Russia election to tighten Putin's grip, opponents stage noon protest

MAR 17, 2024 LISTEN

President Vladimir Putin is poised to tighten his grip on power on Sunday in a Russian election that is certain to deliver him a landslide victory, though some opponents staged a symbolic noon protest at polling stations against his rule.

Vladimir Putin, who rose to power in 1999, is poised to win a new six-year term that, if he completes it, would enable him to overtake Josef Stalin and become Russia's longest-serving leader for more than 200 years.

The election comes just over two years since Putin triggered the deadliest European conflict since World War Two by ordering the invasion of Ukraine. He casts it as a "special military operation".

War has hung over the three day election: Ukraine has repeatedly attacked oil refineries in Russia, shelled Russian regions and sought to pierce Russian borders with proxy forces - a move Putin said would not be left unpunished.

While Putin's re-election is not in doubt given his control over Russia and the absence of any real challengers, the former KGB spy wants to show that he has the overwhelming support of Russians.

The Kremlin has sought a high turnout. Several hours before polls closed at 1800 GMT, the nationwide turnout surpassed 2018 levels of 67.5%.

Supporters of Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison last month, had called on Russians to come out at a "Noon against Putin" protest to show their dissent against a leader they cast as a corrupt autocrat.

"Alexei was fighting for very simple things: for freedom of speech, for fair elections, for democracy and our right to live without corruption and war," Navalny's widow, Yulia, said in a message to a rally in Budapest on March 15.

"Putin is not Russia. Russia is not Putin."
There was no independent tally of how many of Russia's 114 million voters turned out at noon to show opposition to Putin, amid extremely tight security involving tens of thousands of police and security officials.

'Noon against Putin'

Reuters journalists saw a slight increase in the flow of voters, especially younger people, at noon at some polling stations in Moscow and Yekaterinburg, with queues of several hundred people. Some said they were protesting though there were few outward signs to distinguish them from ordinary voters.

Leonid Volkov, an exiled Navalny aide who was attacked with a hammer last week in Vilnius, estimated hundreds of thousands of people had come out to polling stations in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other cities.

At polling stations at Russian diplomatic missions from Australia, France and Japan to Armenia, Kazakhstan and Georgia, hundreds of Russians stood in line at noon.

Over the previous two days, there were scattered incidents of protest as some Russians set fire to voting booths and poured dye into ballot boxes, drawing a rebuke from Russian officials who called them scumbags and traitors. Opponents posted some pictures of ballots spoiled with slogans insulting Putin.

But Navalny's death has left the scattered opposition deprived of its most formidable leader, and other major opposition figures are abroad, in jail or dead.

The West casts Putin as an autocrat and a killer. U.S. President Joe Biden last month dubbed him a "crazy SOB". The International Criminal Court in the Hague has indicted him for the alleged war crime of abducting Ukrainian children, which the Kremlin denies.

Putin casts the war as part of a centuries-old battle with a declining and decadent West that he says humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 by encroaching on what Putin considers to be Russia's sphere of influence such as Ukraine.


Russia's election comes at what Western spy chiefs say is a crossroads for the Ukraine war and the wider West in what Biden casts as a broader 21st Century struggle between democracies and autocracies.

Support for Ukraine is tangled in U.S. domestic politics ahead of the November presidential election contest between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump, whose Republican party in Congress has blocked military aid for Kyiv.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been killed or seriously injured, though neither side gives proper casualty figures. Swathes of Ukraine have been devastated.

Though Kyiv recaptured territory after the invasion in 2022, Russian forces have lately made gains after a failed Ukrainian counter-offensive last year.

The Biden administration fears Putin could grab a bigger slice of Ukraine unless Kyiv gets more support soon. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns has said that could embolden Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Putin says the West is engaged in a hybrid war against Russia and that Western intelligence and Ukraine are trying to disrupt the elections.

Angela Stent, senior non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the election outcome was not in question but that there were serious reasons to take note of the event.

"The Russian presidential election matters to the United States and its allies for two reasons: what happens during the voting period and what follows after it is over," Stent, told the Russia Matters project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.

Voting is also taking place in Crimea, which Moscow took from Ukraine in 2014, and what Moscow calls its "new territories", four other regions it partly controls and has claimed since 2022.

Kyiv regards the election taking place in parts of its territory controlled by Russia as illegal and void.