Saturday, July 20

Little suspense over the Russian vote. What happens next is less certain.

Little suspense over the Russian vote.  What happens next is less certain.

Maria and her husband, Alexander, are confident that President Vladimir V. Putin will secure a fifth term as Russia’s leader in this weekend’s presidential election.

But the couple, who live in Moscow with their three children, are not sure what happens next. Above all, they fear that Mr. Putin, emboldened by his new six-year mandate, will declare a new mobilization of soldiers to fight in Ukraine. Alexander, 38, who left Russia shortly after Mr. Putin announced the first mobilization in September 2022 but recently returned, is even considering leaving the country again, his wife said.

“I only hear about mobilization, that there is an offensive planned for the summer and the troops need a rotation,” Maria, 34, said in a WhatsApp exchange. She refused to allow the use of the couple’s last name, fearing retaliation from the government.

Many Russians are worried about a host of issues ahead of the vote, which began Friday and will take place over three days. Although Russian authorities have denied that further mobilization for war is being considered, a sense of unease persists.

Concerns appear to be based on the possibility that Mr. Putin will use his absolute power to make changes that he had avoided before the vote. Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, one of the few independent pollsters in Russia, said such concerns were still felt mainly by the minority of Russians who oppose the government.

If possible mobilization remains the main source of concern, there is also unease regarding finances and the economy. Some Russians fear that the ruble, which has been wedged by the government after plunging last year, could depreciate again, thus increasing the cost of imports. Businessmen worry about rising taxes and opposition activists expect more crackdown on dissent.

“People are very worried,” said Nina L. Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, who regularly visits Russia. “Uncertainty is the worst thing, because many Russians are used to uncertainty.”

These concerns reflect the current mood in Russia, where many have learned to hope for the best but expect the worst. The uncertainty has been compounded by a government that experts say has become increasingly authoritarian.

After more than two decades in power, Mr. Putin is held back neither by an opposition party in Parliament nor by a strong civil society. He is therefore relatively free to act as he wishes.

Some experts say the Kremlin could use the results of the vote – which is expected to be a landslide victory for Mr Putin – to further suppress dissent and escalate the war in Ukraine, which was supposed to be a rapid “special military operation”. » but you have become a chore that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

“In an authoritarian election, the results are predictable but the consequences are not,” said Yekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist, in response to written questions from The New York Times. “If the system decides that it has worked well and everything is fine, then the post-election period may be the time to make unpopular decisions. »

Ms Schulmann cited as an example Mr Putin’s last re-election, in 2018, which was followed by a very unpopular increase in the retirement age in Russia.

Russia’s elections are strictly managed by the Kremlin, thanks to its near-total control over the media and state-owned companies, whose workers are often pressured to vote. The electoral machine filters out undesirable candidates and opposition activists have been forced to flee or ended up in Russian prisons. The country’s most prominent dissident, Alexei A. Navalny, died last month in an Arctic penal colony where he had been imprisoned.

Even if the outcome of the vote is not in question, Russians remain concerned about the process. This vote will be the first since Mr Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.

A Moscow consultant who works with Russian companies said some of his clients had deliberately timed new stock offerings on the Moscow stock exchange so that they took place in what they expected to be a relatively calm period before the vote. He requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize his relationships with his clients.

Russian consumers also rushed to buy cars earlier this year, according to auto market analysts. suggested that the period leading up to the elections could be the best time to buy, as the ruble could be devalued once the vote is over. The number of new cars sold in Russia in January and February jumped by more than 80 percent compared to the same period last year, according to at Avtostat, a news site about the Russian automotive industry.

Businesses fear the government will raise taxes after the vote. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin said the government would develop new tax rules for individuals and private entities, and experts said that would most likely mean higher taxes for both groups.

Yevgeny Nadorshin, chief economist at consulting firm PF Capital in Moscow, said businesses were particularly concerned about rising taxes and rising labor costs. “This would jeopardize Russia’s competitiveness,” he said.

Mr. Nadorshin also pointed to widespread rumors about a new troop mobilization that, if it happened, could further restrict the labor market for businesses, he said.

Mr. Volkov, of the Levada Center, said that most Russians, after the initial shock of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the mobilization that followed seven months later, had adapted to the new world. This is largely due to the government’s efforts to boost morale by ensuring the country’s economy remains healthy and pumping money into its industrial sector.

“There has been a serious redistribution of resources in favor of the majority, who feel that they can now live a normal life without engaging directly in war,” he said, referring to the salary increases factory workers and various social benefits.

He nevertheless highlighted what he said was a growing polarization between Mr. Putin’s supporters and opponents.

“Mutual misunderstandings today are greater and more acute than before,” Mr. Volkov said.

Many Russian anti-Kremlin activists – those who remain in the country and those who have left – fear a renewed crackdown on dissent.

Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian businessman and opposition activist in London, said he believed that after the election, dissidents would face a difficult choice between fleeing or being imprisoned.

“Nothing will help; the choice will be either to go to prison or to leave the country,” he said in a statement. interview with Zhivoy Gvozd, an independent Russian media outlet.

But some analysts have expressed doubt that Mr. Putin will do much more than he already has to eliminate dissent.

“The system cannot remain in a state of mobilization and stress forever. » said Aleksandr Kynev, Russia-based political scientist specializing in regional politics. “If you give too much power to the security services, tomorrow they can take power away from you,” he said. “Vladimir Putin understands this well.”

Alina Lobzina reports contributed.