Meet the Russian-Australian 'Putinistas' backing Vladimir Putin at the polls — and his critics

webnexttech | Meet the Russian-Australian 'Putinistas' backing Vladimir Putin at the polls — and his critics

Russian President Vladimir Putin has held onto power for more than 20 years, making him the longest-reigning Russian leader since Joseph Stalin. As the country goes to the polls for this year's March 15-17 election , many believe Putin is certain to win another six years in power. “An election of this nature is an election in name only,” says Peter Tesch, who served as Australia’s ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2016 to 2019. “The political chicanery which characterised Vladimir Putin's highly personalised system of power and authority means he will undoubtedly be enthroned for another six years,” Tesch told SBS. “If he remains fit and well in 2030, he will be enthroned for another six years.” However, some members of the expat community — whom SBS News interviewed while they cast early votes at Russian House in Melbourne — are backing the president. “I was born in the USSR (Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics) and when the USSR collapsed, it was the beginning of the 90s — quite a harsh time for Russia,” said Viktor. “At some point, I thought the country will fall apart but fortunately for us, by my opinion, the team of Putin's came and got it [back] together. “I have an opportunity to go to Russia every year … I can see how the country is changing and those changes are very positive.” According to the 2021 census, more than 23,000 people in Australia were born in the Russian Federation, but support for President Putin extends beyond this cohort. “There are people who endorse his view that Russia is the custodian of conservative values,” said Matthew Sussex, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Such people believe that Russia is “leading the fight against woke culture, that the West has become morally depraved,” he told SBS News. “In addition to that, I think there's just a sense that Putin is a contrarian who stands up to other established authorities.” Putinista is the name coined for those who support the Russian president. According to a 2023 Lowy Institute poll looking at the confidence Australians hold in World Leaders, 80 per cent of Australian respondents had no confidence in President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, while 7 per cent expressed some or a lot of confidence. But for some of his supporters, there's one priority on their mind. “Russia, [the] future of Russia, [the] safety of Russia,” Irene told SBS News. “In my point of view, he should be more aggressive … to finish this war, sooner,” she said, referring to Russia's war with Ukraine which has now entered its third year. Irene left Russia for New Zealand and then moved to Australia in 1999. “I know the outcome [of this election], everybody knows the outcome — Putin, and a bright future for Russia.” With a crackdown on dissidents and laws restricting criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine, human rights groups have concluded it’s almost impossible for people in Russia to protest. Opposition voices are also under threat — the latest being Leonid Volkov, a close ally of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who was hospitalised after being attacked with a hammer in Lithuania earlier this week. “The system has demonstrated not only a capacity but an intent to reach opponents wherever they may be,” Tesch told SBS News. “Opponents in the country, of course, are either dead or incarcerated. Opponents outside the country are being derided, being charged with crimes under the Russian criminal code. “Whether it’s the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury of 2018, the attack on Leonid Volkov, the killing of Alexei Navalny in the Arctic Penal colony and the incarceration on bogus charges of anybody who has dared to critique Putin’s system, it shows very clearly the inherent nature of that system.” This assessment was mirrored by Sussex. “The main issue is the war in Ukraine, although the Russian government doesn't refer to it as that,” he said. “What we've got here is the hollowing out of Russia's political opposition and essentially the message being sent to Russians that there is no alternative to Putin.” The Kremlin has denied any state involvement in Alexei Navalny’s death. The fate of Russia’s top opposition leader Alexei Navalny has not deterred those who share his politics, with his supporters in Australia heeding his call to turn out at polling booths at midday in protest. “I think it's a very important symbolic gesture, to show our compatriots in Russia, that we on the other side of the globe still follow the events in Russia — we still want the best for Russia,” Petr Kuzmin, the official representative of Navalny’s team in Australia, told SBS News. “In Russia, it’s impossible to control the vote count. Putin’s regime is controlling both who gets on the ballot and also how the votes get counted. “We cannot count on real results to be known in Russia.” In the Sydney suburb of Woollahra, members of the Russian community are tending to a makeshift memorial for Navalny, which they say has been repeatedly destroyed. “I see around me, Putin's sympathisers, and I want to ask them: 'Why not take a chance to live there?'” said Ekaterina Trushkina Rezende. “'Try to exercise your rights, basic human rights, try to say what you think, try to do what you think is right' — it's almost impossible there. “I want to say to Russian people who are against Putin: 'Please don’t give up, stay strong.' It’s really hard to live there and be against this government.” Ilya Fomin is part of the anti-Kremlin Svoboda Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation aiming to fight Russian-language propaganda in Australia. The organisation has been listed by the Russian government as an 'undesirable' entity. He told SBS News it is in Putin’s interest to sow discord in the diaspora. “Russia wants to decrease the cohesion in different countries because this makes it easier for Russia to make its aggressive actions,” he said. “There is no such thing as elections — it’s even hard to say this is a voting procedure. “To the very best extent, we can call it an approval procedure, where Putin self-approves himself.”

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