Putin: Now that I've won, let's be "constructive"

“Fair to say this was not a nailbiter,” CBS drily notes in its coverage of Russia’s national elections. When the leader of the opposition gets barred from being on the ballot, it’s funny how that makes for a less competitive environment, eh? Vladimir Putin won a fourth six-year term by his widest margin yet, although it didn’t quite hit Saddam Hussein or Soviet standards for continuity of dictatorships:

Ballot-stuffing helps too, but in this case was unnecessary:

Vladi­mir Putin cruised to victory Sunday for another six-year presidential term after an election that was long on spectacle and short on suspense.

From the Arctic to the International Space Station, Russia rolled out an elaborate election-day display designed to show the breadth of Putin’s public support as he extended his tenure for a fourth term to 2024.

Putin’s opponents on Sunday’s ballot included a nationalist, a Communist and two liberals. But Putin barely campaigned, opposition activist Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot, and reports of ballot-stuffing and people being ordered to vote by their employers rolled in throughout the day.

A nationalist, a Communist, and two liberals walk into a Russian bar, and …. well, you can write your own punch line. The election itself was pretty much a joke on its own, so much so that, as CBS notes, the government had started building Putin a stage last week for his victory address.

The election seemed “orderly,” OSCE reported, but suffered from some fundamental defects. For instance, it lacked any credible competitors, thanks to Putin’s decision to exclude Navalny:

International election observers say Russia’s presidential vote was conducted in an orderly fashion but lacked genuine competition.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission noted that Sunday’s vote in which Russian President Vladimir Putin won in a landslide “took place in an overly controlled legal and political environment marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”

It said Monday that Russia’s Central Election Commission “administered the election efficiently and openly” and noted that “after intense efforts to promote turnout, citizens voted in significant numbers.”

Observers added, however, that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.”

One has to wonder whether Navalny would have made any difference, even if he’d been allowed onto the ballot. Putin would likely have still won, thanks to the grip he has on power and the electoral process. It might have been closer, but Putin would not have allowed Navalny’s voters to exceed his own. Rather than 76.7% of the vote, Putin could have just ended up with 63.6% of the vote as in 2012 and a little more credibility for the outcome.

Navalny, as it turns out, didn’t have much impact anyway:

Mr. Navalny’s call for a boycott of the election appears to have had little effect, as Sunday’s turnout surpassed that of the last election in 2012.

At the same time, friction emerged Monday among opposition figures—some of whom accused the Kremlin of improprieties during Sundays’ election — as to the best way to counter Mr. Putin’s influence.

Russia’s Central Election Commission said Monday that, with almost all votes counted, Mr. Putin had won nearly 77% of the ballots cast in an election that saw a 68% turnout. Mr. Putin’s closest competitor, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, won just short of 12% of the vote, she said, while opposition television personality Ksenia Sobchak drew less than 2%.

The result reflects the difficulty the opposition has in turning street protests into a viable political opposition that can trouble Mr. Putin, who maintains tight control over the country—from television channels to law enforcement—but also enjoys genuine popularity for his hard line against the West and improved living standards over his 18 years in power.

Maybe Putin should have allowed Navalny to run, and built up some credibility for the outcome. Instead, it’s just another rigged election of the kind that has been popular with authoritarian regimes, although one nearly undid the mullahs of Iran in 2009. But it also demonstrates that Russians have few options than Tsar Vlad at the moment, unless the oligarchs that have a co-dependent relationship with Putin decide to jettison him. The message sent by the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal and the murder of Nikolai Grushkov will probably keep them in line for a while longer, though.

Now that the election is over, Putin did offer an olive branch of sorts. That may just be for domestic consumption, in more ways than one:

Speaking to his rivals in Sunday’s presidential election that he won by a landslide, Putin promised to focus on domestic issues and raise living standards during his next six-year term.

He vowed Monday not to engage in an arms race, saying that Russia has already spent the bulk of what is needed to create new weapons in previous years. He added that while “we need to finalize some things” it will not involve massive spending and the nation’s defense budget will actually decrease this year and in 2019.

Where exactly does deployment of Novichok in other sovereign states figure into “constructive relations”?