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Russian Leadership’s Questionable Legitimacy Must Be Decided by the People

voter exits a presidential election polling station
St. Petersburg, Russia - March 17, 2024: A voter exits a presidential election polling station.

A consensus is emerging in the Russian opposition that the recent elections in Russia and Vladimir Putin, who predictably was voted in as Russia’s president for another term, are not legitimate. They lack the real support of citizens such as might be expressed through ballots with real alternatives and in a less speech-repressing situation.


It is important that the subject of the Kremlin leader’s legitimacy has finally become mainstream within the opposition circles. But this consensus has arrived at a moment when political forces alternative to Putin’s political machine have either been silenced, jailed, or driven abroad.


During and after the previous presidential election, in 2018, most members of the Russian opposition had few illusions about the procedure’s fairness. Yet they thought that independent politicians had a duty to take part in the race to enhance their political credentials in a contest with a genuinely popular leader, Putin. 


“Putin is the most popular politician,” the opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said at the time. “We need to recognize that and think about what to do about it. We should not say that he is worthless and that we will go to the polls and win.” 


“In 2024, Russia will not have a presidential election, but a ritual to reappoint Putin for the next 12 years,” the same Gudkov said recently, echoing many of his colleagues, who had stopped seeing elections as a reflection of at least some real sentiment in Russian society. Six years ago, only Alexei Navalny put the word elections in quotation marks. Today it is a common practice among critically minded Russians.


Crying Foul: Too Late 


For the first time in its practice, the Russian election monitoring organization Golos did not just report some voting irregularities or falsifications but claimed that the entire 2024 election did not fulfill its basic purpose, “to give an idea of citizens’ attitudes,” and did not allow citizens to “independently, freely make decisions about the future of their country.” 


The illegitimacy of the state and its leader has become the central theme in the speeches of Yulia Navalnaya, who claims to be the main unifying figure of the Russian opposition after her husband’s death. She spoke about it in her speech before the EU Council on Foreign Affairs in Brussels on February 19, 2024, just three days after his murder, and in her March 13 column in the Washington Post


A day earlier, the paper had published a column by the opposition politician and activist Vladimir Kara-Murza titled “Vladimir Putin’s Next Term Is Illegal.” Both the language and the thought behind it are rapidly gaining currency.


But let us not forget that for more than two decades now, no real opposition figure has been able to challenge Putin’s standing because this standing was not achieved by fair electoral victories in the first place. 


This is why, at this stage, the opposition’s questioning of the Russian strongman’s electoral legitimacy does not come across as novel or surprising. It is, rather, stating the obvious. Exile politics, given its nature, almost inevitably is based on recognizing the ruling elites as illegitimate. 


Recognizing a leader’s illegitimacy might carry a lot more weight if it originates with a broad popular movement. The peaceful Belarusian protests following the heavily rigged 2020 presidential election is a case in point. Alexander Lukashenko’s 80 percent “landslide” in that election was less impressive than Putin’s recent 87 percent. Yet hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in protest. According to the opposition, in the immediate aftermath of the voting more than half a million were protesting in the cities of Belarus, a country with the population of 9.5 million people. 


The Belarusian public’s reaction was so unequivocal that it was not much of a stretch for many Western nations to recognize Lukashenko as illegitimate. In late September 2020 the EU officially rejected the legitimacy of the election, putting the word “inauguration” in quotation marks. The EU also condemned the repression and violence against the protesters. A Donald Trump–led United States imposed sanctions on a few dozen Belarusian officials. Later, President Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in a statement called the 2020 elections “fraudulent.” 

Recognition of Illegitimacy Must Come from Within

No Western nation would recognize the 2024 Putin election as free and fair, but the elephant in the room is Russian society’s conspicuous absence from the streets. Everybody understands the repressive nature of the Moscow regime. The cost of protest is prohibitively high. Yet by 2020, Lukashenko’s regime was arguably as repressive as its Russian backer’s. 

There is no point in further debating the worth of public opinion polls in autocracies. We have every reason to doubt the official results, but we do not know the exact level of support for Putin. 

State legitimacy as demonstrated in real support of the state by citizens is not a legal phenomenon but a sociopsychological one. As such, a regime’s legitimacy or illegitimacy does not lead to larger international political decisions with clear and understandable consequences, such as the inclusion or exclusion of a country from certain international forums. Recognition of the Belarusian strongman Lukashenko’s regime and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro’s regime as illegitimate by several countries, to take a couple of examples, has not led to tangible changes in their international status. 


It remains to be seen what the statements from the United States and the EU after Putin’s early May official inauguration in the Kremlin might be, but Russia is too large and significant to warrant a complete ban on contacts with the regime. 


After all, not a single Soviet leader was elected. The Soviet regime, to which today’s Russia is a self-proclaimed legal successor, started out as illegitimate. Domestically, communist leaders established their legitimacy through the violence of the 1918–1922 Civil War, while internationally they achieved it through skillful foreign relations policies. Other countries’ politicians, including those of the West, ended up talking to Soviet Russia’s de facto rulers. 


U.S. politicians talked to the Soviet leadership during times of crises. During the late Soviet era those contacts became regular and were a highlight of international politics of the time. 


It does make sense for world leaders to continue talking to the Moscow authorities on issues of security or other vital issues. It is up to Russian society to express its understanding of whether the current rulers legitimately hold their positions at the heart of the Russian state. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more