- - Thursday, December 28, 2017


Vladimir Putin is running for another six-year term next year and it looks like he’s heading for a romp. But he’s taking no chances. He follows American politics closely, and he remembers that Hillary Clinton was headed for a romp, too, and all she got was a stomp.

Mr. Putin is unquestionably and genuinely popular among the Russian people. His approval rating stands at 80 percent, even though Russia has endured a punishing economy for the past several years. The onetime KGB officer is credited with having stabilized the country after years of upset and chaos.

He has reasserted Russia’s role in the world. He took back Crimea from Ukraine and appears to have bested the United States in Syria, with his client Bashar Assad all but having won the civil war against rebels tacitly backed by the United States. The fanciful Democratic conspiracy theory that Mr. Putin put Donald Trump in the White House has made him even more popular in Russia because now he looks like a towering political genius. His social conservatism, including respect for religious faith that was forbidden for so many years, plays well in the Russian heartlands, if not always with middle-class Muscovites.

Everything looks, from the outside, coming up roses for him. But roses are never enough for strongmen. He’s making sure there’s no competition, however small and weak it may be. He has brought the media smartly to heel (and under it), making sure that he not only looks very good, but that the opposition doesn’t get a look at all.

He weakened or all but eliminated all likely rivals. Alexei Navalny, 41, an “anti-corruption activist” has established a constituency across Russia, as evidenced by the fact that he has organized various protests nationwide. He did respectably well as a candidate for mayor of Moscow four years ago, winning 27 percent of the vote. He has established offices in 84 cities, and had planned to challenge Mr. Putin for president next year.

But the Central Election Commission barred him, citing a fraud conviction in his past. The conviction was fraudulent, and the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe have denounced the prosecution as political. The European Union’s foreign service analysts say the exclusion of Mr. Navalny from the presidential race next year “casts a serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Putin is determined there won’t be any surprises. A poll in early December showed that 66 percent of the voters expect to vote for Mr. Putin, and only 2 percent would say they expect to vote for Mr. Navalny, the mention of whose name is forbidden on state-controlled television. Pollsters with links to the state are forbidden to include his name when they ask prospective voters what they think about leading public figures.

But the heavy-handed treatment of Mr. Navalny risks driving the presidential campaign into the streets, where the challenger thrives, and it’s exactly where Mr. Putin does not want it to go. “We won’t have an election because Vladimir Putin is horribly afraid,” Mr. Navalny says on a widely distributed video. “He sees a threat in competing with me. The process in which we are called to participate is not a real election. It will feature only Putin and the candidates which he has personally selected.”

Vladimir Putin is making himself look more like Vlad the Impaler than a mere candidate for president. Appearances are not always deceiving.

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