Speaking at the All-Russian Municipal Forum Small Homeland — the Strength of Russia Vladimir Putin addressed heads of municipalities (cities, districts and villages) from various Russian regions. The forum itself was supposed to be another element in the long string of festivities and events, into which the Kremlin’s political bloc has transformed Putin’s campaign. The political significance of the Forum and the meeting itself is clear and simple. Heads of participating municipalities talk about the positive changes that their communities have experienced during Putin’s time in the office, and he responds by promising them, and thus the inhabitants of towns and villages, additional funds to repair roads, courtyards, hospitals and schools. This would have been a predictable but effective move. However, from an electoral point of view, the Forum became a total absurdity. The president did not make any concrete promises to specific municipalities (for example, to the leaders of the million-strong cities of Krasnoyarsk and Nizhny Novgorod who spoke at the Forum) and their inhabitants. Yet the local heads of towns and villages kept thanking Putin for his wise guidance and advice. What happened was very reminiscent of a Communist Party conference during the stagnation period (1964−1985), when every public speech included exaggerated ritual thanks to the Party and its wise leaders. The difference was in the omnipresent references to the ongoing war against Ukraine: all the municipal leaders mentioned the war, «our boys at the front», and told the president how they had helped the military effort.
However, instead of making the promises that the voters expected of him, Putin for his part, started lecturing them yet again on the history of Ukraine, spoke of the «unity of the people» that «cannot be defeated» and talked about «common bathrooms for boys and girls» that are allegedly common in the West. The president also recalled the «naked party» organised by TV presenter Anastasia Ivleeva, thereby indirectly confirming that he had seen photos of the event and masterminded the attack on its guests. Putin compared those present at the party to soldiers at the front: unfavorably for the former, of course. «Here [at the front] you won’t be jumping around without your pants on, you see, people here have a completely different outlook on life, their priorities are different, their values are different,» he said, recommending that municipalities to hire veteran soldiers to work in local administration. In response, heads of municipalities were happy to talk about the «collective West», about their relatives fighting at the front and those who had fought in the Great Patriotic War. Of course, this was no improvisation: the organisers of the forum from the presidential administration spent some time preparing the event and then handpicked potential speakers who would please Putin (for example, the head of a district with a combat experience under his belt). Once again, the president, not the potential voters, became the main target audience of the event itself, which under normal circumstances should have appeased the electorate. «Our representative from Yakutia says to us today: ‘Remember, don’t invite Vladimir Vladimirovich to visit your region, Vladimir Vladimirovich has already promised us to visit us.» And your compatriots from Kronstadt say: «Do you understand that Vladimir Vladimirovich is ours [as he is from our region]?» And we understand that you belong to everyone," Irina Guseva, the host of the event and former mayor of Volgograd, went out of her way to flatter and butter up Putin.
The fact that the political bloc is doing its best to entertain the president during the election campaign is nothing new. What is new here, though, is that the Kremlin’s political administrators are not trying to establish any real connections between these entertainments and the actual reality in the country. On the contrary, these Potemkin villages, built for the pleasure of one and only beholder, are increasingly at odds with reality. The head of Nizhny Novgorod praises the infrastructural achievements of Putin’s reign, while the city is in the grips of a major infrastructural collapse. Accidents in the housing and utilities sector have occurred in many regions: people in various localities throughout the country have been left freezing in the dark without heating, electricity and water. In theory, a municipal forum in such circumstances could have been an excellent platform for Putin to appear and perform his act of magic: he could have promised Russians that he would solve the municipal problems, could have given people some figures, and punished or at least reprimanded the officials responsible for the crisis in the housing and utilities sector.
None of this happened, and the harsh reality was not allowed to alter the sugary speeches and statements of gratitude of the municipalities prepared by the presidential administration. Putin does not want to play the role of a magician and neither is he prepared to make even the minimal effort to meet the public’s concerns, not even during the elections. Instead, he wants to perform in front of the public and hear the echoes of his past speeches and flattery reflected back at him. The gap between the president and reality will not affect the outcome of the election, because Putin’s results will be secured by the mobilisation of business and public servants (teachers, low-ranking bureaucrats, doctors, etc.), combined with the system of electronic voting, which now takes several days to secure the desired result. However, the conflict between the virtual reality surrounding the president and the real situation on the ground is an important factor in the process of Putin’s «comicisation»: his transformation into a comic, ridiculous figure. Against the backdrop of heating outages, he talks about «gender-neutral shared bathrooms» in the West; against the backdrop of rising prices, Putin smiles as he listens to officials reporting to him about the huge range of «delicacies» available in local shops and tells jokes about cheese with mold. All this happens in full view of the public and is broadcast in the media, because the Russian leader himself is not embarrassed to act in this way. As a result, he is becoming the butt of many jokes, and it is likely that he will soon replace Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the stagnation period, as a staple character of jokes and memes, who understands little of reality and is totally detached from it. Brezhnev, who had no idea what was going on in the country, was widely ridiculed all across the USSR, from Soviet kitchens to factory smoking rooms and everywhere in between.
«Just as long as we do not get in your way»
Putin’s sparring partners in his election campaign are doing their best not to get in the way of Putin’s achieving a record result. The battle is now waged for the second place, which LDPR leader Leonid Slutsky wants to win to strengthen his position in the party. The Communist party does not want to lose its status as the second most popular party, despite the nomination of a fifth-place finisher, 75-year-old Duma deputy Nikolai Kharitonov, as their candidate. These people are deeply embedded in the system and, thus, do not dare to invest maximum effort and energy in their fight and campaign for fear of overdoing it and thus preventing the presidential administration and Putin from setting new records. As a result, at a meeting with the governor of Khabarovsk, Mikhail Degtyarev, the communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov listens to Degtyarov praise Putin’s good deeds and initiatives and then even shares Degtyarev’s Telegram posts on his chanel. Slutsky meets with Putin’s governors and arrives at locations that they set up for him. Vladislav Davankov, the «New People» party candidate, finds himself in even more of a pickle. He is clearly not a contender for the second place, but he could get it accidentally. He is young; moreover, Davankov and his party have not publicly and aggressively supported the war, which is not the case with the LDPR and the communists. In theory, Davankov could win over a significant proportion of the war-weary electorate and thus disrupt the plans entertained by the presidential administration to achieve a spectacular result for Putin. Vladislav Davankov understands this very well (it is noteworthy that he previously worked for the Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization «Russia — Land of Opportunities», which Sergei Kiriyenko used as a platform for his experiments with the cadres) and is doing his best to ensure that the general public knows as little as possible about him. His meetings in the regions are far and between, often even people who are interested in politics have no idea that Davankov has a meeting with the locals scheduled. Davankov tries to thread the line to the best of his abilities and sustain minimal damage in doing so. On the one hand, by touring the provinces and developing populist initiatives he creates an illusion of running for presidency as if he means it; on the other hand, he and his headquarters do everything to ensure that information about them does not go beyond the political public in Moscow. However, the politician’s rating may still exceed the percentages that suit the Kremlin’s plans. The public often reacts well to newcomers simply because they are newcomers. Therefore, Davankov’s removal under a plausible pretext — such as an illness or an agreement to take up a post in the executive branch — looks like a realistic scenario.