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Putin’s Pyrrhic Victory: No Change, or All Change?

In the end, for all the fevered discussion of recent months, Putin’s third presidential election victory on March 4, 2012 looks on face value much like his previous two: a first-round landslide that surpassed all his opponents put together; the communists in a distant second, and a rag-bag of liberal, nationalist and pro-regime candidates polling in single digits. What’s more, Putin’s result comfortably surpassed the 49 percent score for the pro-regime United Russia party in December, the 50 percent threshold for avoiding a second-round and his 53 percent support in 2000.

Of course, this score was likely massaged: it’s notable that Putin was the only candidate whose final tally surpassed the exit-poll estimate given by VTsIOM (58.3) and FOM (59.3), and even Russia-watchers who are not normally particularly anti-Putin (such as Anatoly Karlin) estimate the rate of fraud at 3-4 percent.

Still, such peripheral fraud is nothing new to Russian elections and a support base of nearly 60 percent is enviable for a leader entering his twelfth year at the political apex. But Putin’s post-victory tears (though he blamed them on the bitter wind) indicate that this was Putin’s most emotional and hard-fought victory yet, and perhaps one that he was never fully sure of until the count. So is the initial impression of business-as-usual merely illusory? How much has actually changed?


Three continuities in Russian politics

1)    Putin remains overwhelmingly popular (for now). Sure, the aura of invincibility is deflating. Sure, his popularity is maintained by control of the electronic media and by combating an array of deliberately weakened opponents in order to perpetuate the myth of his own indispensability to Russia’s greatness. Sure, even bona fide dictators like Lukashenka of Belarus have a core of popularity! But, as Edwin Bacon notes on his recent blog, the Putin narrative of stability, law and order, national pride and state-led democratisation lies at the root of his political longevity. Although this narrative is fast losing its logic and attractiveness to younger, more urban voters, it had enough sway outside Moscow and St Petersburg to provide Putin with a bedrock of support nationwide that no other personality or political force could match. Given that during the campaign Putin disassociated himself from the unpopular United Russia party, took a soft line towards opposition protests and made some modest concessions to them, this was enough to drive him over the finish-line with some momentum. Even in January it was apparent from opinion polls that a second election round would be unlikely.

2)    The opposition remains critically weak (for now). Despite marshalling unprecedented crowds in the winter cold, despite bringing a new generation of political leaders such as Alexei Navalny to the fore to surpass the discredited Kasparovs and Limonovs of the 2000s, and despite gaining some symbolic response from the authorities, the opposition lacks any real purchase on state power. None of the parties or candidates in the parliamentary or presidential elections were truly oppositional. Naturally, this is the result of quite deliberate engineering by the authorities, which have long co-opted the official parliamentary opposition and prevented any non-approved candidates registering or even co-operating with establishment figures. This barrier began to break down in 2010-2011 with a number of Duma deputies (such as Just Russia’s Gennadii Gudkov) participating in opposition rallies, with a co-operation agreement between Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov and the Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, not to mention the parliamentary opposition’s wholesale appropriation of Navalny’s slogan of United Russia as ‘the party of thieves and swindlers’. Furthermore, the Kremlin has promised to relax the rules on party registration (post-election, naturally), which could theoretically open the floodgates to more ‘non-system’ electoral candidates. However, the way in which it refused to register Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinkii for the presidential election hardly indicates any real change of heart. Absent real possibilities for electoral success, the opposition is going to have to put the onus on street and internet organisation, a formidable task in a country of Russia’s size, complexity and diversity.

3)    There is no ‘coloured revolution’ (yet). A number of analysts have already dubbed the 2011-12 protests as Russia’s ‘white’ or ‘snow’ revolution. These are misleading soundbites that obscure more than they illuminate. For one thing, the ‘coloured’ revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-5 were not revolutionary at all: sure, they resulted in elite rotation and a messy movement towards more pluralist politics, but any glance at the contemporary administrations of Viktor Yanukovych and Mikheil Saakashvili shows that the democratic transformation has been anything but substantive.


Although contemporary Russian developments share the coloured revolutions’ root causes, particularly discontent at egregious corruption and blatant electoral fraud, the path towards genuine revolutionary transformation is likely to be still more fraught. Not only does the Russian opposition lack support from high-ranking officials who might highlight and magnify the split in the elite as they did in Georgia and Ukraine, but it clearly lacks the hundreds of thousands who flooded the streets and paralysed the ruling regimes in 2003-5. Moreover, since then, the Kremlin has adeptly flooded the public spaces with thousands of Putin ‘supporters’ motivated largely by their wish to stamp out the coloured ‘virus’. This is not to say that an analogous ‘revolution’ will not occur in Russia (I believe it will), merely that it is at a far earlier stage and faces far more formidable obstacles. If any recent historical parallel is possible, then arguably it is the ‘Kuchmagate’ protests in Ukraine in 2000, when the opposition first started to coalesce in protest against Kuchma’s blatant law-breaking, eventually paving the way for a successful protest against fraudulent elections in 2004

And the three big changes…..


1)    Putin has lost his mojo… For most of the 2000s, it looked like Putin was master of all he surveyed. Far from the colourless bureaucrat his detractors argued, he projected an image of incorruptability, implacability, charisma and vigour that shaded all his opponents and which allowed him to rebound from potential policy disasters (e.g. the Beslan atrocity of 2004) to shape the very institutions of Russia to his political agenda. But long before his disastrously botched return to the Kremlin was announced in September 2011, it was clear that the Kremlin spin-doctors were losing their sure touch. For instance, the regional elections of October 2009 were so blatantly rigged that even the Duma’s usually spineless opposition took umbrage. In 2011 two of the Kremlin’s puppet opposition parties, Just Russia and Right Cause, shirked the presidential leash and attacked the Kremlin; Putin’s personal image suffered under rumours of a facelift, lovechild, secret palace, illicit secret billions and clumsy PR tricks such as his miraculous discovery of ancient amphorae on a Black Sea dive in summer 2011. The contrast to his austere and modest leadership style of the early 2000s was stark, and public discontent with escalating corruption reinforced the sense of a vain and self-interested leader that his clumsy return to the Kremlin seemed to validate. During the 2012 election, Putin appeared to regain some control of the agenda with lengthy if rambling press articles and a campaign calculated to appeal to Russians’ fear of instability. But it remains doubtful whether third-term Putin can address the fundamental issues his first two terms have only exacerbated: principally corruption, economic diversification and political stagnation.

2)    Medvedev mattered. Well, he did for a time. Ultimately, the many caricatures of Medvedev as Putin’s ‘mini-me’ were borne out by his ignominious ‘castling’ by Putin. He is today even more a diminished figure and, even if he is to be appointed prime minister as promised, he many not last long. Medvedev’s plans for modernisation were revealed to be as ephemeral as his paltry policy achievements. But even a fig-leaf democrat is arguably better than none, and what was revealed by his departure was that his rhetoric was enough to raise expectations of a slow liberalisation among a significant proportion of the emerging middle-class electorate. These raised expectations were everywhere apparent in 2011-2012, because while the scale of electoral fraud and manipulation was much as it has ever been, the threshold of tolerance has been lowered, and the wish to hold the authorities to their declared democratic goals was increased. This is the major danger for Putin going forward: because the ‘tandem’ is no more and because no convincing narrative of why Medvedev stood down has ever been presented, Putin alone will have to respond to these heightened expectations. Whether a politician who has long expressed his contempt for the Internet, regards the opposition as ‘monkeys’ and more than ever regards himself as indispensable can respond adequately to his electorate’s raised expectations is more than doubtful. As de Gaulle is once supposed to have remarked: ‘The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.’ By so publicly repudiating his own successor, Putin may prove to have dug the grave for his own political career and ultimately his legacy

3)    Russian politics is back. I was at a conference in the US in November where the vast majority of analysts thought that the imminent elections would change nothing and indeed, barely mattered. Though unfortunate, these sentiments were completely explicable after a protracted period in Russia where public divisions barely appeared, the parties and social movements were regulated into atrophy, and the Russian state appeared to confront few obstacles except its own competence in driving its own domestic agenda. The view of Russia as a consolidated authoritarian state increasingly took hold. To be fair, a number of observers have long noticed latent protest sentiments beneath the shell of uniformity, but everyone struggled to assess their strength and significance. Now, however inchoate, incoherent and disparate, the public realm has expanded via the street and internet alike, even if as yet only partially via the ballot box. The Kremlin began losing control of the political agenda in late 2011 to a plethora of newer political voices and it remains to be seen whether Putin’s victory results in the state lastingly regaining initiative or a process of inexorable diminishing of Putin’s control.


In sum, nothing changed and everything changed in the 2011-2012 elections. In any period of dramatic crisis, elements of continuity and change interact into a new amalgam whose contours only gradually become clear. So, we should beware any premature attempt to proclaim ‘revolutionary’ changes, much as we should avoid seeing just a perpetuation of the status quo.

Formally, the status quo appears reinforced: Putin has potentially another 12 years in power and the opposition has gained not a fraction of state power. What’s more, we’re a long way off seeing genuinely competitive and unpredictable elections marking a true democracy. On the other hand, Putin’s sure touch has deserted him, his decision to jettison Medvedev has weakened them both, and he confronts a turbulent and changing environment where reasserting the Kremlin’s near-monopoly over public life will be difficult if not impossible. Putin may later come to regard winning power in March 2012 as the easy part; retaining it for a complete 6 year term will be still harder. Retaining it for the full twelve? That’s now all but inconceivable.


Luke March is Senior Lecturer in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics, University of Edinburgh

Published inElectionsInternational PoliticsRussiaRussia 2012

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