Kremlin Wages Culture War to Rally Putin’s Voters at Election

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(Bloomberg) -- The Kremlin is rallying support for Vladimir Putin’s election to a fifth presidential term by pitching him as the defender of traditional Russian values against the “liberal” West, as the war in Ukraine grinds on with no resolution in sight.

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That’s translating into harsher persecution of LGBT people, growing calls for restrictions on abortion, pressure on women to focus on childbirth instead of careers and efforts to boost patriotic education in schools in an effort to rally Russians behind Putin’s candidacy. He’s widely expected shortly to declare he’s running for another six-year term after Russian lawmakers on Thursday announced the election will be held on March 17, 2024.

The Kremlin plans to present Putin in the election campaign as the guarantor of a Russian civilization that’s under attack by a West bent on destroying the traditional family, religious faith and national pride, said three people with links to the administration.

“Opposition to the West, protection from Western influence, and upholding sovereignty will undoubtedly be the most important thematic part of Putin’s election campaign,” said Alexei Chesnakov, a former senior Kremlin official and political consultant. “Moral justifications of this choice, appeal to historical tradition and justification of some difficulties of the current period by the inevitability of future victories are important elements.”

Putin’s certain to win the tightly-controlled election and officials are determined to deliver an overwhelming majority in a high turnout to portray the vote as public endorsement of his invasion of Ukraine. While he may trumpet Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions it doesn’t fully control as evidence he’s winning the war, Putin’s army remains bogged down against Ukrainian forces backed by billions of dollars in weapons from the US and NATO allies.

An invasion meant to last for days will be entering its third year by the time of the election.

The campaign will highlight new schools and hospitals in provincial cities to show social conditions are improving, though the war will remain on the election agenda as a unifying factor to rally voters behind Putin, according to an official with knowledge of the Kremlin’s preparations.

“We’re defending our traditions, our culture, and our people,” Putin said at the annual Valdai Club meeting in October. The US seeks global “hegemony” and European nations are “destroying their roots that grow from the Christian culture,” he said.

At Russia’s Federal Assembly in February, Putin told lawmakers that Western leaders “plan to finish us once and for all,” and continued: “Look what they are doing to their own people. It is all about the destruction of the family, of cultural and national identity.”

The government revived attacks on gay rights, long a target for the Kremlin, when the Supreme Court approved a Justice Ministry application Nov. 30 to ban the “international LGBT public movement” as extremist. Critics warned the ruling potentially leaves anyone at risk of long jail terms for promoting “non-traditional” relationships.

Calls from the Russian Orthodox Church to restrict abortion access are also energizing Putin’s conservative electoral base. After Patriarch Kirill wrote in November to the State Duma asking it to outlaw abortions in private clinics, Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a close Putin ally, urged lawmakers to consider the proposal.

Private clinics in several Russian regions have already ceased to offer abortion services under pressure from officials.

Putin hasn’t publicly supported a ban and the procedure is still offered in state clinics, where most terminations are performed. Still, the debate erupted even as the number of abortions in Russia has declined to about 500,000 per year, far below Sovet-era levels and to a rate similar to many European countries.

The Kremlin “doesn’t want it to overheat so that the topic sounds like a ban on abortion,” political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya said. “The population is against a ban.”

Still, there are signs the family-values rhetoric may be entering unpredictable territory, with some pro-Kremlin politicians challenging women’s ambitions to pursue careers — and even gain a degree — rather than produce children to ease a deepening demographic crisis in Russia.

“We need to stop encouraging young women to obtain higher education” because their career goals mean “the childbearing function is missed,” Margarita Pavlova, a senator in Russia’s Federation Council, said in a November interview with Tsargrad TV, a channel owned by Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian Orthodox nationalist supporter of Putin.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko voiced similar sentiments in July, telling the State Duma it was a “completely vicious practice” that women considered having children only after higher education and building a career.

Putin weighed in Nov. 28, telling a meeting of the World Russian People’s Council that “many of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers had seven, eight, or even more children. Let us preserve and revive these excellent traditions.”

The focus on values allows officials to deflect scrutiny of Putin’s economic record amid unprecedented international sanctions over the war. Days before the 2018 election, he told lawmakers and officials “Russia must firmly assert itself among the five largest global economies” by the middle of this decade.

It’s now 11th, according to International Monetary Fund data. The ruble has slumped by more than a third against the dollar during Putin’s current term.

To be sure, economic issues have little influence on Putin’s popularity as Russians rally round the flag in wartime, with ruble weakening likely to have the biggest impact, according to Bloomberg Economics Russia economist Alexander Isakov. Polling by the Moscow-based Levada Center showed Putin’s approval rating was 85% in November, up from 69% just before the war started and the highest level since January 2017.

In schools and universities, efforts to shape the new generation in Putin’s image are being stepped up. Classes in basic military training have been revived in schools, while a new history textbook co-authored by presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky justifies the war in Ukraine, laments the Soviet Union’s collapse, and accuses the West of seeking to destabilize Russia.

The textbook is “designed to show the unconditional rightness of Russia in its eternal struggle with the West,” Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, wrote on Telegram after it was presented in August. It’s ”addressed to pre-conscripts and their girlfriends,” he said.

The Kremlin is likely to present “victory” in that confrontation as a goal stretching beyond 2024 and “as the main content of Putin’s stay in power after the presidential elections,”said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Russia’s very existence is turning into an endless rematch with the West,” he said.

--With assistance from Kate Seaman.

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