The Russian Elections: Putin back to his old job
PM Vladimir Putin, and ex Russian president in the past for 2 terms, has won. Is that a news? Obviously not. The Russian Elections were expected to finish in this way well before the 04th of March and the reason is in the Russian politics itself. Mr Putin’s victory was never in doubt, achieved at the first round and with a large majority.
The only uncertainty surrounded the kind of majority, if above 50% and how far beyond, the real strength of the opposition and the transparency of the electoral process. Whilst analyst in the West rushed in unrealistic predictions (Putin in a run off, opposition collecting large votes), in Russia and in the open minded network of many political analysts, everyone knew that Putin would win the election well above the 50%, and that opposition forces were again struggling to collect credit and support beside their bases.
At the end, the election has given a verdict: Putin is the champion in the great land of Russia, that land that stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific, the rural and provincial areas, far from the glamour, progress and wealth that he had created in Moscow or St. Petersburg. These are the strongholds of the opposition, cities of middle class, of new young educated and wealthy sons and daughter of families made rich by Putin in the years of his presidencies. Nevertheless, even the opposition is not united, the big cities are the stronghold of the liberal, new democratic and pro-western parties, whilst the Communists and Nationalists, as Putin, collect support from the vast land. There lays the frailty and weakness of the urban opposition, not a nationwide movement and not able to win support from areas hostile to their programmes.
The Russian election analysis must start from the above points as to ensure objectivity and a real picture is given before judging from our westernised and egoistic point of view.
The Electoral Results
The Central Election Commission declared the official results of the presidential elections as follows: Vladimir Putin 63.64%, Gennady Zyuganov 17.14%, Mikhail Prokhorov 7.94%, Vladimir Zhirinovsky 6.22% and Sergey Mironov 3.85%. Vladimir Putin is President of the Russian Federation for the third time with a landslide victory.
Exit polls showed results similar to the Commission data; according to a Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) survey, about 58.3% of Russians cast their votes for Vladimir Putin, while Gennady Zyuganov got the support of 17.7% of the country’s voters. Mikhail Prokhorov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Sergey Mironov won 9.2, 8.5 and 4.8 per cent of the votes respectively.
Vladimir Putin and ex-president Dmitry Medvedev appeared in Manezhnaya Square to address the supporters gathered to celebrate the victory telling them “we have won in an open and fair struggle.”
Although many predicted a mass participation, the overall percentage of voters was just over 63.3% suggesting an increase if compared to the December parliamentary election but a drop compared to the previous presidential elections in 2008.
Soon after the closing of the poll stations, observers reported a number of violations during the vote across the country. Results at one polling station in Dagestan, in the North Caucasus, will be annulled due to a video recorded by one of the webcams. It showed several people casting multiple ballots. Vladimir Putin’s campaign headquarters says it will demand the cancellation of results at every polling station where such serious violations are revealed.
These elections marked a wide participation of Russians to the electoral process with common people volunteering as observers, web cams in polling stations, transparent poll boxes. Taking into account the above, not even in the major western democracies you have that kind of participation or commitment in ensuring a fair process. Most of the above measures are illegal in nearly all European Union states.
The overall organization of the election process and the monitoring system has received positive feedback from the majority of Russian and international independent observers. These measures follow allegations of widespread vote violation in a December parliamentary vote leading to a number of mass protests across the country. The authorities tried to satisfy people’s call for fair elections and made the vote as transparent as possible.
The key people
Vladimir Putin is the clear winner in Sunday’s elections, with results showing he was supported by over 60 per cent of voters, meaning he won in the first round. The victory of Putin, that was never in question, will open to a third term in office for the ex PM although this time will not be easier for him to rule unopposed.
Mr Putin, that paradoxically is the creator of the modern Russia as we now know and see it, faces opposition from those sectors that benefited from the revenues and economic boom of the years following his first two terms. That middle class, young educated students, that have nothing less than their similar in the west, are now asking him to leave, stand down, and make space to a new generation of politicians. The result is that the big cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, are now the epicentre of this new movement. Putin support in the capital, for instance, is the lowest in Russia. Putin still scored more than any other candidate in the capital, 48.7 per cent and Moscow is the only region of Russia where less than half of voters supported him. It also has the sixth-lowest turnout, with just 49% of the electorate showing up to polling stations.
Putin still obtain a large support from the rural areas, the provinces, from lower classes, who see in him the results of the recent years of changes, bringing stability to a country that was in the brink of dissolution. Wealth is spreading across the country and those people at the periphery are now starting to see something coming back, although in delay if compared to the big cities.
Mr Putin can still count to a large base of support as shown by the huge participation in the celebrations and the results. The message coming from that is clear: there is no doubt on his victory, even taking into account the frauds allegations, the overall result will still see Putin at the head.
For his supporters, Putin marks the progress Russia made in the last 12 years, and for most of them he is still the better choice out there. It can be argued that many of his supporters can be split in two different categories: those who blindly believe in his leadership and those who see him as the less evil or the less worse. This is the area where the opposition is stuck, as currently there are no credible alternatives.
In reality, the support Putin is receiving, and that ensures this longevity in power, is due to two factors: the machine party-state and the control on key sectors.
The United Russia party is a huge catalyst of power, with collusion with private entrepreneurs and economic sectors. Its control over the administration, the state apparatus is undisputed and the media are often under scrutiny. Putin can also count on a strong support from key sectors such the army, police, secret services and all those centres of power that can guarantee order. All the above were sectors that after the collapse of the Soviet Union were rapidly deteriorating towards a state of anarchy, bringing instability not only in Russia but also in the world.
As said before, obviously it cannot be denied the role of corruption in the Russian system, that guarantee an effective way of control and power. However, what many Russian are starting to ask if this system would change without Putin. The other candidates, does not offer real credentials to believe the corruption system will be dismantled, and there is uncertainty on their ability to protect Russian interests.
At the end most of the anti-Russian propaganda in the western media, as well in Russia, has created the feeling of an influence from external powers that many believe can be blocked only with a strong personality, that is what Putin can offer. No one really wants Russia to go back to the shameful years of Yeltsin, when international derision, poverty and criminality were destroying a country on the path to a Yugoslavian style dissolution.
Of course Putin is conscious that his support is changing and is under question, and cannot ignore the protests, so the main challenge in the next six years will be to see how he will address these issues and be a president of all Russians.
The opposition galaxy
The opposition to Mr Putin is heterogeneous as includes communists, liberals, nationalists and the mass of people who voice their anger on websites and blogs. The problem with the opposition is not only in this different composition, but also in the clear fact that currently do not have the support of all Russians.
If you take aside the communists and the nationalists, that can be defined the only constructive and organised opposition to Putin as well a nationwide counter part, the dispersed groups who find voice on the blogs and internet sites does not have a real organisation, program or nationwide support.
The communists of Zyuganov can be seen as the only organised opposition to Mr Putin and United Russia Party. Mr Zyuganov has led the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), successor to the discredited Soviet-era Communist Party, since 1993 and draws his main support from older people, nostalgic for the Soviet Union.
They have a program, a nationwide structure, they can count on votes in cities as well in the countryside. This is demonstrated by the fact they were able to collect over 17% of votes. However, their force is not enough to bring down Putin and unlikely they will form coalitions with the other souls of the opposition. In addition, they can collect support mainly from workers, old generation, but struggle to get a grip on the younger and modernised people, who simply see them as something evil and relegated to the past. The main problem for Putin is that Communists can take away from him votes from the countryside and from workers and lowers classes dissatisfied with the new generation of people and middle class enriched by Putin. This erosion of consent from the base where Putin is gaining support, could be the only reason the opposition could get some way.
Not to mention, at the end, that if Vladimir Putin is not favourite in the West, just only reflect for a moment about the communists. In a truly and free elections they would probably win, although without a majority, but will plunge Russia into the chaos of instability, and in the West no one would like a party that wants, as Mr Zyuganov said, the “re-Stalinisation” of Russian society, and “increasing the role of the UN, restricting the influence of NATO”.
The other big party are the nationalists concentrated around the figure of Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky, 65, the founder and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). He is considered a showman of Russian politics, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, anti-Western invective and a confrontational style. Despite his anti-Kremlin rhetoric and frequent outbursts, Zhirinovsky is seen as a Kremlin loyalist and a political survivor. As for the communists, this party would be seen as dangerous to western interests. As Zhirinovsky said “Russia should be a centralised state without regional princelings”, describes Britain as Russia’s “worst enemy of the last few centuries”. He draws support mainly from far right and people disillusioned with immigration and corruption. However, is not likely to enter in coalition with the democrats and anti Putin campaigners, as well the communists. His rhetoric and nationalism are considered to benefit Putin more than the other opposition parties.
Sergei Mikhaylovich Mironov, 58, was until recently a long-term loyal ally of Prime Minister Putin. In 2006, he set up the left-of-centre A Just Russia as an opposition party, although many believe is a sort of soft party to split votes and weaken similar opposition factions by taking away votes from the middle class. In his manifesto, Mr Mironov promises nationalisation of natural resources, social guarantees to pensioners and state-sector employees, and progressive taxation. He is not seen as a credible alternative to Mr Putin, reason why his support did not go over 3.85%.
Mikhail Prokhorov, 46 years old, businessman, is the youngest candidate and, according to Forbes magazine, Russia’s third richest man. Mr Prokhorov’s personal charisma has won him many supporters, including among celebrities, but his main followers are young professionals and the emerging middle class. Does not collect any support from lower and workers classes, as well oligarchs in the key sectors that still see him as inexpert and not able to guide a country as Russia. As an oligarch it is thought Mr Prokhorov will struggle to gain support from ordinary Russians, his fortune, that as for many others, was made after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is surrounded by doubts and being probably the fruit of the greatest robbery of the 20th Century when state’s companies were simply taken away from party officials using money from the central bank and soviet organisations. Mr Prokhorov made his fortune – now estimated at $18bn (£11.5bn; 13.7bn Euros) – in the 1990s by buying Norilsk Nickel. He is the owner of the Onexim Group investment fund, which is primarily interested in gold and nickel mining but also has holdings in finance, media and technology. Among his assets are the New Jersey Nets basketball team and the Russian-language magazine Snob. Since he emerged on the political scene, Mr Prokhorov has had to fight widespread allegations of being a “Kremlin project” created to attract the votes of the discontented middle class. There are already rumours that Mr Putin will try to work with him, although his declaration in favour of the jailed and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky will create more than one obstacle to a friendly relation with United Russia.
Based on the above how we can judge the opposition rainbow? Mainly, opposition in the west is identified with the pro-western and modern faction, those who find voice on the blogs galaxy and internet websites. This opposition is mainly made of young educated, English-speaking, students, middle classes and entrepreneurs living in the big cities and able to benefit from the economic boom of Putin years in power.
Their strength is however overestimated in the west, and are supported for the simple fact that their position is clearly more flexible and submissive if compared to that of Putin, Zhirinovsky or Zyuganov. Even when in the media are depicting big organisations and huge rallies, in reality from the pictures you can see mainly the flags of the communists and those of the nationalists of Zhirinovsky, the only two real parties in the block.
Their main issue is that do not draw support from the main Russians outside the big cities, and are constantly undermined by the preponderant forces of communists and nationalists. Another weakness in their struggle to transform the opposition in a real revolution, is that middle classes and young modern students, are not getting support from workers, army, soldiers, police officers or any other sector where Mr Putin has his hands. Also, their lifestyle, made of technology and better living if compared to those struggling to make end month in the far borders of the new capitalist Russia, will not generate a real street campaign or revolution. As history teach, street revolutions or regime changes are made by the masses, by uniting different sectors of society. Middle classes, wealthy teenagers, young entrepreneurs do not have the strength to confront police forces or persevere putting at risk their fortunes.
At last, they do not have a clear political manifesto or idea of how to govern a country like Russia. This is clearly shown on the drop of participation to the protests by the above elements whilst the hard-core of the struggle is still made of communists and nationalists, as the only parties able to organise popular movements.
The fraud allegations: The official story or media exaggerations?
Even before the polls closed, complaints over the election were being aired widely. Suspicions of violations in the voting process emerged from multiple sources as the election day progressed. Opposition activists and independent observers said in particular they were concerned about reports of so called “carousel” or merry-go-round voting, where groups of voters turned up to vote more than once at different polling stations. Russian officials denied the allegations and their parallel complaint was that opposition activists were deliberately flagging up rumours and “false information” in an attempt ahead of time to undermine the election result. Opposition activists had always maintained that the most likely moment for vote rigging might come after the polls closed, when votes were counted behind closed doors.
Billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov declared that he would be demanding an official investigation as the situation, he said, had been particularly “dire” in Moscow and St Petersburg.
But the stronger accusations came from the veteran Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. Usually a placid figure, he was visibly angry; he called Mr Putin “the main threat” to Russia. He claimed the country was run by a mafia-like clique, that had in its pocket the police, the courts and the chairman of the electoral commission in charge of these elections.
The protest that followed saw at least 120 people detained in Russia, including opposition leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov in Moscow. In Moscow, police said at least 14,000 people had attended the approved protest rally on Pushkin Square, a short walk from the Kremlin. Previous protests in the city attracted up to 100,000 people. A number of people refused to leave the square after the rally and riot police began arresting them. Some 50 people were arrested at a separate protest on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, where the headquarters of the Federal Security Service is located. In St Petersburg, protesters hurled flares and let off signal rockets, Russian media report. About 70 arrests were made at an unapproved rally which numbered about 800 people, police say.
Amid claims of widespread fraud, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) urged Russia to carry out a thorough investigation. In a statement on the OSCE website, monitors said that while all candidates had been able to campaign freely, there had been “serious problems” from the start. “The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain,” said Tonino Picula, co-ordinator of the OSCE mission.”This was not the case in Russia. There was no real competition and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt.”
Earlier Golos, a leading Russian independent election watchdog, said it had received more than 3,000 reports of voting fraud. The watchdog said its own exit polls suggested Mr Putin had actually won just over 50% of the vote – a result that would still have elected him in the first round. State TV exit polls had given him about 59% of the vote. Other allegations, including videos purporting to show evidence of voting irregularities, have circulated online. There were reports of “carousel voting”, with voters being bussed between polling stations to cast multiple ballots, and of people being paid to vote for Mr Putin.
This is the official story as known to us through the bombardment of western medias, but how to judge? These elections were promised to be the most fair, and open in Russia history, with webcams at poll stations, transparent poll boxes, international observers, and common people as inspectors or “vigilantes of freedom”.
All the above can suggest an answer: these have been the freest election in Russian history ever. Who say the contrary should remember that Russia was a Tsarist empire until 1917, then had 70 years of communist rule, 10 years of anarchy with Yeltsin and 10 years of Putin power. Russians have never had election of this type, and even in the West and democratic countries, many of the above are illegal: no webcams or mobile phone are permitted in poll stations, poll boxes must be closed and not transparent, only authorised personnel can monitor elections.
Obviously, at the same time, we cannot also say these elections were completely regular; frauds and irregularities happened as documented, but the point is: could these, if prevented, erode Mr Putin margin by over 15% as to bring him to a second consultation? The answer is no. We are talking of millions of votes, that even Putin and United Russia would not be able to obtain without a real dictatorship, such was the Egypt of Mubarak or Assad in Syria.
But let for a moment analyse the main accusations:
“The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain,” said Tonino Picula, co-ordinator of the OSCE mission.”This was not the case in Russia. There was no real competition and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt.” Have we forgotten Italy? Mr Berlusconi owns three nationwide private TV stations, controlled state TV whilst in power appointing its directors, controls all national newspapers, not to count all regional TV and press and advertising companies. The last elections in Italy were a farce if compared to this!
The government accusation of the opposition flagging up rumours and “false information” in an attempt ahead of time to undermine the election result, can be considerate legitimate and create one question: why a government already accused to manipulate election in December would do the same when all the eyes of the international community are above them? Would you steal in front of police officers or rob a bank with a police car parked at the front door?
Opposition activists had always maintained that the most likely moment for vote rigging might come after the polls closed, when votes were counted behind closed doors. Unfortunately for them this is how it works in every country in the world. Votes are always counted at closed door and no one is allowed, except authorised personnel to assist.
Billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov declared that he would be demanding an official investigation as the situation, he said, had been particularly “dire” in Moscow and St Petersburg. If the fraud are that big how is then possible that Mr Putin have the lowest support in both cities, and that the affluence is one of the lowest in Russia? When you have such a big prize and you want to make a change, one would expect Moscow and St. Petersburg to have affluence well over 70%. The low turnout has always been one of the main strong points in favour of Putin. Where are gone all the masses willing to topple him down?
What Putin victory will mean for Russia and the West
In Russia, Mr Putin will not have a simple task as in the past, his support is still strong but not unopposed. Although opposition is still weak and fragmented, he cannot ignore the requests for fairness, less corruption, major investment in rural Russia, as well the usual issues related to regional separatism: Dagestan, Chechnya and the entire Caucasus region. It will be also not easy for him to change the constitution as United Russia is now slipping to a majority of less than 2/3 and this will force the party to open dialogue and negotiations with the other political factions.
Russia, nevertheless, will continue to grow and take steps towards a stable economy, although the main issue for Putin is related to the redistribution of wealth. Now that he received support from the areas less privileged, a result is expected from him or next election could really bring down his leadership forever.
Internally, Mr Putin will continue to invest in the modernisation of the army and increase spending in defence. This is an area where not only internal interests and nationalist pride are creating expectations, but it is also the result of the aggressive and neo –imperialistic NATO strategy.
The bad news concerning his re-election are for the West. Mr Putin election will bring a strong, determined and harder policy toward NATO, and its plan to a new hegemony in the world. The plans for the missile shield, humanitarian intervention masking regime changes, anti-Russia propaganda in the media, and aggressive stance in Russian borders are likely to be met with usual hard position from Mr Putin. Likely UN resolutions will be vetoed, gas and energy blackmailing will start again, rise in Russian spending for armed forces will flex muscles and if necessary Georgia style campaign will be taken to block any attempt of limit Russian influence in the east.
The West has acted until now with irresponsibility and issues such as Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Palestine will create cold relations between Russia and United States. Putin will likely continue in Russian strategy to create along with China and the emerging countries a block to oppose western hegemony.
The next six year will bring either stability, if by that we mean a major international control on each power, or instability if the counterparts will slip again to a childish game where soon or later a mistake could lead to a military confrontation, although made by third parties. Old style cold war.