By RFE RL
By Tom Balmforth
(RFE/RL) — The first appearance was in front of throngs of euphoric young people. The second was before cheering workers at a car manufacturing plant in a regional city. Vladimir Putin has finally announced what few had doubted: He will seek reelection as Russia’s president in the March vote.
But if Putin’s decision was all but predicted, the strategy he and his advisers will use in the coming campaign has so far been unknown. The staggered December 6 announcement came in two grand, highly choreographed TV appearances and offered the first indications of the optics and tactics the Kremlin will use to help coast Putin to victory.
In his first appearance in Moscow, the 65-year-old Putin, wearing a suit and a purple tie, swaggered onto a stage in front of a huge hall of beaming young activist volunteers — some wearing glowing wristbands and recording with smartphones. There, he dropped his biggest hint yet that he would seek to extend his rule until 2024, saying he would make his decision “soon.”
Soon came just a few hours later, when Putin appeared at a second event, this time in the Volga region industrial city of Nizhny Novgorod. Standing on a stage at the GAZ auto manufacturing plant, which makes boxy Volga sedans and GAZ light trucks, Putin, sporting a navy tie this time and surrounded by workmen in slacks, announced his intention to run.
“I will put forth my candidacy for the post of president of the Russian Federation,” Putin said on live TV.
Asked whether he would run for reelection by a GAZ workman — who later insisted that his question hadn’t been scripted — Putin said that he couldn’t “think of a better time or place to announce it,” after which the crowd erupted in chants of “GAZ is for you!”
Valentina Buzmakova, a political analyst in Nizhny Novgorod, said the Kremlin is hoping to invigorate Putin’s image through his proximity to young people and predicted he will continue to do so throughout his campaign.
She called the auto factory a “postcard enterprise.”
“They needed a postcard and a workers’ collective, and against this backdrop, Mr. Putin, the servant of the people, the candidate of the people, announced his participation in the election,” she told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
“He is now going to undoubtedly choose a young audience so that there are as many smiling young faces around him to make him look younger. This is all calculated and he’s been doing this for a long time,” she said.
Putin has courted younger voters at a series of youth forums and events organized by authorities in recent months.
These events, all of which are covered extensively on state TV and elsewhere, suggested a Kremlin concern about a lack of support from younger Russians, who may be drawn to Kremlin gadfly and anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny.
Despite being blacklisted from opinion-shaping national TV, Navalny has twice this year brought thousands of his supporters onto the streets in the capital and across the country in anti-Kremlin protests. He’s harnessed social media like Twitter and in particular YouTube to attract young supporters.
Last December, Navalny, 41, announced his intention to take part in the election in March and has since set up scores of campaign offices and met voters across the country. However, he is likely to be barred outright from taking part because of a criminal conviction on charges he says were trumped up to keep him off the ballot.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Russian Service on December 4, Navalny ally Vladimir Milov said it is wrong to expect Navalny’s campaign to give up and throw in the towel if or when he is officially barred from running.
“That will only be the start of it,” Milov said, claiming they will dispute the decision in court and “fight for Navalny’s registration until March 18,” the scheduled date of the election, and beyond.
Writing on Twitter on December 6, Navalny noted how Putin’s presidential announcement was made not far from where Navalny’s campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, is being held on a 30-day jail sentence.
Volkov was jailed for organizing a rally in Nizhny Novgorod that authorities said he did not have permission to hold. He insists he did have permission.
“The best illustration of how elections work in Russia is that Putin announced his candidacy in Nizhny Novgorod, and 1 kilometer away from him is the cell containing Leonid Volkov, the head of my campaign headquarters. He was arrested for conducting an election campaign.”
In an opinion piece for Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper’s chief political editor, Kirill Martynov, argues that the optics of the announcement — Putin flanked by blue-collar automotive workers — appears to pave the way for an ultraconservative campaign.
“The format of the announcement was maximally conservative, which definitely will influence the onward course of the campaign and its results. The details speak for themselves,” Martynov wrote.
The last time Putin announced that he would stand again for president was in September 2011 when he declared he would return to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister.
The constitution prevents presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms, and Putin honored this rule, stepping aside for four years as Dmitry Medvedev served as president from 2008-12. The constitution was later amended, however, by Medvedev to allow presidents to serve for six-year terms.
The 2011 announcement that Putin would return riled a swathe of Russians, particularly in the capital and in big cities. Thousands took to the streets months later to protest against alleged fraud during parliamentary elections in December 2011.
Putin weathered those protests, making a conservative pivot in his politics and making overtures to blue-collar workers. After his reelection, he appointed Igor Kholmanskikh, a tank factory foreman, as his special presidential envoy to the Urals region.
There were echoes of this in his December 6 announcement at the car factory, though with Putin’s genuine popularity and the Kremlin’s tight grip on both media and the levers of power, some analysts played down the significance of the location.
“Of course, it is interesting that he chose a big factory to demonstrate his proximity to the people,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Moscow-based Mercator think tank. “But who would doubt this? He could have done it, for instance, somewhere in a remote village and it wouldn’t have looked bad.”