On 4 November, Moscow’s Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (VDNKh) kicked off the large-scale «Russiya» International Exhibition and Forum, the biggest event of Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign. His campaign has not been formaly launched yet, let alone officially announced (registration and nomination of candidates begins in December), but its background events have long been on the news agenda. The «Russiya» Forum at the VDNKh is the main backdrop to the campaign, an exhibition of the «achievements of the Putin era» that will run until 12 April, 2024. All regions, federal ministries and state corporations have prepared booths for it. The «achievements» showcased at most of the booths were literally virtual: visitors were offered to look at them through VR glasses or admire them on touch screens. At the same time, according to the original design, the country’s different regions participating in the exhibition were supposed to present information on infrastructure and social projects, which would show how much «better and merrier» has life under Putin become for ordinary Russians.
Despite the predominantly virtual nature of the exhibits, the composition of the official delegation that graced the opening was anything but virtual and very impressive. The most high-ranking guest was none other than Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, with deputy prime ministers also present at the booths. Sergei Kiriyenko — the chairman of the exhibition’s organising committee and head of the Kremlin’s political bloc, — was also present. The main guest, Vladimir Putin, did not attend the opening, although his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, promised that the president would definitely do so at some point. It is likely that the Russian leader did not come to the exhibition because some of the pavilions were not ready. Besides, Putin does not like to make predictable moves, even if he is about to make them anyway in the nearest future. Taking part in the opening of the exhibition was probably a tad too predictable. Moreover, Sergei Kiriyenko’s political bloc wanted the president to announce his intention to run at this flagship event and tried to announce it in the media. Usually, Kiriyenko manages to anticipate Putin’s wishes and lure him with his projects (e.g. personnel competitions). But in the case of the «Russiya» Forum, Kiriyenko’s prediction skills have failed him. The chief’s desire to maintain secrecy until the last minute proved stronger than his political manager’s suggestions.
The situation with the exhibition showed that Vladimir Putin has his own ideas about the election campaign. He is ready to disrupt the cohesive plans of his administration’s political bloc led by Kiriyenko and does not hesitate to put him in a difficult position. So far, regional authorities and state corporations have been trying to promote their participation in the exhibition, seeing it as a major event and an opportunity to show their diligence to the federal leadership. But the president’s absence could send a signal to the elites: the forum is not that important, so its events can be sidelined. It is far from certain that Putin really wants to send this message: after all, he can come to the exhibition at any point later and decide to praise it. But his tactics have the potential to demotivate the elite at a crucial moment in the presidential campaign. It turns out that Kiriyenko is drawing a line, guided by political-technical logic and his own considerations, while the president is drawing his own lines based on the KGB or secret-service type logica of covering one’s tracks. It is very difficult for the Kremlin’s political bloc to connect these lines — and dots — for the elite and motivate them to participate in the campaign. Kiriyenko tried to do this and normalise the situation. The «organizers of the exhibition» announced that Putin would deliver his statement there in March. But this information was quickly refuted by Dmitry Peskov, and the announcement of Putin’s statement disappeared from media websites. In the eyes of the Russian elite, the forum has suffered a yet another blow. It is likely that Putin does entertain plans to deliver his statement at the exhibition, but once these plans are made public, the same KGB logic will force him to reconsider these plans. The president is beginning to create chaos in the plans of his political managers, thus destroying the cohesive logic of the campaign they have designed.
The behaviour of Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, may also add to the overall confusion. He continues to test the strength of Russian vertical of power. We have already written elsewhere about the fact that Kadyrov is forcing the leaders of Muslim national republics to swear an oath of personal alegiance to him by bestowing high awards on his son Adam, and naming Chechen battalions after sheikhs who fought against the Russian empire. This week, the Chechen leader threatened to sack those officials whose children do not know Chechen and speak Russian. The announcement worked to exacerbate the issue of national language proficiency, which is hot for the majority of the republics (not exlusively the Muslim ones). Now the federal authorities are deliberately minimising the weight of the national languages in the curricula: they are increasingly becoming optional in schools and the hours allocated to the study of such languages are being reduced. Activists of national movements protest, often expressing the opinion of the national elites, but the federal centre does not listen to them. Kadyrov’s actions may force these movements to raise the issue of national languages with the federal authorities again at the most inconvenient moment. After all, «national harmony» is one of the main pillars of Putin’s campaign and an element of his public image, which he is carefully constructing. The federal authorities are likely to refuse to make concessions on the language issue, which will deal a new blow to Putin’s image of a guarantor of this multicultural bliss.
Ramzan Kadyrov himself, who is falling deeper and deeper into the trap of permissiveness, is also likely to suffer, and there are many among the security forces who want to slam the doors of this trap shut behind him. Kadyrov’s attempt to make the national issue hot and controversial is another reason to slam the door behind him shut. For the power bloc, Kadyrov’s disobedience is advantageous, but his logic yet again undermines the logic of Putin’s campaign that celebrates the alleged «symphony of Russia’s peoples.»
The unexpected «new» priorities/territories
There is another contradiction in Putin’s campaign, introduced by the president himself. He pays a lot of attention to the annexed territories of Ukraine and often meets with their pro-Russian leaders. The Kremlin’s information and political blocs are thus forced to take these preferences into account and provide media coverage for them. However, Putin’s preoccupations have little impact on Russian public opinion. Even according to the polls conducted by sociological centres loyal to presidential administration, 28% of respondents think that the government’s support for the «new regions» is excessive, while 53% think it is sufficient. At the same time, Putin is constantly emphasising the growing volume of aid siphoned to the occupied territories and its current inadequacy. At such moments, the residents of Russia’s regions feel deprived: they are invited to look through the virtual reality pink glasses at the «Russiya» exhibition and itis many virtual achievements while, according to official media reports, money flows into the occupied territories. The presidential administration has already been through this story with Crimea and has probably drawn conclusions, but Putin has not. The emphasis on the «new territories» is more of a disadvantage than an advantage for Putin’s campaign, but that is what the client — Putin himself — wants. On the other hand, against such a backdrop it will be all the more difficult for the campaign’s managers to set records for voter turnout and «pro-Putin» percentages.