international analysis and commentary

The shadow over Putin’s third term after the election

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Although Putin’s victory in the March 4 presidential election had been widely predicted, the results show that his support has shrunk, especially among the urban middle class. Putin won with a comfortable majority of 63.60% votes in the country as a whole (including 99.76% in Chechnya), with no need for a second round. In contrast, however, he obtained only 46% in Moscow – a result that at the national level would have led to a second round. The evidence of electoral frauds and the Kremlin’s defensive strategy of countering dissent could drive popular support even further away and produce a deep rift in society. The wave of protests is set to continue and very likely intensify, while the Russian government seems still unable (or unwilling) to engage in a constructive dialogue with the opposition forces.

The number of anti-Putin rallies has been steadily growing over the past few months: in February at least nine anti-Putin demonstrations and two pro-Putin rallies took place just in Moscow. Since the first rally at Chistye Prudy on December 5, not only have popular protests intensified and attracted a growing number of Russians, but their scope has changed. From advocating “clean elections”, the target is now narrowed down to slogans such as: “Putin, go!”; “Stop the dictatorship!”. On February 4, between 80,000 and 120,000 people marched through downtown Moscow despite freezing temperatures, echoing the wave of dissent of the early 1990s. Likewise, on February 26, entire families, young professionals and intellectuals – along with politically-oriented groups such as communists and nationalists – took part in flash mobs on the Garden Ring, a major road at the heart of Russia’s capital. Tens of thousands of Muscovites “encircled” the Kremlin demanding a radical break with the past system, as epitomized by current prime minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin.

Although it is difficult to grasp the social texture of such protests, there is a widespread belief among sociologists that participants belong to the emerging Russian middle class. The latter is no longer dependent on state pensions and salaries, but it still confronts the negative sides of the current system on a daily basis. This tension is reflected, for instance, in bribes and interminable traffic jams when main roads in the capital are closed (at least twice a day) as the presidential convoy drives by. As Thomas L. Friedman wrote in The New York Times, there seem to be two lanes in contemporary Russia: the fast one (for those with villas and bank accounts abroad – i.e. the government and its circle); and the slow one (for common Russians, who are “blocked” professionally and economically in a static system which lacks meritocracy and rule of law). The growing urban middle class advocates, above all, evolution (through honesty and fairness), not revolution.

The political and social climate is triggered by the Kremlin’s enigmatic response to the early protests of last December. Indeed, Putin himself has become the target of protests. This is largely due to the path he has undertaken, as well as to his often mocking attitude vis-à-vis the opposition’s demands. He has called protesters monkeys, and labelled the symbol of “clean elections” (a white ribbon) a token of anti-AIDS campaigns. Generally speaking, he has refused to initiate any processes of dialogue and mediation with the opposition, as he believes they represent only a minority of the overall population (20-25%) while the rest of Russia’s citizens still support him. Nonetheless, the gap between state and society keeps widening. Four elements compound the efforts to ease emerging tensions.

First, as compared to previous presidential campaigns, Putin’s rhetoric has become more aggressive.  He has evoked in the collective imagination, for instance, supposed “enemies”, both internal and external. Thus, Russia’s historic enemy, the United States, stands accused of financing the anti-Kremlin opposition. During the pro-Putin rally at Luzhniki stadium, Putin himself showed up in front of the crowd shouting that “the struggle for Russia is not over. But victory will be ours.” He even compared current circumstances with the Napoleonic invasion. Alas, this attitude affects Russia’s foreign policy decision-making: for example, Russia’s support for the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is largely a consequence of domestic considerations. This inward-oriented discourse is simplistic and rather blunt: the idea is to counter the West’s mission to fulfill a civilizational role through regime changes, not only in the Middle East but possibly even in Russia.

Second, the government has organized pro-Putin rallies that mirror those organized by the opposition. Widespread rumors suggest that many people were forced to attend such events by their employers, while free buses and taxis ensured a constant flow of participants even from remote regions of Russia. Yet, such policies, despite their initial purpose, might backfire: whoever was forced to take part in the rally is unlikely to vote for Putin. Furthermore, the government could instigate an open confrontation, or even conflict, within society – i.e. Putin’s supporters versus the protesters – with truly unpredictable consequences, especially after elections. On March 5, Moscow in fact has become a chessboard: the opposition rally, held at Pushkinskaya Square, is encircled by three Kremlin-backed meetings at Lubyanka, Manezhnaya, Revolyutsii Squares. The risk of violent clashes has never been so high since the early 1990s, as evidenced by endless rows of military trucks and special forces in Moscow city center.

Third, the presidential campaign was  defined as flawed by Golos, the OSCE and other international electoral observers in the country. Putin, in fact, began his campaign before the agreed date – February 4 –,and the media coverage provided candidates on national TV stations is divided unequally. Most important, the greatest flaw was a calculated strategy to create as a matter of fact an “inexistent” competition among candidates. At the same time, the same techniques of falsifications, that adopted during the previous Duma elections, were repeated again on March 4 under the eyes of many observers – i.e. karusel. Some OSCE observes were thrown out of pulling stations in St Petersburg and Samara. Still, frauds and falsifications in the upcoming election may well eventually damage its winner, since they will ultimately be regarded as illegitimate.   

Fourth, repression of anti-Putin protests silently continues. Hundreds of people have been arrested during unsanctioned rallies, especially at Triumphalnaya Square and in front of the Central Electoral Committee. Furthermore, when the joint opposition forces officially requested permission to rally at Lubyanka Square on March 5, they were denied on the grounds that such an event would paralyze traffic in the city center. They were also told that someone else had already booked the square. But if both of these reasons are true, then why was the first request approved? Moscow’s Prokuratura already issued orders to arrest opposition leaders (Udal’zov, Nemzov, Limonov, and Navalny) in case they would initiate an unsanctioned rally, namely a march towards the Kremlin. In short, the government seems incapable of dealing with the wave of protests, and it has often adopted contradictory responses.  

As the Kremlin strives to counter the wave of protests rather than pursue dialogue and mediation, tensions between state and society keep growing. The demands of a Russian urban middle class entail a gradual evolution towards a fairer government, starting with clean elections. However, Putin’s mobilization against this spontaneous movement highlights how rigid his power system has become – and, most important, how little it can be modified without losing its nature. In light of all this, Putin will formally become president – again – in May 2012, but his power will inevitably be challenged unless the system embraces radical reforms that could ease  current tensions. On the other hand, if defensive and reactionary responses continue, they will likely turn the authorities’ fears  into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Indeed, the signs are already there for all to see: losing voters’ support in Moscow might be the clearest confirmation of Putin’s steady decline.