But many people felt frustrated as the news weighed on them Monday, asking Russia’s eternal questions: “How to live on?” and “Who to blame?”
Some in the opposition fault what they consider a Western obsession with Putin’s alleged skullduggery, from interference in the U.S. presidential elections to the attempted murder in England of ex-spy Sergei Skripal—and perhaps, over the years, more than a dozen other Putin enemies. Even Putin’s detractors—who wouldn’t put such things past him— say that politically, internally, the attacks on him and on Russia helped turn out the vote in his favor.
On Monday, after Putin’s victory, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov embraced that idea. He called the vote an “eloquent” response by the Russian people to “attacks” from abroad, adding that sooner or later the U.S. and Europe would “need to answer for these baseless allegations.”
With six more years of Putin stretching in front of them, many in the opposition wondered how they’ll survive. “This is an authoritarian state, there was no election, Putin simply re-appointed himself for six more years but he is not leaving after six years, he is staying forever,” Anton Krasovsky, an adviser to presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, told The Daily Beast. Sobchak came fourth at Sunday election, winning only 1.5 percent of the vote. “Instead of crying, we should go and work so that in 12 years, when Putin decides to appoint some security officer like Aleksei Dyumin [a former Putin bodyguard reportedly groomed as a successor], we should be there to compete.”
Bloggers suggested various scenarios, including moving abroad, downshifting, escaping into internal immigration, adjusting their views to fit the system. Once again the defeated opposition felt forced to choose between cooperating with the Kremlin or turning into a dissident movement. On Monday morning the Echo of Moscow radio station reminded its listeners that Putin, who makes all the key decisions in the country, could surprise the nation with any sort of radical measures, including a new iron curtain.
In the interview with the newspaper Kommersant, the head of the Russian National Security Foundation, Konstantin Simonov, said the Russian president’s decision-making is completely opaque. “Putin is reminiscent of a black box, nobody knows what is going on in his mind, and the most important thing is that he does not allow any leaks,” Simonov said. “Since there is that black box, people discuss, whisper things, make things up for Putin.”
Public vibrations—reactions to signals coming from Putin about the course of his thinking—have been a part of Russia’s reality for almost two decades. People try to imagine and believe what they do not know. It’s almost a matter of faith. But serious analysts, even the most brilliant, have grown weary of the guessing game.
Tanya Felgenhauer, one of the most courageous political observers in Moscow, realized she had lost interest in the election turnout as she watched the many violations in the vote count on the Election Day. “I have no emotions whatsoever for any aspect of that vote. Nothing. Total indifference,” Felgenhauer wrote in a post on Facebook. “I am not angry, I am not mad, I do not laugh, I am simply indifferent. “
On Sunday, Putin promised to start thinking about the new government—and immediately news analysts smelled intrigue. Some said that Putin was planning to fire Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, others believed that the President was going to keep his old friend and partner in place. Putin’s inauguration is in May, so Russia has two months to roll this lollipop around in the mouth.
On Sunday evening, Putin seemed happy enough with his record score. In spite of the opposition’s calls to boycott the presidential election, 67.5 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls. Putin smiled when journalists asked him if he was going to run in 2030: “It’s ridiculous! Will I sit here until I turn 100? No!”
Moscow Municipal Deputy Ilya Yashin claims that with Election 2018 Putin demonstrated weakness as a politician. “I would be upset if the real opposition candidate, Aleksei Navalny, had a chance to run against Putin and lost,” Yashin told The Daily Beast on Monday. But Putin didn’t let that happen.
Navalny was running his presidential campaign for a year, hundreds of thousands came to listen to him in dozens of Russian cities. “Putin did not run a real campaign, nor did he take part in debates. Instead, he offered us all a pure formality just to please himself.”
The opposition’s plan, Yashin said, was to come up with a strong single candidate for the Moscow mayoral election in September. “The struggle goes on.”