Russian President Vladimir Putin hit the campaign trail Wednesday, kicking off his re-election bid against a field effectively cleared of serious competitors and amid grumbles of a shaky economy.
Flying in by helicopter, a relaxed-looking Putin visited a railway carriage factory in the provincial city of Tver, about 90 miles from Moscow. For around an hour, he toured the plant, which he had ordered rescued from financial difficulties several years ago, and met with a group of workers.
After taking questions, Putin asked, “Colleagues, do you support me?”
"Of course!" they chorused. "Of course!”
Putin announced in late December that he was running for re-election, a move all but guaranteeing he'll remain in power until at least 2024. With an approval rating around 80 percent, Russia’s opposition marginalized, and media dominated by the Kremlin, he is expected to win with ease.
With a seemingly clear path to victory, the Kremlin is instead worried about enthusiasm around the election for Putin. Despite recent signs of recovery, many Russians are still feeling the economic crisis brought on by low oil prices and exacerbated by Western sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
The Kremlin -- which has focused much of its election rhetoric on the economy -- chose the Tver Wagon Factory strategically. The formerly Soviet enterprise that employs 6,000 workers has recently recovered from several years of crisis, the beneficiary of one of Putin’s signature televised interventions.
In 2009, Putin visited the plant in front of news cameras, before ordering an emergency bailout package for it.
On Wednesday, the plant’s director, Andrey Solovey, said that the workers at the plant will be free to vote their conscience. And not everyone at the plant said they backed Putin. Oleg, 37, a worker who refused to give his last name to avoid inviting trouble at the factory, said he joined the plant after the economic crisis cost him his flower shop business, and he would no longer vote for Putin.
"I am disappointed," said Oleg, while installing electronics on a tramcar. “The constitution is violated a lot, while our economic partners are only Third World countries and Asian ones -- Venezuela, Iran, etc. It’s not normal.”
His co-worker, Kirill Smirnov, 22, disagreed, lauding Putin.
“He at least has done something with our foreign policy,” he said. “OK, so for now things aren’t so great in the country, but I think at some point we’ll achieve a higher level.
“The only shame is it seems I won’t see him,” Smirnov said.
“It’s a shame there’s no legal opposition in this country,” Oleg interjected.
Putin is facing little competition in the election. Putin’s most substantial challenger, Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who has led national protests this year, has been removed from the ballot because of a fraud conviction.
Navalny, who claims the charges were trumped up, has called for the other candidates to boycott the election.
Those candidates who are allowed to run are a familiar cast of figures: some whom Putin has already defeated in previous elections, and a celebrity journalist who has said she has no chance of winning.
Ksenia Sobchak is a TV personality and the daughter of Putin’s political mentor. One of Russia’s best-known celebrities, Sobchak is running as a protest vote, criticizing pressure on the opposition and official corruption. But she has been accused of coordinating her run with the Kremlin, which has hinted it is pleased that her involvement will spice up the race.
Sobchak’s entry has been followed by a flood of other candidates -- 67 in all, according to Russia's electoral commission, a record number under Putin. Commentators have begun to refer to a “Sobchak effect.” Many are novelty candidates -- among them, a man called Lucky Lee, who says his strip club can bring about world peace.
Many of them will not meet the threshold of 300,000 signatures needed to make it onto the ballot.
Putin himself is running as an independent, distancing himself from his ruling party, United Russia, which has become increasingly unpopular, blamed for corruption and economic malaise.
So far, the Kremlin’s efforts to inject interest into the election seem to have had mixed results. This week, the usually Kremlin-leaning tabloid Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Russia’s most-read newspaper, ran an article decrying that the elections have become a "show."
"If you decorate a funeral car with ribbons and flowers, then from a distance it will seem like a wedding car," the paper wrote. "But on closer inspection, it will turn out that there’s nothing wedding-like about it."