“The point of elections is that their outcome should be uncertain,” says The Economist.
Everybody knows that Vladimir Putin will be elected president on March 4th “not because he is overwhelmingly popular, but because his support will be supplemented by a potent mixture of vote-rigging and the debarring of all plausible alternative candidates.”
But Putin’s election may be a pyrrhic victory, observers suggest, as he appears to be “on a collision course” with the West and with Russia’s newly politicized middle class:
As one source close to the Kremlin put it, Putin has been slow to grasp the seriousness of the situation, certainly slower than his younger ally, Dmitry Medvedev, the iPad-carrying president with whom he is about to swap jobs.
“He is at a fork in the road and this situation is not entirely clear to him,” said Igor Mintusov, a political consultant. “Everything was clear to him at the beginning of the 2000s – to preserve Russia, to raise its ambitions and from this came liberal reforms. Now this clarity does not exist.”
By the admittedly imperfect measurements of the Center for Strategic Research, the Russian middle class now represents just under a third of the population; the most recent data by the Levada Center, the country’s most respected independent polling agency, suggests that Putin could win as much as 66 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election. But this community, given its outsized involvement in media, business, and culture, has influence that resonates far beyond its actual numbers. And one perhaps unintended effect of Putin’s “power vertical,” in which all decisions, no matter how minor, flow down from the federal center, is that what happens among a small group of people in Moscow can quickly set the agenda for the rest of the country.
“This means the same conflict between him and civil society will continue,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader.
Putin appears to be in denial, some observers suggest, failing to appreciate the seismic shifts talking place in Russian opinion.
“The way he is conducting the campaign at the moment sends a signal reading ‘I am sure of myself, I am the strongest of them all, I control everything, I am the leader, nothing has changed.’ But this is not true,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Centre think tank.
Social media and other new communications technologies are empowering the democratic opposition and ensuring unprecedented transparency in the electoral process:
“The civic spirit of our people is higher than ever, but we shouldn’t overestimate their effectiveness,” said Grigory Melkoyants, deputy director of the Golos election-monitoring group. “The government benefits from all this civic scrutiny,” he said. “It can say ‘We let the opposition do and see what it wanted, and we still won.’ ”
Moscow programmer Alexei Chistyakov, for example, developed an iPhone app to allow poll watchers to report violations to a call center organized by the League of Voters. Citizen Observer, another group, is organizing a parallel vote count Sunday night based on protocols reported by independent poll watchers. Some independent monitors’ websites were crippled by hackers during the December election. Independent volunteers will cover about one-fifth of the country’s polling stations, he said, perhaps not enough to prove that fraud affects the election outcome.
“We will have a weak authoritarian national leader,” said opinion pollster Lev Gudkov, describing what he saw as a “crisis of confidence” in the authorities.
Russian politics are forever changed; writes Yaffa:
Putin can never return to the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, when his argument for “stability” trumped all others. He may indeed be forced to make real changes to the nature of his rule, which, almost Gorbachev-like, could sow the seeds of his own eventual undoing. Or, more acutely, a political crisis or crumbling support from within the regime could force him out of power within the next couple years. In any case, given that the constituency most opposed to him is only set to grow in the near future, it is hard to see how Putin could credibly run again in 2018, making this his last campaign. And that, for now, may be the victory with which the middle class will have to console itself.
When Putin assumed power 12 years ago, Russians appreciated the resulting stability and prosperity, The Economist notes:
The political chaos and drop in incomes after the collapse of the Soviet Union had soured their belief in democratic politics and encouraged them to focus on making money. Mr Putin rode high in the polls…..But Russia is changing. A richer and more vocal middle class has sprung up, one that recognises Russia as an ill-governed kleptocracy.
“An increasingly restive population has had its fill of Putinism and is now unwilling to be steamrolled by the Kremlin’s plans,” according to Freedom House’s David Kramer and Christopher Walker.
As demands for change confront the rigid power vertical, the stakes are high in The Kremlin’s Big Gamble:
Even if the system delivers the required results, clear evidence of rigging may lead voters to reject the election as unfair and illegitimate. Moreover, the authorities’ stifling of the Russian public’s voice runs the risk of creating an even more combustible environment in the period after March 4. The balloting, whatever its outcome, is therefore unlikely to extinguish the rising desire for real change. Unless and until that change is permitted, Putin’s continued pursuit of simulated democracy will fail to achieve even a simulation of stability.
Putin’s problem is that the protest movement cannot be stifled by the two most common strategies, writes Kommersant’s Konstantin von Eggert:
They cannot be bought off because their demands are not economic in nature. And having seen their own numerical strength on the squares, they cannot be frightened, unless the government is willing to use Mr Lukashenko’s methods – which I find unlikely. The Kremlin may try to tighten the screws on the opposition, NGOs and free media after the elections.
“But eventually it cannot avoid starting a dialogue with the protest movement,” he believes:
This is not to say that life will be easy for this movement….. Under new laws liberalising the registration of political parties and the rules of gubernatorial elections, the only way for it to show that it is serious about changing the country will be to create effective party structures and fight every election – from municipal councillors’ level right up to regional governors.
“There is a battle going on inside the Kremlin,” says oligarch Mikhail Prohorov, a former Putin ally who now claims that “there are progressive people and they support me.”
The results of that internal struggle will likely shape Putin’s post-election strategy, but the status quo is not an option, analysts believe, and Putinism’s shelf-life is nearing its end.
“He’s going to move very gradually towards a more liberalized society but he has to watch his back because some of his people want a crackdown,” said Vladimir Pozner, a veteran television journalist. “I am not foreseeing 12 more years of Putin anyway. I am seeing a maximum six, but perhaps not even that.”
Golos and the Levada Center are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.