Moscow (AsiaNews) – Russia’s presidential election campaign has officially kicked off. The date of the vote – 18 March 2018 – was set by the Federation Council (upper house) and has special symbolic value for it commemorates the referendum of Crimea’s annexation in 2014. In addition, three days ago, during his thirteenth press conference as president since 1999 (every year except for the four years his right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev was president), Vladimir Putin publicly launched his campaign as an "independent" candidate.
Putin, whose re-election is a foregone conclusion, will not be the only one in the race. Another 20 people are planning a run for the presidency. They include the leaders of small parties (the communist Zyuganov, the nationalist Zhirinovsky, the liberal Yavlinsky, the centrist Mironov) who have been around forever, i.e. since the 1990s. Others are rabble rouser Alexei Navalny (who will likely be prevented from running), and celebrity journalist Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the late mayor of St Petersburg who was mentor to Putin himself.
The new thing about Putin's candidacy lies in his decision to distance himself from the ruling United Russia party, which he founded. What this means is clear: after almost 20 years of power, the president wants to present himself as above partisan politics, as the "father of the nation", not only as the supreme leader of the ruling regime. In recent months, persistent rumours have him appointing an “heir”. This has let to much speculation about a radical change in the ruling class, or perhaps the project has been postponed to a later date.
At the press conference, Putin listed the political priorities on which he intends to run. Top of the list is his desire to delegitimise his opponents who "wander the streets to cause havoc." The president did not mention Navalny, but spoke of "certain characters" whom he compared to the former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, who in recent weeks organised demonstrations against the government in Ukraine, the country where he moved to continue his political action. To avoid falling into the Ukrainian mess, the Russian leader warned that a “non-screaming” opposition needs to be encouraged, one that is able to present a credible platform to the population.
Answering a question about banning abortion in the country, Putin called for caution because "illegal abortions would increase with the prohibition, and cause great harm to women's health and many difficulties in having other children later." At the same time, he promised support for groups that want to prevent abortions by persuading women to desist and give birth to their child, such as the ‘For life!’ association. As for the rest, Putin’s platform has nothing particularly new. He did confirm no tax increases at least for the coming year, pledging in fact a tax amnesty.
This means that in foreign affairs Russia will stand firm on the demand for greater autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern territories, and continue to blame the Ukrainian government for the unending conflict. Putin claimed military success in Syria ("my initiative", he said), in particular the effectiveness of the Caucasian police he deployed, made up of Sunni members who were able to hold the territory. With respect to other “hot” issues, such as allegations of state doping, secret contacts with Trump, and interference in the politics of other countries, the Kremlin leader smugly rejected the claims, citing instead Russia’s economic successes (1.6 per cent GDP growth, bumper crops, and other positive results) that have made the country a leading player in international affairs and economy.
Meanwhile, an exhibit dedicated to the Romanovs, the dynasty of tsars to which Putin seems to refer in his political ideology, has opened in the Exhibition Hall of the Federal Archives in the Kremlin. Titled The Romanovs and the Holy See is particularly significant: 1613-1917. Russia and the Vatican, the exhibit is an exceptional collection of documents from the Vatican Secret Archives. The relationship between 17th century Muscovy and the Ukrainian-Polish Uniates, the legacy of the Tsarina Sophia Palaiologina, given in marriage by the pope to Moscow Grand Prince Ivan III, and the subsequent developments of the "Third Rome" on the Moskva River offer a suggestive image of the "sacred" and missionary nature of the Russian autocracy. Other documents focus on the various negotiations between the Vatican and Moscow over the freedom of worship for Catholics in Russia and the solution to various international diplomatic crises, all of which supports the renewed desire for collaboration between a “Putinite” orthodoxy and the Catholic Church of Pope Francis.