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Stumbling Over the Finish Line

NEW EASTERN EUROPE: As expected, Vladimir Putin has now declared a first round victory (based on exit polling) in the Russian presidential election.  What is your immediate reaction?

March 4, 2012 - Adam Reichardt - Articles and Commentary

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ANDREW WILSON: There really weren’t any question marks left. No one really expected Putin to go to the second round. In order for that to happen Zyuganov would have had to have done really well, or Prokhorov a much better showing – but no one really expected either scenario to happen. Putin’s claimed win, based on the exit polls, is kind of in the middle of expectations. Anything over 70 per cent would have been blamed on egregious, insultingly large election fraud and might have given an extra dynamic to protests.

On the other hand if Putin had only just scraped through with 51 or 52 per cent he might have looked weak (the win wouldn’t have made him stronger – but dangerously weak). We can be fairly certain that this margin of victory has been carefully state-managed – so that Putin’s victory is safe but not dangerously overemphatic.

But protests will happen anyway – and so they should. The point is not that there has been more fraud this time, but that people have woken up to the practice of fraud.

Vladimir Putin will not have it easy when he returns to the Kremlin. They are already calling for massive protests to follow. How do you think Putin will handle the opposition movement and the discontent once he is back in the Kremlin?

Well we don’t know for sure because the circle of decision makers around him has changed and narrowed. Surkov, for example, is apparently a thing of the past. When it comes to demonstrations, obviously there will be one tomorrow. The counter-demonstrations have been planned for this evening already. There is a slight fear that Putin might revert to counter-revolution “Plan A” (the plans drawn up to prevent the original threat of a coloured revolution spreading to Russia after 2004) and make it difficult for the demonstrators, or make it harder for them to go where they want to go.

But given they’ve been able to blow off steam in the way they have over the last two months, the rational thing for the Kremlin to do is to let them blow off more steam – but you never know.

The key question is whether the re-politicisation of Russian political life over the last three months – the attempt to displace the old-style highly ritualised “virtual politics” with a real politics of protest and contestation – will be allowed to continue.

How would Putin react if the opposition changes its tactics?

If the opposition movement decides to change the way they protest and say, for example, they set up a tent city outside the Kremlin – a “madian.ru”, something similar to what happened in Kyiv on Maiden Square (the scene of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005 – editor’s note). I can’t really see Putin allowing that at all.

But the real question is whether the momentum we have seen in the past few months can continue. Or the authorities can try to reduce the public space for protesters or even try and crackdown on the movement.

Arguably it is in the authorities’ interest to let the protests continue. It would actually allow the opposition to channel their energy into something like party building. And if they do this, it would quite likely lead to more parties in Russian politics, with several parties where the opposition could align or divide itself. But it is far from clear that the authorities will make a rational decision. So a crackdown is entirely possible.

Do you think Putin could actually concede to the protest movement and implement reforms or give in to demands?

In the political sphere, the Kremlin’s natural instinct is still to fake reforms, but not actually implement anything. However, it is entirely possible to see some changes in the social and economic sectors.  Most people expect Alexei Kudrin (Former Minister of Finance) to come back or play a role behind the scenes. But it is well known that that Medvedev and Kudrin won’t share the same room let alone be in the same government. So putting together an effective reform agenda may prove difficult in personnel terms. 

Another possibility is that new Duma elections will take place in 2014. Putin could dissolve United Russia (Vladimir Putin’s political party – editor’s note) into two or more parties: most likely a “liberal” Kudrinist party and a more “nationalist” party led by someone like Dmitry Rogozin (Russia’s ambassador to NATO – editor’s note). In which case, the Kremlin could even win Duma elections.  Yes, Russia is split – but it is not split 50/50. We have an active anti-Putin minority and a passive majority, or plurality.

However, I think the biggest take away from today’s election is that Putin essentially ran a grab-bag campaign. Picking out old themes here and there – stability, spending money on social programmes, etc. And by doing so, Putin was able to garner a plurality.  

But there was no big theme this time around when compared to his previous election campaigns. This time, Putin has basically stumbled over the finish line, and it is not at all clear what his next term will actually be about.

Andrew Wilson is a Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

 
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