Putin's Return: Much of the Same, Only Older

The less-than-convincing victory of Vladimir Putin in the Russian presidential election suggests a presidency that may be a little more liberal and a little less authoritarian. But Putin is unlikely to change his tune as he delivers on his election promise: that Russia must be feared.

By Jonathan Eyal, Senior Research Fellow and Director, International Security Studies, RUSI

5 March 2012 - The outcome of yesterday's Russian presidential elections was never in doubt: Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister, was always predicted to win. But nobody knows how convincing Mr Putin's victory will be - in political, rather than simply numerical terms - or what are its international repercussions: the future course of the world's biggest country and second-biggest nuclear power remains an enigma.

Although five candidates contested yesterday's ballots in Russia, two - a communist and an extreme nationalist - were unelectable individuals who have made a profession of losing, and two others, including a billionaire running as an independent, have no national support base. Mr Putin was, therefore, far ahead in voters' preferences, by default; that's how Russian elections are currently arranged.

Theoretically, there was a chance of an electoral upset, since under Russia's constitution only a candidate who wins over half of the ballots becomes president; if nobody reaches this score, a second round of voting is held between the two best-placed contenders. And, given that turnout at Russia's recent elections rarely exceeded 60 per cent, no prediction about the results could have been full-proof.

Yet that's only the theory. For the government's political machine was mobilised to ensure an average turnout of 65 per cent, and Putin got almost 64 per cent of this total. That's a far cry from the popular adoration he enjoyed only a few years ago, but quite enough to avoid a humiliating second round of voting, giving Putin a six -years' presidential term. And, of course, there were the usual hilarious results, such as a 100 per cent turnout in war-torn Chechnya and, yes, you guessed it: 100 per cent of these voted for Putin! Either way, the electoral circus is now over, and you won't see it coming to Moscow again until towards the end of the decade. For, as always, a good show cannot be repeated too often.

Putin Victorious, But Legitimacy in Doubt

Still, Mr Putin's immediate challenge will be to persuade his people that this outcome is both fair and legitimate. And that will be tough, for allegations of electoral malpractice during a previous parliamentary vote held in December have already resulted in widespread street protests, the largest the country has witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago.

These were caused by the fact that most ordinary Russians now possess camera phones, and incriminating evidence of ballot box-stuffing during December's vote was posted online. A single video clip allegedly showing a constituency where the ballots cast exceeded the number of registered voters by about 50 per cent tainted the credibility of the parliamentary elections.

Eager to pre-empt a backlash after yesterday's ballot, Mr Putin struck early: even before the vote was held, he accused his opponents of stage-managing fraud accusations: they 'will stuff ballots themselves, monitor this, and then report on it', he told a rally a week ago.  The government has also installed a vast network of webcams at polling stations, in order to refute fraud accusations.

The measures may be enough to prevent demonstrations after the Sunday vote. However, if these do erupt, the Russian leader will be faced with the most difficult decision of his career: he could either opt to crush them with bloodshed and unpredictable consequences, or he could allow them to continue, thereby risking a rising level of dissent against his rule. Perhaps in order to pre-empt a showdown, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's current president and a Putin appointee, announced a review of the prison sentences of some noted individuals, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch whom Putin jailed for daring to stand up to him. This move was intended to hint that a new Putin rule will be more 'liberal'.

But even if the aftermath of the elections is peaceful, Mr Putin's difficulties remain daunting. He already served as president for 8 years during the last decade, a period during which he halted all privatisations, re-established complete state control over Russia's oil and gas industries and adopted an uncompromising anti-Western stance. The tactic worked at that time, partly because Russia was awash with oil revenues but also because Putin's muscular foreign policy chimed with an electorate which felt humiliated by the end of the Soviet empire.

President-elect Putin's In-Tray

Yet, since Putin was last president in 2008, his country has changed. Personal income levels have stopped rising, the crumbling infrastructure requires massive investment, corruption is rampant and young people are indifferent to nationalist exhortations; they just want to get a job.

Foreign diplomats based in Moscow initially assumed that, when Putin returns to the presidency, he will be a different man: 'Putin 2.0' - as he was dubbed - could be a reformer, if only out of necessity, they predicted. Nothing of the kind appears to be happening. Mr Putin has vowed to encourage the creation of 'national economic champions', a different way of saying that state-controlled giant monopolies will continue to dominate his economy.

Instead of investment in infrastructure, the Russian leader promises to spend a whopping US$ 700 billion on weapons by the end of this decade, to make his armed forces powerful. Interestingly, Putin also claimed that nuclear weapons are what made Russia 'great', and that the arsenals will be modernised in order to ensure the country's 'survival'.

And Putin's hostility to the West remains unremitting. He has accused US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of 'paying' his opponents, in an effort to 'import' the current wave of Arab revolutions to Russia. He is determined to veto any international action in Syria, notwithstanding the fact that this has diminished Russia's influence elsewhere in the Middle East. The new US ambassador to Moscow, an old Russian specialist who advocates better relations with Russia, is being subjected to a torrent of officially-sanctioned abuse. And, in a manner reminiscent of the old Soviet-style, the Russian authorities have announced the discovery of  a 'plot' to assassinate Mr Putin, conveniently enough just before the ballot.

Senior Western officials still hope that, once elected, Mr Putin may change his tune. But few are prepared to bet on it. For, although the Russian leader can sometimes show surprising flexibility, he has never departed from two cardinal beliefs: that he is the only person able to defend his people and that, in order to be respected, Russia must first be feared.

For US president Barack Obama, who staked a great deal on improving relations with Moscow, Sunday's Russian vote is unlikely to bring good news.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the independent views of RUSI.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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