Putin's progress

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

Russia: Vladimir Putin wins the presidential election for a third time amidst a wave of protests against him.

in Moscow

THE presidential election in Russia on March 4 saw Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reclaim the top Kremlin job for a third time. Despite a recent wave of protests against his return, Putin polled more than 63 per cent of the votes cast in the race against four other contenders. Opposition leaders and independent election monitors said Putin's result was inflated through multiple voting, absentee ballots and plain vote falsification. Alternative vote counts organised by independent election watchdogs such as Golos and the League of Voters and other activist groups showed that Putin had received a significantly lower share of the votes, about 50 per cent. But even these violations did not put his victory in doubt, considering that the next runner-up, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, received just over 17 per cent of the votes.

It was important for Putin to win outright in the first round. Moreover, he needed not just to get more than half of all votes to avoid a run-off but to win with an impressive lead in order to justify his return to presidency and reassert his hold on power.

In September, President Dmitry Medvedev cited Putin's higher popularity as the reason for his decision not to seek a second term and step aside for Putin. Putin's approval ratings at the time stood above 60 per cent. This probably explains why the Kremlin sought to boost Putin's election result through manipulations.

Despite his towering superiority, it was the first election in which Putin faced strong opposition, which came not so much from his rivals as from spontaneous popular protests against his return. The protests, triggered by public outrage over the evidence of massive fraud during a parliamentary election in December, quickly turned against Putin.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in what became the biggest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians felt insulted that Putin and Medvedev had struck a back-door deal to switch jobs, with Putin returning as President and appointing Medvedev Prime Minister. Putin had served two terms as President in 2000-2008 and continued to dominate Russian politics after shifting into the Prime Minister's job four years ago.

People blame Putin for the endemic corruption, the degradation of free health service and education, and the collapse of manufacturing industries. Why, they ask, did Russia not build a single world-class highway during Putin's presidency even as it received $1.5 trillion in oil and gas revenues? Why are there almost no made-in-Russia goods on shopping shelves? Why does Russia have the world's second largest number of dollar billionaires while nearly half of its population are poorer today than they were 20 years ago? Many felt it would be too much to have Putin, who is 59, run the country for another six or even 12 years, as the presidential term has been extended by two years and the Constitution allows Putin to seek another term in 2018.

For all their intensity, the protests were largely confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg and involved mostly the urban intelligentsia and middle class professionals. The protesters failed to reach out to the wider masses in the regions, partly because they lacked access to state-controlled television channels, the main source of information for the majority of Russians. They lacked political organisation and did not identify themselves with the opposition-on-a-leash parties sitting in Parliament.

Nevertheless, the new protest movement posed a far greater challenge to Putin than his co-opted campaign rivals the three time-worn sparring partners Zyuganov, the shriek nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and former Upper House speaker Sergei Mironov, as well as a newcomer, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. (The authorities locked out of the race other contenders such as the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinskiy, who could chip away more votes from Putin.)

Putin's opponents spent far more time and energy attacking each other than criticising Putin during the election campaign. He felt so much above the fray that he refused to participate in debates with the other candidates, sending instead his trusted delegates. As one commentator put it, Putin's strongest point was his opponents' weakness.

Western-style campaign

The changed political atmosphere in Russia, however, compelled Putin for the first time to run a vigorous Western-style campaign. He criss-crossed the country, meeting with different social groups, published seven election manifestos on all aspects of policy, and gave fiery speeches at rallies.

He mobilised support among his conservative core electorate state employees, lower-paid working classes and rural residents, portraying the Moscow protesters as an elitist urban minority who acted as pawns of Western governments seeking to destabilise Russia and stage a coloured revolution. But his most effective strategy was to push into left-wing turf.

One of Putin's election manifestos was tellingly called Building Justice: A Social Policy for Russia. Openly admitting the glaringly high disparity of incomes in Russia, he proposed a package of measures to reduce poverty. It included salary hikes for teachers, medical personnel and researchers, inflation-proof growth of pension payments without raising the pension age, more affordable housing, a new allowance for families with three or more children, and higher scholarships for low-income, high-achieving students.

In just two months we saw Putin convert from a right-wing liberal to a social democrat, left-leaning candidate Mironov said, explaining his own setback. Mironov won a paltry 5 per cent of the votes, a sharp drop from nearly 13 per cent that his party, Just Russia, polled in the December election to Parliament.

The December election showed a distinct shift to the Left in the public mood. The ruling right-of-the-centre party, United Russia, had its majority in the Lower House or Parliament slashed by almost a quarter of the seats. Communists were the biggest winners, gaining nearly 20 per cent of the votes, more than what they received four years earlier.

Taking into account claims by independent monitors that opposition parties were cheated of at least 15 per cent of the votes, which were added to Putin's party, it can be reasonably argued that the majority of Russian voters supported left-leaning election platforms. This gave Russian Communists, the only truly nationwide opposition party, a unique chance to put up a credible challenge to Putin in the race for President.

The Communists missed their chance, not least because of their leadership problem. Zyuganov, 67, had long shed his charisma and stopped being seen as a fighter. In 1996, he allowed then President Boris Yeltsin to steal a victory in the run-off of a presidential election. (Ahead of the March 4 election, outgoing President Medvedev sensationally confirmed long-running speculations that Yeltsin had lost the 1996 election.) Zyuganov has since taken part in three more elections, each time showing a worse result than before.Putin's third term may prove to be the most challenging in his career. Even though the recent protests lost some steam after the presidential election, they signalled the awakening of Russian society from political lethargy.

Pressure on the government is bound to mount. The protesters are demanding political reforms free registration of political parties, overhaul of the electoral legislation and early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Promise of reforms

After the first protests in December, Medvedev promised some reforms, including a return to direct election of governors that Putin had cancelled eight years ago, new regulations on parliamentary elections, and simplified registration of parties. The opposition criticised the proposed changes as cosmetic but agreed to take part in a Kremlin panel Medvedev had set up to refine his proposals. However, Putin has so far given no indication that he will be accommodating to the opposition after he takes over as President in May.

As a pragmatic leader, Putin is likely to yield only if pressure builds up, and only to an extent that will not undermine his grip on power. This leaves potential for conflict if the opposition can keep up the protests' momentum and crystallise into a political movement or party with strong, popular leaders.

The surprise success of the self-nominated presidential candidate Prokhorov, who was placed third in the March 4 election, ahead of his far more experienced rivals Zhirinovsky and Mironov, despite Russians' dislike of oligarchs, showed just how much voters long for new leaders.

On the economic front, Putin will face equally tough challenges during his new presidential term. The government has calculated that his election promises of social spending will add almost $64 billion a year to state spending.

Economists fear that this may push the fiscal break-even oil price to more than $120 a barrel for the coming years, which is far too high a price level to expect. Failure to honour the pledges may spark new protests.

Putin will also have to address the long-standing curses of the Russian economy endemic corruption and a critical dependence on natural resources exports, which have so far underpinned his vertical of power centralised system of government. To reform this system, Putin will have to change. Opinions differ on whether a Putin 2.0 is possible, but some analysts are optimistic.

Those who underestimate Putin's ability to transform himself into a reformer may be in for a surprise, said Ivan Chakarov, chief economist with Renaissance Capital, a leading Russian investment bank.

Foreign policy

There is, however, one area where Putin is not going to change foreign policy. Judging by his campaign speeches and writings, the world will see the same Putin that lambasted the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in his famous 2007 speech in Munich. In his foreign policy manifesto titled Russia and the Changing World, Putin mounted a scathing attack on the U.S. and its Western allies, accusing them of exporting rocket-bomb democracy and working to undermine Russia's security and global stability. He hit out at NATO's eastward expansion in Europe, plans to set up a U.S. missile defence system in Europe, and ever more frequent cases of crude and even armed outside interference in the domestic affairs of countries.

Some experts attributed Putin's anti-Western rhetoric to the heat of the election campaign, but Russia's policy on the ground has indeed taken a harder line in recent months. Russia's firm opposition to regime change in Syria advocated by the West and the Gulf monarchies stood in stark contrast to its acquiescence to foreign intervention in Libya.

Putin made it clear he was well aware of the limits of the reset in relations with the U.S. that had been the hallmark of Medvedev's presidency during the past four years. The reset did bring its dividends in the form of the New START arms reduction treaty and Russia's membership in the World Trade Organisation. But, as Putin pointed out in his article, Russia and the U.S. have failed to fundamentally change the matrix of our relations.

The standoff on Syria may also trigger shifts in Russia's relations with other countries. The crisis has strengthened the strategic alliance of Russia and China. The twin vetoes the two countries used twice within four months to block anti-Damascus resolutions in the United Nations Security Council are unprecedented in the recent history of the Security Council. Both countries refused to join the Friends of Syria group and denounced attempts by outside forces to impose solutions on Syria.

In his foreign policy manifesto, Putin predicted that Russia's partnership with China would keep going stronger and welcomed China's ever more confident voice in the world.

In contrast, India and Russia found themselves on different sides of the barricade when the former voted in favour of the U.S.-pushed Syria resolution on February 4. India's decision to side with the West raised eyebrows in the Kremlin.

India's stand on Syria came as a surprise to the Kremlin, said Prof. Andrei Volodin of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy. He pointed to the ongoing struggle in the Indian elites between those who remain committed to Jawaharlal Nehru's tradition of independent foreign policy and those who advocate siding up with the U.S.

Syria has put to a test the ability of countries to take sovereign decisions, said Prof. Volodin. Russia and China have passed the test; India, unfortunately, has not.

The coming BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in India will show if the group can re-establish consensus on international issues like Syria.

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