The most important thing in 2024 Russian presidential elections is what will happen after them

Will there be a reshuffle of the people in governmental positions and governmental restart after Putin assumes his new mandate in May 2024, asks Veronika Sušová-Salminen

Veronika Sušová-Salminen discusses the result, electoral process and significance of the 2024 Russian presidential elections. She also reflects on the regional specifics of the voting process, on the voting in Russia-occupied parts of Ukraine and on the Russian political processes after the end of the parliamentary elections. Her thesis is that the election results as figures are not so important. What matters is what will follow after the elections, because the Russian political system receives the chance to renew itself. And we need to see whether the current influential figures will preserve their places and to what extent the current power balances in the Russian government will be preserved after May 2024. 

Welcome to an extraordinary cross-border conversation as we react to the recent Russian presidential election. Vladimir Putin won, as expected, with 87% of the vote and 77% of the turnout. Many people are saying it was all to be expected. 

We are now joined by Veronica Salminen, who will comment on various aspects of the power mechanism in Russia. First of all, what do these results mean, Veronika? What do they show and to what extent do these elections really matter?

Hello everyone. I think I will start with the second question that you ask, which is whether these elections, and in fact any Russian election, not just presidential elections, will matter given the way they are organised, controlled and managed. We can’t approach them from the perspective of the normativity of liberal democracy, because even on the Russian side they don’t say they are a liberal democracy. They haven’t said that for many years. And they perceive their elections in different ways. 

I’d like to start by saying something interesting: a survey of public opinion by a sociological agency, which is considered relatively independent compared to others, found out just before these elections that 66% of the respondents in this survey thought that the Russian presidential elections were fair for them, so they didn’t see them as problematic. About 25% saw them as unfair and undemocratic. So the vast majority of people still see the election in Russia as fair. And that is very important because the election or any election in Russia is important for the regime to legitimise itself.

Russia is still something that in political science is called electoral authoritarianism. Such a political regime needs democratic mechanisms, even if it is a kind of virtual democracy rather than a real one. It needs elections to legitimise its power. I would add that when the UN invasion of Ukraine happened in 2025, at the moment when this situation happened and when Russia was basically at war with its neighbour, there were voices within the system, within the regime, especially the most conservative type of siloviki, who said: “Let’s abolish elections, all elections. We will not have elections, because elections are a luxury for us. We have to be united and consolidated. Elections would only make us weaker because of the conflicts that every election brings.” 

But Putin and the core of the regime didn’t agree with this solution, and they refused to stop the elections, despite the fact that it is always risky for them and despite the fact that the country is at war. They didn’t agree with the most radical siloviki. So elections are actually very important for them because they give them so-called democratic legitimacy. And they need this legitimacy to continue to rule Russia in the way they do – in a largely authoritarian way, which is no longer democratic. But the elections are still important. 

They are also important in other respects. Whenever such a regime goes to the polls, there’s always a high risk that something will go wrong, so there’s a relative interest in the elections being perceived as democratic and fair, because experience shows that a specifically fake election, full of electoral fraud and distrust in the electoral process, is the trigger for so-called colour revolutions, as they’re called in Russia. So they have realised that legitimacy has to be specifically domestic. They don’t care so much what the outside world thinks. And they realise that they have to take that risk. That’s why they’re trying to manage things to a great extent. They really want to control the electoral process. 

And this is the next peculiarity: the electoral process in Russia is very much moderated, very much managed by the so-called political bloc of the Kremlin. There is control over the competition, control over the electoral process. And also, when you talk about parliamentary elections, the control includes the parliamentary parties or the parties that can basically participate in the so-called competitive registers. 

So this is the next peculiarity. You cannot expect the open fair playground, because this playground is managed from the beginning. You can see that they really focus on keeping it under control in order to have stable results. 

And the last thing I wanted to say. I don’t know any other country in the world. Maybe there are other countries that I know something about. But I only know Russia. Russia is run by the political bloc in the Kremlin. This is the administrative centre of Russia. In Russian politics, even before the election, it is publicly stated what is the expected result of the incumbent for Vladimir Putin. And here I would like to say that in December 2023, the political bloc decided that the result of the election should be about 70% participation, of which Vladimir Putin should get 80% of the votes. That was the expected result. 

And you can see now that the results are actually a record over the threshold that was set. But Russian elections are very much elections where the result for the incumbent is pre-programmed by the Kremlin. That is the next peculiarity, and we know about it. It seems big. The results were public. They were published in a Russian newspaper. This is what we are going for. This is the next specificity you have there. They really don’t make a secret of it. This is how the election process and the election administration works.

Okay. You said that the result was basically predetermined. But what was the importance of the campaign then?

Well, the campaign in such a system is focused on how to keep the election legitimate. So they are trying to run a kind of campaign. We have to realise that there were three other candidates besides Putin. 

At the beginning of February it became clear that these elections would be based on the most conservative scenario. There were several scenarios that were discussed publicly. And the most conservative was that there would be an incumbent, meaning Vladimir Putin as a candidate. And against him three other candidates. All of them would come from the political parties that are currently represented in the Duma and in parliament. So they are definitely going in this direction, which will be controlled. And the unsupported, so-called non-systemic, popular representative of the opposition party, Boris Nadezhdin, was not allowed to be a candidate. There were even some doubts about his anti-system position, because he was also seen as a candidate of one branch of the Kremlin administration, but not the most important one. So he was not allowed to run. He was basically excluded because there was no interest in having a candidate who was openly anti-war. So the other three candidates were supposed to keep the faith that the elections were legitimate. But of course there were some important things going on inside the company. 

If you look at the company of different players, so these three candidates of Vladimir Putin, each of them had some particular issues behind them. These issues were not related to the chance to become president, but there were other political goals and ambitions behind them. It was also important who would come second, who would come third and how they would perform during the campaign. 

And in the case of Putin’s campaign you could see that it was also quite conservative and in some parts very inconsistent, because we saw the signals first of all from the political bloc, from the administration, from these people who were managing his campaign, that after the experience of the partial mobilisation, which was very unpopular in Russian society, there was concern that too much talk about war and putting the war on the first placecould be a problem for Vladimir Putin. 

After all, independent polls say that the war is important to Russians. Only 12% of respondents said that the so-called special military operation was a less important issue for them than domestic issues, the socio-economic situation, the economy and so on and so forth. But somehow Vladimir Putin kept bringing up the issue of the war and the conflict with the West. He even brought these issues into the situation where the discussion should have been about local politics or about the family or about order, because he was taking part in various pre-election forums and programmes for him as a candidate. So there was this inconsistency – are we going to talk about the war all the time, or are we going to put the war as one of the issues, and we are also going to focus on the economy, on social issues, on the national development programme and so on. The latter was the wish of the political bloc led by Sergei Kirilenko, who’s the boss of this whole process. So there were some contradictions. But on the other hand, we have to admit that for Putin it was probably not such a big problem, because the company understood that the so-called consolidation around the flag was important for him.

Okay. How would you comment on the results themselves? What message do they send?

Well, the first message is that the results were expected. They were even more than I expected. But of course you can see that there are differences between the voters. You can also see that there is a division in Russia because, as you said, there was a high turnout, 77.4%, as we said. That means that 22.6% of Russians didn’t come. They remain silent. We don’t know what they think. Do they think that their vote doesn’t matter, that Putin doesn’t need any votes because he will win? They don’t believe in the electoral process, or they don’t believe in Putin? It could be one of those answers. 

And then you could see that this time the opposition candidates together only get 11%. All these three candidates are 11% support against Putin who got 87.2%. So beyond this prefabricated number, if you put these two numbers together, you have about 33.6% of people who don’t vote for Putin. They are supporting the opposition, which is actually just a new people’s party candidate with a different message, because all the other candidates are basically the same. They represent the same version of Putin’s policies with some differences, but still you have 33.6% who didn’t vote for Putin. 112 million people have the right to vote in Russia. If you put those numbers together, one in three is a huge number of people. 

But of course, in a way, Putin neeeds huge support at home because of the war. I think that is the most important thing. The war is the main reason why he needs the highest possible legitimacy. The second factor, perhaps psychologically, is that this could be his last election because we never know what will happen with his age and all the other issues and so on. So it could be his last election. And maybe he wanted to go out on a high note. 

So there was a really high percentage of support for Putin. And we are now talking about the support within the system that I have described. This is not support of the kind of liberal democratic normativity, because that mode does not work here. But you can still see differences. You can see differences in different regions. 

Classically, the northern regions again showed the lowest support within this high support. So you have places like Arkhangelsk and Karelia. These are classic regions that have always been relatively on the opposition side. And there were always problems, especially in 2012. So again, you can see that the numbers are relatively low. On the other hand, you can see that the average support in Moscow, which is also traditionally seen as the metropolis, which is more liberal and so on, is relatively high. 

And then you have the classic so-called electoral sultanates in Russia. Well, the most typical is Chechnya, where, as you know, probably 98.9% of the citizens supported Putin, which is of course a ridiculous number. You can imagine that this cannot be the reality. And then, finally, you can also see that in some of the areas of eastern Ukraine, the elections are definitely not in accordance with international law. So they are legitimate from the point of view of international law, you can see that they also tend to be relatively like the Sultanate, because there was high support. In Crimea it was 93.6%. And in the Donetsk People’s Republic, if I remember correctly, there was also a high level of support. So these regions also became an electoral sultanate, with high support for Putin, which is hard to believe. 

Most likely, these election results are the product not only of manipulation, but also of the environment in general. There was certainly a lot of pressure to get these results, because we know that these areas are disputed. The results in these areas of eastern Ukraine are not legitimate from an international political point of view and also from an international legal point of view. But for the Putin regime it was important to get the high support because he was the one who staged these territories and officially took them into Russia.

Okay, so what’s next after these elections for Russian society and for the world that will be dealing with Russia?

Well, for the world that is the easy answer so far. Putin is staying and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of huge uprising against him. Society is relatively stable. That doesn’t mean they love him or really support him. A lot of it can be apathy. But you don’t see that apathy in these figures because it’s done in such a way that it’s not shown. You cannot know it. 

So at the moment we cannot really say to what extent these are really authentic numbers that show how people really feel about Putin, or to what extent they are really fabricated or some kind of plebiscite automatism in the sense that people are voting for Putin because there is no alternative. A lot of people in Russia don’t trust others. They are afraid that if Putin goes, there will be chaos. This feeling is often forgotten. 

These elections are important for the way Russia will be governed because, as I said at the beginning, elections are about legitimacy and they are a kind of new start for the government. They are a new beginning for Putin himself, for all the systems, and now the political meaning will be reincarnated in the institutions, because you will soon see institutional cadre changes. There may also be changes in the style of government. 

What will happen now is that we will basically have a two-month pause, because Putin will be inaugurated as the next president in May. There will be events until May. They will not be very public. There will be some leaks, information, negotiations about personnel policy, about who will get certain jobs. 

For example, a big question will be whether Mikhail Mishustin will continue as prime minister or not. He seems to have a strong position. He is relatively popular. His government has withstood the pressure of sanctions, the war and so on. So the question is, will he continue as prime minister? 

The next question will be how the government will be reshuffled. The current Russian government is considered to be a very well constructed government. Every minister, every portfolio is connected and distributed among different factions and clans of Russian politics and oligarchies in such a way that there is a good balance. There is no power struggle. And Putin has always been very good at maintaining that balance. So that will be the next question. 

The next question will be whether Putin will be more innovative in the cadre policy or whether he will continue to be more conservative as he has been recently. So will there be major changes or minor changes and what will these changes mean? Then you have to look at who represents which power group in the system. 

And finally, of course, there will be other questions, such as what will be the fate of Dmitry Medvedev, because we know that Mr Medvedev was ousted very soon after the constitutional changes for 2020. He is currently in the position of leading the United Russia party. That gives him a strong institutional position in the system. And he is on the Security Council. He’s trying to save his position with aggressive rhetoric, which just masks the fact that he’s very unpopular among the siloviki. They hate Medvedev. And that’s why Medvedev is putting on this show, to protect himself from possible retaliation by the Slovaks. He’s very unpopular with them because he’s not one of them. He’s really a bourgeois technocrat and so on. 

So that will be the next question and the last question that will be related to the political system. There are some rumours, and that’s why I said that the elections are important for these three opponents of Putin. There is talk about whether the political party system should be reshuffled and changed. And there are some possible scenarios which say that, for example, Zhirinovsky’s party could merge with United Russia because it doesn’t make sense to keep it independent any more. And we can see that Slutsky, who was the presidential candidate, was supposed to be the leading candidate of the party. And his results were very bad. They were expected to be bad because he’s not really a politician. He’s a technocrat. He’s good at administration, but he’s not a politician, he has no charisma, no leadership qualities. And despite the Kremlin’s support, his results are very poor. One of the worst of these three opponents of Putin. 

Basically, if you don’t count Putin, if you only compare these three. So the question is whether the political system will be reshuffled or whether a new political party will be created, because many observers say that there is a crisis in the political system, considering that the political parties are the same. By the way, you can say that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is in a clear crisis. If you compare the results of the candidates and the support of the party in the polls, you can see that there is also a huge difference now that they were not even able to mobilise their own voters, their own voters voted for Putin. 

So this is the latest sign. We will see what really happens. But as I said, this is why the elections are important. They are not important because of these numbers. But they are important because they restart all the systems. And the system can change again because the Russian political system is in a constant state of metamorphosis. It is constantly changing in one way or another. It becomes more or less liberal, more or less authoritarian and so on. And it corresponds to these different periods of time. So I think this will be the most important result of the elections that we will see after May 2024.

I hope this talk has been useful for anyone who is trying to understand Russia at a slightly deeper level than usual. Follow Cross-border Talks on YouTube, Spotify, Substack, Twitter and Facebook. As for us, we will continue to follow developments in the region.

Subscribe to Cross-border Talks’ YouTube channel! Follow the project’s Facebook and Twitter page! And here are the podcast’s Telegram channel and its Substack newsletter!

Like our work? Donate to Cross-Border Talks or buy us a coffee!

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *