The rather disconcerting curtain-raiser to the Russian election on 18 March is suggestive of Vladimir Putin’s determination to sustain his monolithic leadership. That anxiety partially explains the decision of the Election Committee ~ an echo chamber of the Kremlin ~ to bar the government’s critic, Alexei Navalny, from running against the President of Russia. The move could well undermine the legitimacy of the vote in a purported democracy… more than 26 years after the Communist architecture was demolished (August 1991). The Opposition has, equally legitimately, called for a boycott ~ a threat that has swiftly been greeted by the Kremlin with hints at reprisals.

The government is scarcely in a mood to compromise; if it has its way the Russian election could well turn out to be a shambolic contest between Mr Putin versus none. It could be a partyless election as well given the President’s resolve not to flaunt the United Russia party label, but to go solo in the election to the highest office of the land. “To go to the polling station now is to vote for lies and corruption,” was Navalny’s immediate response.  There is little doubt that Putin will conduct the election on his terms. He might be nominating a handful of contestants  between now and March, making sure that they don’t pose a threat.

The conduct of the polls, more importantly the decision to bar Navalny, has already had repercussions in Europe. On closer reflection, Putin is on notice once again after the cache of Western sanctions in the wake of the intervention in Ukraine.  The EU has said in a statement that the bar “casts a serious doubt on political pluralism in Russia and the prospect of democratic elections next year”.   The decision doesn’t hold water when contextualised with the ruling of  the European Court of  Human Rights, specifically that Navalny had been denied the right to a fair trial on the charges cited by the Russian authorities. The boycott call is an intrepid response to the challenge and even the Kremlin isn’t too sure whether it is in violation of Russian law.

Hence its spokesman, Dmitry Peskov’s suggestion that it ought to be “rigorously studied”, a statement that has been interpreted as a thinly veiled threat of punishment. Calls for election boycott  are not illegal under Russian law, but authorities had last year blocked several websites that had been urging Russians not to vote in parliamentary elections. Putin is almost certain to win re-election for the fourth term that will  keep him in power until 2024. Navalny’s participation would doubtless have heightened interest, and even resulted in a higher turnout. A boycott by the Opposition and liberals can scarcely stall Vladimir Putin’s inevitable election victory, however.