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How did 'unpopular' Vladimir Putin win Russia's presidential election?

Vladimir Putin has secured another six years in power with a potent mix of charisma, pragmatism, corruption and brute force, combined with an ineffective opposition and a disillusioned electorate.

In a Moscow theatre, the actors Evdokia Germanova, right, and Sergei Epishev, perform in Berlusputin, a Russian adaptation of an Italian absurdist play about a head transplant between Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP
In a Moscow theatre, the actors Evdokia Germanova, right, and Sergei Epishev, perform in Berlusputin, a Russian adaptation of an Italian absurdist play about a head transplant between Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP

Some things never change.

"Russia is a country of façades ... Russians have names for everything, but nothing in reality. Read the labels: they have 'society', 'civilisation', 'literature', 'art' and 'sciences' but they don't even have doctors. And how many cities and roads exist only as projects? The entire nation is nothing but a placard stuck over Europe."

Marquis de Custine, the French traveller, wrote this assessment back in 1839. Yet, if you throw in the words "elections", "a constitution" and "freedom of assembly", you would paint an equally comprehensive picture of the state of Vladimir Putin's modern Russia.

Amid all the smoke and mirrors that currently surround Russian politics, one thing is certain: that Putin, elected with 64 per cent of the popular vote on March 4, will remain in power for at least six more years.

But how did the president-elect go from being a man on the ropes to retaining office with such a commanding majority?

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The answer lies in Putin's blend of charisma, nationalism and pragmatism (helpfully underwritten by corruption and brute force) as well as in the incompetence and elitism of the opposition and the resigned masochism of his country's voters.

Accused of having rigged last December's parliamentary elections to preserve the political monopoly of his deeply unpopular United Russia party, Putin made sure that the subsequent presidential race hewed closer to the letter of the constitution, while appearing to remain as unfaithful as ever to its spirit.

In last year's elections, both domestic pro-democracy groups and foreign observers tallied numerous voting irregularities. Golos, an independent monitoring organisation, even released an interactive online map on which thousands of abuses - from ballot-stuffing to vote-rigging - were logged in real time, until the site was hit by a mysterious and terminal cyberattack.

For the March 4 vote, not only were the ballot boxes made of tamper-proof, clear plastic, but 180,000 CCTV cameras were also installed in polling stations across the country. On election day, the cameras may not have managed to prevent such dubious electoral miracles as a 99.82 per cent vote for Putin in Chechnya (apparently, enthusiasm for the president in the restive, Muslim-majority republic governed by the Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov was such that one polling station even recorded a 107 per cent turnout). Nor did the gadgets stop so-called "carousel voting", in which busloads of voters were encouraged to cast ballots at multiple polling stations.

Although the pattern of voting seems to have lacked some of the blatant manipulation of last December's elections, Putin's critics believe that his margin of victory was significantly inflated. The League of Voters, an association of liberal activists and public intellectuals, believes that as much as 10 per cent of the votes cast were illegitimate. Other estimates put it as high as 15 per cent. That would place Putin's tally to either just over or just under 50 per cent, which should have necessitated a run-off. However, independent exit polls predicted Putin would win with 61 per cent of the vote, only a few percentage points short of his final tally.

While fraud might have helped Russia's president avert an embarrassing run-off, it cannot explain everything about why he won. After all, despite mounting opposition to Putin's rule, poll after poll continues to show him enjoying the confidence of the majority, while prominent opposition figures languish in obscurity.

To be sure, some of this is down to the state-controlled media's virtual blackout of opposition protests; the persistent harassment and jailing of activists; a crude but effective propaganda campaign warning about the devastating consequences of choosing a Putin-less Russia; the vast network of intimidation and patronage through which United Russia and other pro-government people in positions of authority at factories, hospitals, schools and businesses strong-arm their subordinates into supporting the incumbent; the near impossibility of successfully registering an independent political party or standing in local elections and the outright exclusion of any serious alternative candidates from the presidential ballot.

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The western consensus regarding Putin's victory is that it is the beginning of the end. Yet, not only do such judgements appear to involve at least some wishful thinking, but observers should, in turn, be careful what they wish for: even if Putin were to be forced out, it is uncertain that his successor would be any better. As one opposition figure quoted in The Economist recently conceded, the most likely winner in a genuinely free election would be a "left-leaning Russian Hugo Chavez with a penchant for nationalism".

Though it's sloppy to compare the latest unrest to the Arab Spring (Russia still has too few young people, too many economic opportunities and too little unemployment for it to replicate either the Libyan or even a Tunisian scenario), there is a striking similarity in the roles played by the educated middle classes in Moscow and Cairo.

In both places, they were the most visible, energetic and high-profile part of the protests, but threaten to become its least likely beneficiaries. Just as Egypt's conservative Islamists are harvesting the fruits sown by these middle-class secularists, there is some evidence to suggest a similar dynamic in Russia, where those who reject Putin are much more likely to vote for an authoritarian nationalist than a liberal.

The battle for the Kremlin, claims Boris Kagarlitsky, a critic and commentator, consists of rival oligarchic clans fighting each other over money and power, rather than ideology. And the awkward truth remains that for all of the opposition's claims to represent a mass sentiment, there is currently no movement in Russia with enough popular support to even consider mounting a credible leadership challenge.

For a start, the list of those who made it onto the ballot consists, at least in the cutting words of one anonymous observer, entirely of professional losers: the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Sergei Mironov of the Just Russia Party.

Ten years ago, the Communist Party commanded over 30 per cent of the vote. Today, even though it remains the second-largest political organisation in the country, it clings to a dwindling constituency of pensioners and Stalinist diehards. Zhirinovsky, a widely-suspected Kremlin puppet, combines unhinged populism with an immaculate record of voting with the ruling party in parliament, while the Just Russia party has not managed to attract a significant following.

The freshest addition to their ranks, and a man with at least some chance of a political future, is Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's third-richest man. Before his sudden decision to head a centre-right party last year, most people knew Prokhorov only as a tall playboy who had once been deported from France on suspicion of importing a planeload of Eastern European call girls to a party he was hosting at his ski chalet.

The tycoon's half-hearted campaign and his reluctance to criticise Putin fuelled speculation that his entry into the presidential race was sanctioned by the Kremlin to placate the middle classes. Indeed, Putin's recent decision to invite Prokhorov into government has added credence to those suspicions, but other aspects of the billionaire's life, such as his ownership of Snob, a literary magazine that has published several anti-government articles, suggests a certain degree of independence. Prokhorov won eight per cent of the vote overall.

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Taken as a whole, the opposition movement is broad enough to get thousands of people onto the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg but lacked the required cohesion to organise itself into a political force capable of winning an election. Just about the only thing that unites it is a desire to see Putin gone, which provides a decent basis for a protest rally, but is totally inadequate as a political programme.

Some observers have argued that such obsession is both myopic and counterproductive. For one thing, it precludes the opposition from working towards important reforms such as the return of free regional elections, a relaxation of censorship, and the release of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky - all policies that Putin has been willing to consider. In fact, the need for constructive engagement has been acknowledged by some, such as Dmitry Gudkov, who has declared that "we need to move away from the format of 'five minutes of hate' and announce a plan of action".

Others feel that a focus on Putin obscures the need to make more important systemic changes. "They have a slogan, 'Putin must go!', but everything will remain the same," says Kagarlitsky. "We could leave Putin alone, like the Queen of England, and change everything else, or we could get rid of Putin and keep everything the same. Unfortunately, the opposition can't think beyond the latter."

As Russian-American novelist Keith Gessen writes: "If you think the problem with Russia is Putin, then all you have to do is remove Putin."

Meanwhile, Putin has taken advantage of the fractured state of his enemies. He has sweetened the working classes and public sector employees with generous salary and pension increases and is trying to diffuse the frustration of the nascent middle class by wooing fiscally responsible liberals like Prokhorov and Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, into the government (so far without success).

In doing so, Putin has managed to frighten the bulk of the population - which is too politically passive, socially atomised, economically precarious and plain scared to push for change - into sticking with him by conjuring up memories of the chaos that plagued Russia under liberal rule in the years before he arrived to clean things up.

He needn't have bothered: even those who are tired of Putin are painfully aware that there is just no alternative. Meanwhile, the momentum of the protesters is waning. On the first Saturday following the election, opposition organisers expected to attract 50,000 activists to a protest march in central Moscow, but fewer than half that number showed up.

The overwhelming mood in the country remains one of apathy sprinkled with cautious optimism. A Levada poll conducted last month found that a majority of respondents expect no changes in living standards or economic performance in the near future. Of those who thought otherwise, significantly more people believed things would get better than those who felt they would get worse. For all its unpopularity, around 50 per cent still trust the United Russia party, while only a fifth do not.

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All this need not necessarily mean the end of the Russian spring. Even though Putin remains in charge, his country has changed.

A study conducted by Russia's Renaissance Capital investment bank and cited by journalist Simon Saradzhyan claims that Russia's current median per capita income of $10,000 (Dh36,731) represents the threshold at which people actively start demanding democratisation. Russia also has one of the fastest rates of internet proliferation, which accounts for the rapid dissemination of the alternative slogan "the party of crooks and thieves" that has become so synonymous with United Russia that even Putin has moved to distance himself from his own party.

The man responsible for popularising that tag line is Alexei Navalny, a charismatic lawyer who has achieved celebrity status for setting up a WikiLeaks-style user-generated database recording official corruption. With fraud ranking consistently at the top of public concerns, his quest for transparency and accountability has earned him a wide following in urban areas, as well as the wrath of the Kremlin.

Many want to see him head the opposition or even run in future elections, but despite Navalny's impressive presence, he remains relatively unknown outside of Russia's biggest cities. Moreover, it's unclear how a disinterested public campaigner would fare if he were to enter politics proper and have to develop a coherent ideology: liberals might baulk at his nationalism, the less affluent at his free-market tendencies, and right-wingers at his cosmopolitan lifestyle. Finally, he may not even be allowed to make it that far: long harassed by the authorities, Navalny was issued a summons by the anti-extremism department of the police three days after organising a post-election protest march in Moscow. He may yet end up behind bars.

Indeed, while the protest movement may have come up short on concrete political achievements, it has profoundly shaken the ordinary Russian people's relationship with their government, and with authority itself.

The last few months have seen a flowering of political satire not seen since the time when Mikhail Gorbachev first relaxed Soviet censorship rules. Putin, who has been immune from mockery ever since his government forced the closure of Kukli, a satirical show, for deploying an unflattering puppet of the then president in 2001, has once again entered comedians' crosshairs. Berlusputin, an adaptation of an absurdist play by the Italian Nobel laureate Dario Fo, that concerns itself with a head transplant between Putin and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has become one of this year's hottest theatre tickets.

Other traditional centres of authority have also been targeted, such as the Orthodox Church. Last week, members of the radical feminist group P**** Riot were arrested for storming the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour dressed in grotesque spandex bodysuits and performing an indecent rock musical number at the altar (they face up to seven years in jail). In December, another group of activists circumvented a protest ban by dressing up hundreds of dolls and assembling them in a park instead. Most famously of all, the anarchist group Voina, or War, has waged a Dadaistic battle against the government. Targeting the abuse of flashing blue lights by government officials, Voina sent one of its members stumbling blindly across a busy motorway with a large blue bucket on his head.

Such creative manifestations of subversive mischief could even be a harbinger of change. After all, an escalation of political humour in the repressive atmosphere of 1970s Soviet Union was soon followed by Gorbachev's wave of liberalisation in the 1980s and the arrival of democracy. On the other hand, the flourishing of satire in the 1920s was superseded by three decades of Stalin.

Whichever of those scenarios events will follow, Putin's victory cannot erase the fact that the last six months have seen Russia's largest protests since the Soviet era. And while the metropolitan middle classes remain electorally insignificant, their wealth and energy will ensure that their demands for democratisation will have a strength that belies their modest numbers. That said, it's too early to write off the president-elect.

Russians may be becoming more agnostic about their government, but they have yet to believe in anything else. According to another Levada poll, 57 per cent of Russians reject the suggestion that the protests will ultimately lead to chaos. However, people have no faith in the democracy movement either: fully 67 per cent disagreed with the statement that "it is possible for a democratic revolution to seize power from the corrupt state bureaucracy and pass it to elected democratic institutions". Statistics like these suggest that the job of giving the Russian people something to rally behind promises to be an even more daunting task than unseating the government.

"Putin may have won dishonestly," writes the democracy activist Vladimir Milov, "but the opposition lost fair and square."

Vadim Nikitin is a freelance journalist. He blogs at foreignpolicyblogs.com.