Russia's Uncertain Future

Putin's return holds promise for progress, but only if he can mend a society he helped polarize.

There is no hiding the fact that last week's election results are not going to have a major impact on Russia’s current political system. The final vote tally announced on March 5 is as much a sign of the plans and intentions of government authorities, federal and local, as it is a reflection of public opinion. Perhaps the results could be used for analyzing the extent to which one governor or another seeks to cozy up to the Kremlin, but the numbers themselves have no real empirical value.

On the other hand, the recent elections have marked Russia’s progression to a new stage of political, social and economic development. At this pivotal junction, it remains difficult to say with any degree of confidence what is on the agenda of Putin’s new presidency or what state priorities will be.

Throughout the election-cycle peak, lasting the better part of the last six months, Russian authorities have received many signals from society—signals that are at once momentous and multidirectional. There is a demand for restoring democratic institutions, and this demand is not limited to the capital and big cities. There is a call to reject elitist, neofeudalist methods of controlling society. There is a plea for genuine and effective anticorruption measures.

There is also a demand for populist economic measures and budget policy, and this inclination was vividly reflected in Putin’s campaign articles. Yet this comes at a time when the domestic economic situation and world economic system clearly require very different approaches and solutions. The authorities understand this and, it seems to me, they will not feel particularly obligated to follow through on campaign promises.

Putin’s return to the Kremlin does not necessarily restrict the prospects for Russia’s political and economic modernization or limit opportunities for improved relations with our partners in the West. To the contrary, progress in these areas could even be accelerated. But this is only possible if the conclusion of the election campaign is also accompanied by an end to the escalation of social tensions, an end to the confrontational rallying of people on the streets, and an end to the divisive calls to arms against internal and external enemies. Progress is possible, but broad and inclusive public dialogue is prerequisite.

I am convinced that Putin and his team understand this. And I sincerely hope that the fears which haunted them in the run-up to the March 4 vote have now more or less dissipated and will no longer provoke them to engage in tactics that polarize Russian society.

Dr. Igor Yurgens is chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Development in Moscow.

Image: Julmin