“I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia” – with these words and a tear running down his face, Vladimir Putin celebrated his victory on the 4th of March presidential election before a crowd of his supporters on Manezh Square, Moscow. Backed by over 63% of the votes, he has returned to the Kremlin, despite electoral rigging allegations. However, regaining the presidency may have been an ugly affair. Certainly, if this election has been one of the most anticipated in last decade Russian politics it is because Putin’s aspirations have been increasingly seen as illegitimate. He is challenged by an important sector of Russian society who wants political reform and an end to corruption, something they consider is not achievable under Putin’s rule. Indeed, Putin has won, but this does not mean his right to govern goes undisputed. It is therefore time not only to explain the results of this election, but to consider up to what degree the democratic movement has suffered a real setback. Is it the end of the hopes for political change, or a new beginning for the struggle against Putin’s so-called “power vertical”?
This election has been a mixture of old and new elements. With what we are used to see in Russian politics, we can be sure Putin did not want to risk a run-off. In pursuit of this objective, cheating seemed acceptable, even despite the mass protests that, since December, demanded a fair election among other things. After all, Putin did not make his ally Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Election Commission –an institution which supposedly should be a neutral referee-, step down despite calls for his resignation; he was certainly an important asset to secure Putin’s reelection. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, there was fraud, but not as widespread as in last year’s parliamentary election. The decrease in voting irregularities was partly because of those expensive cameras installed at the polling stations around the country- Churov’s laughable ideal of transparency- but also the vast surge of volunteer local monitors. This was particularly true in Moscow. However, what really concerns external monitors and Russian opposition is what it is considered the endemic problem of Russian politics: the lack of competition. This is caused not only by the Kremlin’s political engineering or partisan misuse of state resources (like TV), but also by the “official” opposition parties’ and candidates’ ineffectiveness. They even display open servility to Putin at times. Just one example: when Sergey Mironov, leader of the social democratic party a Just Russia, ran against Putin in 2004, he publicly endorsed him.
Now, we could be tempted to launch a debate about whether Putin’s victory is only due to electoral rigging or not. Doing this, however, would be a futile effort, and almost politically irrelevant in the current situation. Of course, it is possible to find alternative figures to electoral results like those offered by the Russian association Golos, which considers Putin just got a 50% of the vote. But it as easy to find other analysis that diminishes the reliability of such estimations. It is better to rely on polls ahead of the election, which unanimously showed a clear advantage favouring Putin. With this we can be almost certainly sure that Putin still has a lot of support and that those protesters we have seen during these three months are just a sector of the electorate. Perhaps a relevant and large one, but one which amounts to no more than a minority after all.
As Brian Whitmore states, there are at least “two Russias”. One still votes for Putin because of motives ranging from nationalism to fear of change and return to the economic chaos of the nineties. The other, which is better represented by the urban middle class and the university youth, is sick of political and administrative corruption and lack of good prospects, something they link to Putin. The fact that in Moscow Putin got less than a half of this vote proves this point.
Putin’s campaign, which has been more intense than his past ones, was a reflection of this social divide. It was designed both to cater the nationalists with anti-American rhetoric, and to reassure those who want stability by promising a new wave of social spending, less taxes and higher pensions and salaries for the military. Certainly, the campaign’s framework was built on the spectre of Yeltsin’s times. It is uncertain if Putin will be able to capitalize on this forever. In 2000, when Putin first took office, he could portray himself as a saviour because it was difficult for the situation to get any worse. Nowadays, on the other hand, more and more people accept him not because of his promises or projects, but because the absence of a serious alternative. Putin is certainly much weaker than before.
If Putin fails to provide what he has promised during his campaign the perception of him being disposable will increase. Moreover, it is likely that by now there are some fractures within the ruling elite. They might be starting to be afraid of a possible uncontrolled collapse of the system. An example of this is 11-years finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who was fired in September 2011 over his disagreement on Putin-Medvedev job swap. He had been calling for reform, both economic and politic, for a long time. There are other “liberal technocrats” like him around Putin. For this inner circle, the current situation looks like a crossroads leading either to survival or to political disgrace. Putin knows this. In this respect, who he chooses and maintains as Prime Minister, be it Medvedev or not, will be an important decision. Therefore, the protest movement should strive to seize the moment, take advantage of the division, and keep pressure on the system for its liberalization.
The vast number of volunteer monitors registered for this election is a good sign of how actively involved the opposition is becoming. This is not enough, however. Despite Putin’s victory, it is necessary for them not to lose the momentum gained since December. In fact, the real meaning of this victory depends on the future manoeuvres of the democratic movement; if they cease in their bid for change, the game is over, but if they continue they might reach their goals.
Judging by how Moscow’s security has been strengthened, it is arguable that Putin will try to silence the opposition or, at least, threaten to do so. This could lead to radicalization by some activists, many of whom were considering actions along the lines of Occupy movements. Resorting to aggressive methods or even violence is not desirable. Rather, the advance of reform aspirations need an institutional structure. Put simply, together with protesting on the streets, the opposition needs to create parties, real grassroots parties. Just asking for fair elections is not enough in a country where opposition parties are useless, almost comatose. Now the strength of the movement has been put to the test. The main question is whether they can overcome its wariness against organized politics and create alternatives to the tandem Putin-United Russia.
From a stable political platform, the opposition could mobilize better the base of society. Also, it would help send a signal to the official opposition parties and to those within the elite who, like Kudrin, see a collective benefit in opening the political system or even launching their own political adventure. However, if the Kremlin respects its promises of simplifying the rules to create parties and register candidates, will we see someone like Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption crusader who has become the visible head of the movement, daring to create a party? So far, this is impossible to know. Only time will tell if the democratic movement is able to rise to the occasion.