x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Russia's 'alpha-dog' won, but are his days numbered?

Vladimir Putin has won re-election, but has lost the confidence of a large part of the Russian people. His new term as president will bring him many challenges.

On Sunday the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, won the country's presidential elections with almost 64 per cent of the vote. At the victory parade next to Moscow's Red Square, the tears streaming down his usually inscrutable face made for great TV drama. But there was never any suspense about the outcome.

Since Mr Putin proclaimed his candidacy in September 2011, there was no doubt that he would regain the position he had held from 2000 to 2008, before being forced to step down due to the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.

However, to speak of Mr Putin's return is a misnomer. That's because he never went away. Even as prime minister he remained Russia's strongman. His anointed, one-time successor, the current President Dmitry Medvedev, was in office but never in power.

Mr Medvedev was keen to stand for a second presidential term but lacked his own support base to force Mr Putin's hand. As Wiki- Leaks revealed, US embassy cables spoke of the Medvedev-Putin tandem as Robin and Batman and called Mr Putin Russia's "alpha-dog".

It was widely assumed that Mr Putin would serve another two consecutive terms. In 2009 the Russian constitution was changed to extend the presidential term from four to six years. Thus Putin's rule could in principle last until 2024, longer than the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and only a few years short of Stalin's 31-year reign.

But after a fraudulent parliamentary vote in December and weeks of mass protest, Mr Putin's grip has substantially weakened. His announcement to reclaim the presidency and appoint Mr Medvedev as his prime minister was a tactical error that betrayed a misguided strategy. Simply informing the country of an orchestrated job swap isn't going to cut it even with those Russians who still yearn for stability and authority after the chaos of the 1990s.

Crucially, taking the Russians for granted is offensive to a people well known for their sense of honour and patriotic pride. Putin looks increasingly out of touch with reality. His landslide victory merely reinforces this sense.

After the public outrage that followed last December's elections, the authorities ordered the installation of web cameras in polling stations. But this system of surveillance neither prevented fraud nor produced a legitimate vote.

The presidential poll was largely free but was neither competitive nor fair. Prominent politicians were barred from the election on dubious grounds, notably the popular anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny who coined the term "party of thieves and crooks" to describe United Russia, the ruling party that nominated Mr Putin for the Kremlin.

Moreover, Mr Putin's carefully chosen competitors were no match for him - an old-style communist, a rabid nationalist, a billionaire oligarch and a little-known centrist. With the state apparatus firmly backing Mr Putin, there was no contest, and thus, no need for large-scale electoral fraud. By failing to promote political pluralism and a fair campaign, the ruling regime had long ago pre-empted the final result.

The last opinion polls published by the independent Levada Center ahead of Sunday's vote credited Mr Putin with about 60 per cent. But his popularity is so high only by default. In the absence of real rivals, voters faced the question: "If not Putin, then who?" Few greet his third presidential term with genuine enthusiasm or optimism.

For some time now ordinary Russians have been fed up with official corruption, an arbitrary legal system and a self-serving elite, which includes Mr Putin and his closest associates. The population does not want to see another bloody revolution, but hundreds of thousands are clamouring for real reform. That includes a re-run of the fraudulent parliamentary vote, the sacking of the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, and the release of political prisoners such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the energy giant Yukos.

Mr Putin's image of control has gone, as has the climate of fear. The protesters who took to the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg on Monday evening were not afraid of calling him a "thief" for having robbed the country of a fair election. His spectacular miscalculation of the political mood locks him into a Catch-22 situation. Violent repression would fuel popular protest and could bring down the ruling regime. Proper reform will undermine the system that he put in place to stay in power.

That system is best described as a patrimonial fusion of power and wealth where the elites combine political office with control over vast state corporations and public assets. This unity of state and business produces a wasteful rentier economy that is commercially and socially unsustainable.

The alternative is to build a legacy by initiating real reforms that will end with Mr Putin's final departure from power. He could start by holding fresh parliamentary elections to restore a measure of legitimacy and credibility. If he refuses to heed the call of the street, he will have lost his greatest political asset - his nous for what ordinary Russians think.

Mr Putin could face either a coup or a popular uprising before he can serve out his third term that ends in 2018. An uninterrupted reign until 2024 is likely beyond the reach of Russia's "alpha-dog". Instead, his new presidency may well be his last and inaugurate a long, messy transition.


Adrian Pabst is lecturer in politics at Britain's University of Kent and visiting professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille in France.