Vladimir Putin was elected President of the Russian Federation for the fourth time. What does this mean for the world’s largest country and its neighbours? E&M’s Jimmy Chen takes a look at what might lay ahead.

On Monday 7 May, Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for his fourth term as President of the Russian Federation in a ceremony full of pomp at the Great Kremlin Palace’s St George’s Hall. In an age of so-called Russian democracy, Putin is already the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin and appears to be entering his fourth term in a position stronger than ever. Russian influence appears to be ubiquitous all around the world – from Donald Trump’s election to Brexit and everything in between.

On the military front, Russian forces have helped Assad consolidate control in Syria, and there is no question of relinquishing control of Crimea to anyone. During Wednesday’s Victory Day Parade on Red Square, a range of eagerly anticipated new smart ‘invulnerable’ weapons capable of bypassing American missile defences were presented to the public – and the world.

Appearances, especially in Russia, can be deceptive. The Russian economy remains in mediocre shape. A combination of sanctions, low oil prices, and a depreciated rouble have contributed to low economic growth. Since 2008 the Russian economy has grown by an average of 1% a year. In his inaugural address, Putin acknowledged that the state needs to do more to stimulate economic development and foster technological innovation. He vowed that by 2024, Russia’s economy will become the fifth largest in the world.

The trouble for the Russian government is that while it has been fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead, little progress has been made to achieve the longed-for objectives, and there is nothing to suggest that this time things will be any different. Dimitri Medvedev’s new cabinet contains few changes from its previous iteration. As early as 2001, Putin promised that Russia’s economy would be the fifth largest in the world by 2011. As this Twitter meme shows, he has made the same promise several times since then to little effect. More and more Russia analysts are making comparisons with Brezhnevian stagnation.

In the western imagination, Putin is invincible and all-powerful. Nevertheless, Putin’s control of domestic politics is ebbing away of late. Few commentators see him retaining political office beyond 2024. While his political influence will certainly be felt beyond then, Putin is still a lame duck. Over the past year, members of Putin’s inner circle have already begun positioning themselves for the succession.

During the corruption trial of former Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, Rosneft CEO and head of the ex-KGB siloviki faction Igor Sechin refused to appear in court to testify despite several requests. Putin’s instructions to his inner circle regarding their business interests have increasingly been ignored. While there is no obvious successor to the presidency, one name mentioned more than others is that of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is not tied to a particular faction.

While much of Putin’s support is genuine, his personal popularity is not invulnerable.

Putin’s Russia is literally falling apart. In March, protests broke out in the ancient city of Volokolamsk to the west of Moscow, as local residents complained that toxic fumes from a nearby landfill site was making children ill. In early April a devastating fire broke out at the Winter Cherry shopping centre in the Siberian city of Kemerovo claiming 60 lives, most of them school children, resulting in a series of public demonstrations and the resignation of the regional governor. While these protests were not aimed directly at Putin, they targeted regional governments who participate in the same system of corruption and influence as the central government in Moscow. Although his commitment to representative democracy is questionable at best, Putin pays serious attention to his popularity rating. In the recent election it was an open secret that he was aiming for a 70/70 scenario – that is at least 70% of the vote on at least 70% of the turnout – which would give him a majority of the electorate.

Accordingly, the state launched a comprehensive Get Out the Vote campaign, but initial projections suggested turnout would struggle to exceed 60%. The officially reported figure was 10% higher. While much of Putin’s support is genuine, his personal popularity is not invulnerable. It threatened to dip below 60% in 2013 before the annexation of Crimea brought it back up to 90%. Russia’s military presence in Syria continues to be popular despite mounting casualties. Should Russia’s economy continue to struggle, the world should expect the Russian President to seek foreign policy victories in an effort to bolster his domestic support.

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    Jimmy Chen graduated from Cambridge University in 2017 with an MPhil in Modern European History, specialising in Russian history. He works as a political and financial communications consultant in London. Jimmy writes about history and travel in his blog Images and History.

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