There was never any real question about whether or not Vladimir Putin would win Russia’s presidential election last Sunday. As was expected, he was victorious in the first round, taking around 63 percent of the vote. He faced three well-worn opponents whom he had defeated in previous elections and one newcomer, Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire businessmen and owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. He entered the race with no party to support him and no political experience, thereby being of little threat to his “friend” Mr. Putin.
Putin’s victory speech on Sunday evening in front of the Kremlin’s walls was a moving moment. As Putin addressed the sea of celebrating fans, claiming a “clean victory,” tears of joy trickled down his face, although, being the tough guy he is, he later claimed this was a result of the bitter wind.
However, all was not as sweet as it seemed. In Moscow Putin did not manage to win the majority of the votes, and amongst the crowds at the Kremlin’s walls there were virtually no Muscovites. Throughout the day, bus convoys bearing license plates from every possible Russian province drove into the city and congregated at the Kremlin. They even came from as far as Saratov, a city on the Volga River, nearly a thousand kilometers south of Moscow. The middle classes stayed well away. These are the folks that have been protesting Putin’s rule since the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections that were declared fraudulent. Somewhat paradoxically, Putin himself helped to nurture and grow the very people that are now expressing their deep dissatisfaction, demanding a say in the politics of their country and serious, far-reaching reforms.
Not surprisingly, not everybody agreed with the “clean victory” slogan. The election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared the result “clearly skewed” in favor of Putin, with the mission’s head, Tonino Picula, stating, “There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt.” The Russian election watchdog Golos said that it reported more than 3,000 reports of voting fraud. However, in a country that has nearly 100,000 polling stations it was obvious there were going to be some discrepancies.
Protests planned for Monday evening were broken up by security forces, with police detaining some 500 protesters including opposition leader Alexei Navalny. However, despite their strength in numbers, with tens of thousands in the streets over the last few months, the protests have failed to yield clear leaders, nor have they spread much beyond the capital, which raises questions about the opposition’s viability. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what it does next: quit or regroup.
However, overall the election delivered a decisive victory and demonstrates that while the growing middle class may well have had enough of Putin, for large segments of the population Putin remains (in the face of no real opposition) genuinely popular, although certainly not to the extent he once did. Meaning Putin must take this on board. All of Russia is increasingly fed up with the pandemic corruption and lawlessness. Voters are disillusioned by his repeated failure to carry through promised reforms and increasingly skeptical of claims that his critics are all agents or accomplices of the West. So unless Putin moves to change things, he may find this support continuing to ebb, which would make yet another presidential term far more difficult to secure.
Putin has some difficult choices ahead of him. Today’s Russia is different from the one he left. He cannot afford to rest on his laurels because even the most passive of Russians want changes. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachov has said that Putin must learn to compromise and metamorphize from an authoritarian ruler into a pragmatic leader. He needs to push ahead with broad reform, not just offer piecemeal options that will fool no one. Indeed Putin has reached a crossroads and is faced with two choices: crack down and become more authoritarian, or begin to deliver on promises of reform.
Putin could do as he promised in a recent series of newspaper articles and move to establish the rule of law and reform the economy, or he could release oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former boss of the Yukos oil company from jail. He could also chose a more acceptable candidate for prime minister rather than just handing the job on a plate to his loyal friend and ally, outgoing President Medvedev.
It is clear that if Putin cannot bring himself to make such reforms and simply plans to crush those that try to oppose him, his future will be far from rosy. Therefore, while Putin may have his feet back under the Kremlin table for the time being, what happens next remains to be seen. Change or repression, the choice is his.