What South Ossetia Can Teach Us About Russian Politics

Putin’s rating soars Amid Russia’s War in Ukraine.” According to the Levada center (a generally respected Russian polling firm), as of late March 2022 an amazing 83 percent of Russians said they supported Vladimir Putin, an increase from his numbers before the expanded invasion of Ukraine. If these ratings are to be believed, then Putin could actually still win a free election in Russia if one were held today. But Putin has supposedly enjoyed high poll numbers for years—why does he consistently act like he is cornered? If it is true that Putin and his people are confident of the public’s support, why don’t they ever ask the public for a real mandate? Why does he keep having sham elections and killing his opponents, opponents who might poll only in the single digits? There is Boris Nemtsov, whom the Levada center polled at 6 percent in the mid-2000s. Why did he attempt to kill Alexei Navalny with nerve gas? And why is Navalny currently in a gulag and en route to a different, notoriously terrible prison colony with a reputation for torture?

Putin’s manifest hostility to democracy in Russia is not just about his paranoia. If he wants to maintain his dictatorial power and his grip on the minds of Russians then he must keep Russian politics locked securely down. It would just be a foolish risk for him at this point to let a real opposition appear to contest elections, even if he kept control of the security forces, and all the TV stations, and even controlled the final vote count. Elections means campaigns, and campaigns mean publicity, which could provide a platform for inconvenient messages. Even if the result is predictable, any unpredictability in what is said or done in the campaign could introduce narratives. 

To illustrate the possible dangers that even partly free political campaigns would present to Putin, let’s quickly take a look at South Ossetian presidential politics. This little Russian proxy inside Georgia has been de facto independent since the fall of the USSR and had this de facto independence protected by “Russian peacekeepers” (Russian soldiers with a white stripe on their helmet). In fact, “defending” South Ossetia was the official casus belli for Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Russia recognized South Ossetia as independent that year, and there has been a general expectation that at some point it might fully “join” Russia the way Crimea did in 2014. South Ossetia is an important base for Russia to threaten the rest of Georgia—the border of the proxy republic is just north of the main East-West highway in Georgia—and the main oil pipeline. 

Even so, South Ossetia has some kind of “democratic” politics, or perhaps one should say that it holds elections. According to Freedom House, “Although South Ossetia’s elections occur regularly, they are severely restricted at all stages of the process, and are not monitored by independent observers or recognized by the international community” and that during the 2017 election “political debate and competition only occurred within a narrow field of candidates allowed by Russia and pro-Russian authorities.” The U.S., EU, and Georgia do not recognize any of the elections that are held in the region, and the only countries that have recognized South Ossetia other than Russia are Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the tiny Pacific island of Nauru. 

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