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Analysis & Opinion
16.03.12 Putin Wins The Presidential Election, But How Will He Govern?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Alexandre Strokanov

As was widely expected, Vladimir Putin won Russia’s presidential election in the first round, scoring nearly 64 percent of the vote. Although independent Russian and international observers questioned the fairness of the vote, even they don’t dispute Putin’s first round victory, albeit with a much lower actual result (50.7 percent, according to Golos and 53 percent, according to the League of Voters). How will Putin 2.0 govern Russia? How will he respond to the rising unrest of the urban middle class, particularly in Moscow? Will he become a president of reform and open up the political system as his supporters claim he should, or will he crack down on the unrest as a populist autocrat?

Putin’s showing in Moscow, the site of massive street protests against his return to the Kremlin, was much less impressive – 47 percent, the only Russian region where he got less than 50 percent of the vote (his 58 percent in St. Petersburg are widely attributed to massive voting irregularities).

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov finished a strong second in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, positioning himself as a plausible alternative to Putin for upwardly mobile urban voters. Much of that vote was anti-Putin.

Putin’s camp ran an aggressive and strong campaign, resulting in a 20 percent hike in his electoral ratings over three months. To achieve this, Putin had to engage in cultural and class warfare, pitting the intellectual middle-class of metropolitan centers against the working-class crowds of Russia’s industrial and rural heartland (literally bussing and flying thousands of his supporters to Moscow to counter the protesting crowds in the capital).

Opinions differ on the impact of Putin’s victory on his new six-year term in the Kremlin and his policies as Russia’s new-old president. As Don Jensen wrote for Voice of America’s “Crossfire,” “The chances of things going badly wrong for Putin during his next term are significant. The society is polarized and more politically restive. Political institutions are corrupt and ineffective. The country’s economic prospects are uncertain over the medium term. The ruling elites appear unable or unwilling to adjust to changing realities.”

Some Russian analysts and opposition figures speculate, without substantiating the claim, that Putin will be a very weak leader and will serve no more than one six-year term (some even claim he will have to step down earlier than that and call for a snap presidential election). Others believe Putin will crack down hard on the opposition to quash the rising discontent of the urban middle class, and predict that he will govern as a populist leader pandering to his blue-collar electorate while snubbing and humiliating the urban elites (Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez are plausible models, as well as the corrupt and populist regime of Silvio Berlusconi, Putin’s best European friend).

Yet other observers discount the possibility of Putin going for a populist dictatorship and claim, not really convincingly either, that he will be a president of badly needed economic and political reforms, responding to the demands of the urban middle class and opening Russia’s political system for genuine competition. This group of “optimists” asserts that the economic and social challenges that Russia faces would leave Putin no other option but swift and sweeping reform.

How will Putin 2.0 govern Russia? How will he respond to the rising unrest of the urban middle class, particularly in Moscow? Will he become a president of reform and open up the political system as his supporters claim he should, or will he crack down on the unrest as a populist autocrat? Or will he imitate reform and maintain the status quo? What will become of the protest movement in Moscow?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Chair of Social Science Department, Director of Institute of Russian language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT

I personally find it snobbish and disrespectful when people who support Putin are labeled in derogatory terms. This reflects on the fact that “cultural and class warfare” are still harbored by Putin’s opponents. Secondly, it emphasizes the weakness of the opposition in real Russia outside of the Moscow Ring Road. Finally, if the opposition was really the “intellectual middle class of metropolitan centers,” I would like to see any of its constructive ideas implemented through the election. Unfortunately I saw absolutely nothing, and all its rhetoric was limited to “no votes for Putin.” The lack of a constructive alternative to Putin is the main reason why the opposition has failed.

We have to admit that the presidential election in Russia on March 4 brought absolutely new and previously unseen openness and transparency. Setting up video cameras at the absolute majority of polling stations is just one example of it. This initiative should be followed by other countries, for example by the United States, particularly in some of its inner city areas. Another aspect was an unprecedented number of volunteers to observe the polling procedure. Such activism on behalf of the Russian people should certainly be acknowledged and praised.

What will become of the protest movement in Moscow? It will lose its spirit and energy, and we will see only sporadic and most likely radical actions arranged by people like the ultra-communist Sergei Udaltsov, or the nationalists with Alexey Navalny. The group of former government officials led by Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov will be marginalized again. The protest movement may try to regain some energy around May 7 when Putin’s inauguration procedure will take place, but it is not going to last after that. The protest movement in its current form was doomed from the beginning due to several factors, among them the diverse character of its participants, who were ultimately brought together only by their hatred for Putin. However, this is not sufficient glue to hold it together after the election. People like U.S. Senator John McCain will fail in their predictions of an “Arab Spring” in Moscow as they did with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Putin will certainly follow with political reforms that will ease the party registration procedure and return to the election of governors in the regions. Hopefully, these reforms will bring some fresh air into Russian political life, and most importantly produce a new type of political leadership. We have to admit that at this point none of the political parties in Russia may be proud of its inner party democratic procedures. As a result we see the same faces over and over again, despite humiliating defeats in elections. Russian political parties need to adopt something similar to the U.S. primaries to find better candidates for leadership positions.

Elections of governors may also produce some better politicians capable of solving real problems on the regional level rather than screaming at meetings. The “intellectual middle class” will receive many opportunities to prove that it can really work and produce results. In this regard, Putin’s claim that he does not see any reason to meet with non-systemic opposition unless it comes up with something concrete and real to discuss is absolutely justifiable. I do not understand what demands by the non-systemic opposition the Kremlin is to address. I simply do not see any.

Will there be changes in Putin’s government? Of course, it will be not Putin’s but at least initially Dmitry Medvedev’s government, and new faces are inevitable. However, the major intrigue is going to be on the new leaning of the government: to the left or to the right? Certainly it will remain generally centrist, but the removal of Alexei Kudrin from the position of Finance Minister seriously damaged the right flank, and it will be interesting to see who can compensate for his departure.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Regarding the final vote count: The official results for Putin match closely with the latest pre-vote opinion surveys, which used diverse and randomly selected sets of respondents by three distinct opinion polling firms, including the Levada Center, which historically has favored liberal positions and is not likely to be biased in Putin’s favor. Election Day exit polls also coincided within acceptable margins of error with the resulting vote count.

The “results” from Golos and the Russian League of Voters lack credibility given the openly pronounced anti-Putin bias of the key members of these organizations and the fact that their “vote tallies” are not based on genuine votes. Additionally, Golos is an organization funded by U.S. government-affiliated entities, and so the Golos commentary on Russian presidential elections just adds substance to claims that the U.S. government is interfering with internal Russian politics. In a symmetric situation, an organization like Golos in the United States, if funded by Russian state money, would be required to register as an agent of a foreign government (see the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938).

The second strongest showing in the election was by the communist Gennady Zyuganov, with 17 percent of the vote. The communists and affiliated marginal left radicals (see Udaltsov) are the strongest opposition to Putin numerically. One wonders if Putin’s enemies in the U.S. Senate are ready to ally themselves with communists in order to defeat their chosen adversary.

Prokhorov came in third, with just over ten percent of the number of votes cast for the winner. Prokhorov’s success is notable, considering that he started from a near zero voter base; however, some of this attraction may be due to his novelty, which will wear off with time.

Furthermore, all Russian voters are equal, regardless of social position, and so suggestions of vote distortion by the presence of non-intellectual and provincial voters is deeply undemocratic and elitist.

It is notable how the methods of assembly of 100,000 Muscovites for opposition meetings are not challenged, while the assembly of a similarly sized pro-Putin crowd is the target of allegations of busing in of participants (by the way, a perfectly legitimate practice).

The claim that opposition demonstrators are middle-class is not verifiable. Some surely were, others, judging from their attire and slogans, were from a decidedly “anti-bourgeois” background. One would not suppose that Udaltsov or Eduard Limonov and their followers would like to be called middle-class (i.e. bourgeois) – some of these folks could probably become rather physical with whoever caused them such offense. The best social description for many of the opposition demonstrators for the Navalny-Nemtsov-Ryzhkov-Sobchak axis in December 2011 to March 2012 would be “young urban professionals” (or yuppies) a U.S. cultural subgroup of the 1980s and 1990s, socioeconomically upper-middle and even upper class. Note that the peak 100,000 claimed demonstrators for a megapolis with ten million inhabitants is only one percent of the total population – hardly a “massive” outpouring.

How will Putin rule? At more than 60 percent of the vote, he has a mandate to continue and implement the policies he outlined in his articles. The vote in Moscow is just that – the vote in one city. Moreover, as is always pointed out, Moscow is not Russia. There is no visible reason why Putin cannot continue. Claims that he might fail are untestable declarations, acceptable as opposition publicity but not genuine analyses. Suggestions of a “dictatorship” are also allegations without factual foundation, using emotion-laden, imprecise and unsuitable terminology.
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