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Putin election victory doesn't pave an easy path through his third presidential term

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There was little doubt that Vladimir Putin would be elected president of Russia on Sunday and return to the Kremlin for a third term. The Central Elections Committee announced on Monday that Mr. Putin won more than 60 percent of the vote and avoided a second round. 

But there is also little doubt that the legitimacy of his presidency will be contested during his third term, given the scale of recent protests against his return and strong criticism of the Sunday vote, which some of the opposition leaders and independent observers condemned as unfair and fraudulent.

The political awakening of Russia’s urban middle class, demonstrated in recent rallies that drew tens of thousands, will continue. As recently as last summer, few experts predicted that this awakening would occur so soon. But then came incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement last September that he would not be seeking a second term, paving the way for his mentor’s return to the Kremlin. Putin then publicly claimed that he had agreed with Mr. Medvedev early on that he would be reclaiming the presidency.

The prospect of Putin returning to the Kremlin for another 6 or even 12 years became “the last straw” as far as the Russian public was concerned. Even though last December’s parliamentary elections were probably no more fraudulent than previous contests, tens of thousands of angry voters took to the streets to demand a rerun and to protest against Putin’s return. But even if Medvedev had stayed on, it was only a matter of time before Russians demanded sweeping changes.

Russia has already crossed the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita line of $10,000, after which a population is generally expected to begin actively demanding democratization, as a recent study of over 100 countries by Russia’s Renaissance Capital investment bank demonstrates.

More than 80 percent of Russian respondents to opinion polls place themselves somewhere in the middle classes, according to a recent Citibank report. The report says urban Russians, who account for 74 percent of the population and are increasingly wealthy, demand better governance. As renowned economist Anders Aslund has noted in a recent op-ed, Freedom House ratings show that only seven small oil-exporting states and Singapore are wealthier than Russia and still authoritarian.

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In addition to growing wealth, demand for democratization in Russia is also facilitated by factors such as high levels of college education and soaring rates of Internet penetration, which has made Russia the largest Internet market in Europe. Even high-ranking Russian officials, such as First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, have acknowledged that the rise of the Internet and greater wealth have changed the political reality in Russia.

“We need to treat this as the new political reality,” Mr. Shuvalov told Reuters in January, adding that when GDP per capita reaches $15,000 the political system would have to become more flexible and modern.

But an Arab Spring-like violent regime change in Russia is unlikely. Such regime change can succeed only if an insurrection were staged in Moscow. While Putin’s popularity has indeed dwindled in the Russian capital, Moscow is unlike Tripoli or Tunis, and has an abundance of economic opportunities. Unemployment is considerably below the Russian national level. Other social factors that facilitate revolt, such as a “youth bulge” and relative poverty, hardly apply to Moscow.

The average age of Moscow residents is around 40 – among the oldest of the Russian regions – and the average Moscow family owns property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while representatives of the growing middle class are increasingly demanding political liberalization, better governance, and an end to corruption, they want these changes to occur in a peaceful manner.

Even if protests suddenly turn violent, the Moscow area boasts one of the highest concentrations of law-enforcement and security personnel, which remain loyal to Putin and could be employed to tame violence.

Putin initially dismissed the protests that erupted in the wake of December’s flawed parliamentary elections, which had drawn together politically disparate forces, including corruption fighters, ultranationalists, and members of established opposition parties. He has since shown more signs of taking the public demonstrations of dissent seriously.

He has made some liberalization gestures, including promises for the semi-direct election of governors, establishing administrative courts to hear citizens’ complaints against the state, installing video cameras at polling stations, and even creating a business ombudsman post.

Putin’s  protégé, Medvedev, proposed easing registration rules for political parties and presidential candidates, and met with organizers of the protest rallies. The Putin-Medvedev tandem has also demoted some of the high-ranking officials who were particularly unpopular with the opposition, including Vladislav Surkov, architect of “managed democracy” and deputy chief of the Kremlin staff, and Boris Gryzlov, a top figure in the pro-Putin United Russia party and speaker of the Duma.

While accommodating the less radical demands of the protesters through cosmetic adjustments, Putin has also moved to court those voters who engineered the success of the leftist and nationalist opposition parties over United Russia in the December vote. He vowed to introduce tougher restrictions on migrants and installed well-known nationalist Dmitry Rogozin and conservative commentator Aleksei Pushkov as deputy prime minister and speaker of the Duma’s international affairs committee respectively.

However, none of the measures that Putin (or Medvedev) has proposed so far guaranteed that the presidential vote would be free and fair, which is what Putin needed to ensure his legitimacy as president. Nor do the measures significantly alter the system of managed democracy and state capitalism that he has built in Russia and that protesters now want dismantled.

Putin – in power for over a decade already and who emphasizes stability – will hardly be motivated to launch deep reformation of this system during his third term as president, especially since his supporters in the bureaucratic and business elites benefit from the status quo.

Nor should Russia be expected to initiate tectonic shifts in its foreign policy under Putin, since the latter has had a major say on most major issues during Medvedev’s presidency.

Given Putin’s taste for tongue-lashing against Western powers, his comeback may result in a toughening of Russian rhetoric vis-à-vis the West. But it is rather unlikely that Russia under a President Putin will take steps to intentionally reverse the reset in US-Russian relations, even as Moscow and Washington exchange barbs over ongoing contentious issues, such as Syria and missile defense.

One fundamental problem with the reset, however, is that both sides have already picked all of the low-hanging fruit. And while there is hope that Moscow and Washington will eventually work out a deal on missile defense if President Obama remains in office, deep reductions in nuclear arms, including nonstrategic weapons, a new round of substantive UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, or any other substantial advances in the bilateral relationship would be much more difficult to attain, especially given the approaching election cycle in the United States.

Should Obama be voted out of office, however, there will be a greater probability that US-Russian relations may sour.

As for the European Union, Putin’s Russia should be expected to seek deepening of economic, educational, and cultural cooperation with the EU, pushing for a visa-free regime, while at the same time focusing on bilateral cooperation with individual European powerhouses such as Germany and France.

While pursuing closer ties with Europe, Putin should also be expected to continue cautious cooperation with Beijing, wary of China’s rise, which contrasts sharply with Russia’s sparsely populated and economically stagnant far eastern provinces.

Putin is also likely to try more actively to tie down post-Soviet neighbors, primarily Ukraine, which Moscow wants to join the Eurasian Economic Community.

While largely staying the course in foreign policy, Putin may have to concede to considerable domestic pressures. The ongoing protests underline the demand for deep and far-reaching change in Russia. Putin may have to initiate reforms if the main groups behind the protests organize as a single force with a clear-cut common agenda that not only sustains but also considerably increases pressure on the Kremlin beyond the immediate aftermath of the election.

Apart from the increase in public pressure, a deep and protracted economic crisis may drive Putin to pursue structural reforms, not only in the economic but also in the socio-political sphere.

Factors that may trigger such a crisis, leading to a rupture of this contract, are: the economy’s dependence on energy exports (oil accounts for half of Russia’s revenues) and the dominance of inefficient state-controlled giants; rising public expenditures (which jumped tenfold in 11 years to exceed 20 percent of GDP in 2012) and the creeping pension fund deficit, already $40 billion a year; social inequality; severe regional disparities, where the GDP of one region is 440 times smaller than that of another; and depopulation and labor shortages (Russia is forecast to lose 10 million workers by 2025).

If a deep crisis erupts, Putin’s ability to implement profound changes will depend on how rigid his social contract with the poorer sections of society will be and on how entrenched the bureaucratic and business elites have become.

Nabi Abdullaev is a researcher and deputy editor of RIA Novosti’s international news department, and holds a Masters in Public Administration degree from Harvard Kennedy School.

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, focusing on security and U.S.-Russian relations, and has worked as a journalist in Russia.

An earlier version of this piece was originally published by the EU Institute for Security Studies. It also appeared at the Belfer Center's Power & Policy blog.

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