Putin's Victory Is Assured In Russia's Election
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The first time Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, the year was 2000. Babies born that year are now turning 18, which means this year, they gain the right to vote. It's a generation that has never known a Russia without Putin in charge, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. Putin is running for a fourth term as president. He is universally expected to win when Russians go to the polls on Sunday. And I want to bring in two voices now. NPR's Lucian Kim is in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth-largest city. And one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered, Mary Louise Kelly is in Moscow. Hello to you both.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning. Hey, David.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: Mary Louise, I want to start with you. It sounds like a foregone conclusion that Putin's going to win, but there are other people officially running, right?
KELLY: There are, indeed. But you can imagine what an uphill battle they're fighting against an 18-year incumbent who, by the way, controls the state media and controls in almost every aspect how this campaign is allowed to play out. His most prominent political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has been banned from running.
There are seven people who are standing against Putin. We went to a rally for one of them last night. This is Ksenia Sobchak. She formed a new political party as of last night. And she had this rally in this big concert space in Moscow, this kind of nightclub place. And there were, you know, a few hundred people there wearing Sobchak T-shirts, waving white flags with the campaign slogan spring is coming. But when I say a few hundred people, this is a country of more than 140 million.
GREENE: Suffice to say, many of those 140 million have never heard of her or the other six candidates that are running against Putin.
KELLY: Yeah. It's just hard to get any traction against the Putin political machine.
GREENE: Then what is the suspense here on Sunday? I mean, are there questions about whether Putin can turn out enough people to actually make this feel legitimate?
KELLY: Yeah, you just nailed it. That is the question is, how many people can he turn out? Because a lot of people here are bored after 18 years of Putin. A lot of the people I've talked to, they're not bored so much as resigned and saying, why should I spend my Sunday braving the cold - and it is cold here, it's snowing, by the way - on a Sunday when it's a done deal and everybody knows Putin is going to win? So this - just overnight, RBK news agency has reported that the Kremlin would be happy with a 65 percent turnout. He may not get that, we'll see.
GREENE: Maybe they're getting a little worried, adjusting their expectations at the last minute.
KELLY: Yeah. They're setting up tents. The government set up tents at the polling places where they're going to be serving coffee and food and, you know, the whole - this is what Soviets used to do. And the idea was - it's a party. Come vote.
GREENE: Lucian, what's the view from out in the Ural Mountains? I mean, is - should Putin be worried about turnout if he's guaranteed to win? Are you getting the sense that people are really excited to go and cast their vote on Sunday for him?
KIM: Well, I'm in Yekaterinburg, and it's really seen as a pro-opposition city. Yesterday, I spoke with the editor of an independent news site. He said most people here are actually concerned with economic hardship. And what's interesting is they don't necessarily convert that into political action. They're more ready to blame U.S. sanctions against Russia than their own leadership. And that situation is really quite uniform across Russia. Mary Louise is completely right about turnout. That is really key. I personally have received multiple text messages on my Russian cellphone telling me to go and vote.
And I think the idea here is once people go to the polls, they will vote for Putin. Putin is really the default candidate, especially compared to a lot of the others running. He looks like the only choice. And the Kremlin is counting on name recognition. There is a very real feeling among Russians that I've spoken to that things could be much worse, that change is scary. And Putin has ended up basically running against himself. And by that, I mean he's running against his last election result, where he won more than 70 percent of the vote. This is a referendum on his rule. And Putin really wants to be seen as Russia's legitimate and popular ruler.
GREENE: Is the opposition going to turn out? Like, are we going to get the sense on Sunday of maybe how strong the opposition actually is in Russia at all?
KIM: Well, this is a tricky question. I mean, Putin will win in a vacuum as it is now. And that's why opponents like Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who was barred, is calling for a boycott of the elections. He's been busy training up election monitors. I've spoken to the head of Navalny's office here in Yekaterinburg. He told me he's ready for any situation. I think Navalny's people are really hoping that there will be a huge discrepancy between official and observed results. And their goal is to undermine the image of Putin as this beloved leader of the nation and to prove that Putin's support is really not that big.
GREENE: And, Mary Louise, let me briefly just ask you, I mean, looking at the international news this week, you would think it's been a rough week for Putin because we have the sanctions from Britain and the U.S., a lot of condemnation over the poisoning in Britain. But could that actually help Putin at home, domestic politics?
KELLY: With the usual caveat that it's not clear - Russians or, you know, like Americans vote on foreign policy and national security. I'll say this. It could help Putin because it strengthens the sense of us against them. Russia gets the blame for everything. That's the line from here. And Putin can say, hey, I am strong. I am stable. I have been with you. I'm going to keep leading this country where it needs to go.
GREENE: All right. Mary Louise Kelly in Moscow, Lucian Kim in Yekaterinburg getting ready for Russia's presidential election on Sunday. Thank you both.
KELLY: You're welcome.
KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.