A teary-eyed Vladimir Putin declared victory in the Russian presidential elections last Sunday, claiming 64 percent of the vote. After Putin’s four years as Prime Minister beside outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, the two leaders are set to swap jobs—Putin will return to the presidency, while Medvedev will become Prime Minister. Embattled by recent protests calling for his ouster, Putin struck a defiant tone while addressing supporters gathered in Moscow’s Manzeh Square. “We have won an open and honest struggle,” said Putin. “Glory to Russia!”
International election observers and opposition leaders have highlighted numerous instances of fraud and tampering executed by Putin’s campaign. Reports of Putin supporters being bussed around to vote at multiple locations are widespread. In some regions, the results alone are enough to raise eyebrows. The fact that Putin somehow managed to receive 99.82 percent of the vote in Chechnya, for example—the region that Putin viciously subdued during the Second Chechen War—certainly seems suspicious, if not downright impossible.
Nonetheless, no one disputes that Putin decisively won the contest, even if the final tally was considerably inflated. Putin’s nearest challenger, communist Gennady Zyuganov, received a mere 17 percent of the vote, while billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov came in third with a distant 8 percent. “[Putin] may in some ways be authoritarian, but he actually enjoys a degree of legitimacy,” Stephen Jones, professor of political science at Mount Holyoke College, told the Independent. “Despite the violations at the polling booth, probably 60 percent of the population really supports him.”
Of course, Putin’s tight control over the media and strategic use of the state’s resources to support his own campaign also played a part in his success. Moreover, years of state-sponsored suppression have prevented the formation of any meaningful opposition party. The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil tycoon and liberal dissident who has spent the last decade in a Siberian jail on dubious charges, is only the most egregious example of the measures Putin has taken to stifle any potential challengers. “If you described [Russia] as democracy, it would be on the very low end of the spectrum,” said Jones. In fact, it is widely believed that the only candidates allowed to challenge Putin in the election do so with the Kremlin’s tacit consent. Needless to say, these candidates tend to be weak and uninspiring. “Voting yesterday I felt like I was choosing the least dirty toilet in a crowded train station,” a disenchanted voter told Reuters.
Putin’s return to the presidency fulfills a longstanding strategy to maintain the politician’s firm control over power in Russia. After eight years, constitutionally mandated term limits prevented Putin from seeking a third term in 2008. In a calculated move, Putin then endorsed the candidacy of his protégé Medvedev, who won election in a landslide, and promptly named Putin Prime Minister. Putin became constitutionally eligible to run again this year. Further constitutional changes ratified under Medvedev have extended presidential term lengths to six years, meaning Putin will be president until 2018, and potentially 2024 should he stand for reelection.
But the Russia of today bears little resemblance to the country that greeted Putin twelve years ago. The 1990s were characterized by unrest and corruption as Russia struggled to rebuild itself after the fall of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first elected president, promised liberal reforms but struggled to match rhetoric with results. Instead, Russians watched in dismay as Yeltsin allowed a group of oligarchs to become fabulously wealthy through the rapid privatization of state assets. His apparent drinking problem has not helped his legacy either. “Yeltsin was a reformer, but as far as Russians were concerned, he discredited the word ‘reform’,” said Jones. When he left office in 1999, Yeltsin’s approval rating hovered around six percent
Putin’s KGB credentials and tough guy image proved the perfect antidote to the uncertain leadership and economic instability of the Yeltsin years. With the help of the obedient Russian media, Putin has proven adept at shaping his own domestic reputation. Although Westerners have mocked Putin’s penchant for blatantly choreographed photo ops—such as when Putin tranquilized a tiger, or shot a whale with a crossbow—these images have resonated in the machismo of Russian political culture. Moreover, Putin has backed up this reputation by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, rebuilding the military, and butting heads with Western leaders.
Most importantly, Putin has overseen a massive economic revival in Russia, and this remains his greatest legacy thus far. Driven by rising oil and gas prices, Russian GDP grew dramatically during Putin’s first two terms, and Putin skillfully made sure that the whole country benefited from these revenues. In turn, average Russian salaries went from $80 a month to $640 during Putin’s presidency, and the ranks of the middle class swelled. “People are doing better on the whole, and more people are employed,” said Jones. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I’ve actually done quite well under Putin’.”
In early December, following a round of blatantly rigged legislative elections, Russians protested in streets by the thousands, and effectively shattered Putin’s veil of invincibility. While the corrupt election served as the catalyst for the protests, the growth of these demonstrations signals a wider discontent with Putin’s heavy-handed rule. Most significantly, the vast majority of protesters are educated and solidly middle class. But if Putin created the middle class, why are these people now calling for his ouster?
Herein lies what will likely be remembered as the great paradox of Putin’s legacy—Putin created the Russian middle class, but in doing so, he likely sealed his own fate. Quite simply, Putin served a valuable purpose during his first two terms in stabilizing the country, but his future usefulness appears to be limited. To a middle class with growing access to education and travel, the Putin who tranquilizes tigers and bends iron with his bare hands is increasingly met with laughter rather than admiration. As for the Putin who jails opponents and rigs elections—well, that’s no laughing matter. “He created a class of people who have higher expectations of the political system, are more educated, and are waiting to move to the next stage,” said Jones. “It’s going to be a much rougher ride for him.”
Going forward, Putin faces a serious dilemma. He knows that he has to institute economic and political reforms to quell unrest, but significant reform carries the potential to undermine his own power. “He can’t open up the system too much, because then he may become a victim of those reforms,” said Jones. Given his legacy of corruption, it’s not out of the question that Putin might stand trial for his misdeeds in the future. Given Putin’s strong personal incentives to delay reform, it’s difficult to imagine him satisfying the demands of the middle class.
Ultimately, although Putin’s victory was a foregone conclusion, he will likely face future challenges to his legitimacy outside of the ballot box. Nonetheless, there was one surprise on election night—Putin’s tears. While choked-up moments have a long history in American politics, Russians didn’t seem to know what to make of this rare display of emotion. Have the recent protests rattled the normally aloof leader? Or was this a calculated trick to appear genuine during a tainted victory?
Later in the evening, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov issued a statement to clear up any doubt on the matter: “Tears in Putin’s eyes seen by millions on national TV during his speech at a rally last night were caused not by the emotion of victory, but by the wind.” Whether those were the winds of change remains to be seen.
BARRY ELKINTON B’13 shoots whales with crossbows.