The Return of Vladimir Putin

Politics is back on the agenda in Russia. The returning president will prove dissidents and skeptics wrong.

Vladimir Putin’s reelection to the Russian presidency on March 4 looks set to meaningfully change Russian politics in ways hardly deemed possible only a few months ago. For the next six years, Putin has no choice but to govern—not to rule, as he has in one form or another over the past twelve years. Normal politics have finally arrived in Russia. But whether the country’s nascent opposition movements can consolidate internally while negotiating with the current political establishment remains a huge question.

The Mouse that Roared

The protests over claims of voting fraud in Russia’s December parliamentary election stirred a small but vocal (and to a large degree prosperous and urban) segment of society. There is ample evidence of some voting fraud in December, though hardly enough to change the final results. When the dust settled, Putin’s United Russia pedestal party finished with a bloody nose that today denies it the constitutional majority it once enjoyed. Now parliament must legislate through compromise—something that has not happened for over a decade. The same applies to Putin’s new term.

Western media coverage of the parliamentary and presidential votes has been somewhat shortsighted and naive. Russia is not facing a period of political instability or widespread social discontent. Instead, the opposite is more likely the case. Politics during and after the presidential election is characterized by accountability and confidence.

The Kremlin knows Russians are becoming more frustrated with a system widely seen as both offering stability yet engendering corruption. United Russia’s poor showing in the parliamentary elections proves that the electoral mechanism reflects public opinion; the opposition will gain confidence as demands for more accountability become a political rallying cry. Consider challenger Mikhail Prokhorov’s remarkable 7.94 percent presidential vote return, in the wake of a very public fallout with the Kremlin. Prokhorov attended a postelection meeting with Putin, suggesting that compromise and negotiation are very much the key words in Russia’s new political cycle.

Upon Putin’s inauguration, expect to see a major reshuffle of the government with new faces. After twelve years, the Putin transition has come to its logical end. To borrow a term from economics, Putin’s rule to date has been all about “extensive growth”—stabilizing the economy, rebuilding the state, growing a middle class and returning Russia to the center stage of international politics. Now many Russians desire a shift in priorities that can be called “intensive growth”—this is at the very core of the much of the recent protests.

Putin’s intensive-growth strategy must take into account social demands that are hardly revolutionary or alien to him and his inner circle. They include respect for property rights, promotion of small- and medium-size business culture, a tax system that promotes economic growth, decent pensions for the elderly and a serious effort to tackle the scourge of modern Russia—pervasive corruption. From day one of his new term in office, Putin will have to show he is serious about all these issues in an economic environment far less hospitable than it was during his first eight years as president. Putin no longer has a free pass to control political discourse and the direction of the “social conversation.” And his successful rule to date made this outcome inevitable.

Oppositions and Silent Majorities

Something truly exciting about Russia’s new political scene was missed amid media coverage that was at the very least misleading and perhaps even gleeful that Putin’s style of rule was being openly criticized. Dissent is nothing new in Russia, and the same applies to the now more vocal opposition. But this year a number of oppositions have seemingly come together—for now—and there is the welcome arrival of some news faces. Opposition figures such as Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Grigory Yavlinsky are still around, but they are hardly at center stage. Bloggers, artists, and celebrities have appropriately replaced them. Today many are watching the likes of Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov.

There is nothing monolithic about Russia’s opposition movement, and this is its greatest challenge to overcome. One can be a nationalist, socialist, communist, liberal or progressive to demand clean and fair elections. Indeed, all of these political persuasions literally stood arm-in-arm from the parliamentary election up to the presidential ballot, demanding just as much. For some, though, the expected election outcome—Putin’s garnering a plurality of the votes—was never going to be acceptable. In the postelection environment, Russia’s oppositions are faced with the decision to work within the transformed political terrain together or adopt the time-honored Russian tradition of rejecting the established order. This is a perilous path—and, as Russian history shows, always leads to a dead end.

Now for the Hard Part

It is unclear how Russia’s rising and self-confident oppositions will proceed. The majority of the electorate continues to have confidence in Putin and his promises of more reforms. The opposition forces remain a minority in a society where the “silent majority” is largely conservative, very patriotic, to a degree religious and at most suburban, not urban. Western analysis of Russian politics all too often focuses on the hopes and desires of Russians with a liberal outlook and the intelligentsia, who are by definition authority averse.

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