There’s no sensational news. As expected, Vladimir Putin was re-elected as president of Russia on March 14.
He took first place, 57% ahead of his nearest rival, Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov; as the Kommersant newspaper observed, this is a record margin for Russia. The previous record had been set by Boris Yeltsin in 1991, when he defeated Nikolai Ryzhkov by a margin of 40.5%.
However, when compared to other leaders in former Soviet states, Putin – with his 57% winning margin – only ranks eighth. He is ahead of President Robert Kocharian of Armenia (who won with a margin of 21.26%) and President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine (14.25%). But the top spot is held by President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, of course, who got 99.5% of the vote in his last election. The Turkmenbashi is closely followed by President Emomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan (96.97%), President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia (96.27%) and President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan (91.9%). In this company, Putin hasn’t broken any records.
Rather venomously, the Vedomosti newspaper observed that it’s good to know Putin “is a well-read person who has visited the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery,” not to mention “the museum that is the Kremlin.” Thus, says Vedomosti, there is some hope that “he won’t wish to follow the example of Saparmurat Niyazov and become ‘the father of the Russian people,’ president for life, with a golden statue of himself rotating to follow the sun on Red Square and/or Palace Square.”
Meanwhile, there were plenty of reasons to worry during the voting process – as expected, most concerns were related to voter turnout. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in the lead-up to the election, “a clear and unambiguous directive was sent out to the regions: 70 and 70.” In other words, state officials at all levels of government were instructed to ensure that voter turnout was no less than 70% and the priority candidate received no less than 70% of the vote.
The objective set by the Kremlin was acted upon, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. As soon as voting began, victory reports started coming in from the Russian Far East: almost everywhere, voter turnout was higher than it had been for the parliamentary elections.
Predictably, the most active voters were military personnel (almost all of them voted) and rural residents. Residents of large cities proved to be far more lazy and irresponsible.
Among the regions, according to Gazeta, the highest turnout was (as usual) reported by the ethnic republics.
Kabardino-Balkaria took the lead with turnout at 94.76%. It was followed by Mordovia (91.29%), Ingushetia (91.09%), and Chechnya, of course (89.65%). Unexpectedly, the lowest turnout levels were recorded in the Irkutsk region (49%) and the Krasnoyarsk territory (48.45%).
The authorities of the Irkutsk region had done all they could not to be left behind: according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, In the city of Irkutsk even people without official residency permits were allowed to vote at some polling stations. Neither maternity hospitals nor general hospitals nor universities were overlooked. Cars fitted with loudspeakers cruised the streets of Irkutsk all day, urging citizens to go and vote. Nothing helped.
There had been warnings in the media: leaders of the regions with the lowest voter turnout levels would face a real threat of the Kremlin’s displeasure after the election.
At this point, the main target of this displeasure is said to be Governor Alexander Khloponin of the Krasnoyarsk territory. The Vremya Novostei newspaper notes that this is all the more upsetting because before this election, the Krasnoyarsk territory had been considered something like “the New Hampshire of Russia” – that is, an “average” region on all counts. The same might be said of the Irkutsk region.
Vremya Novostei requested comments from Igor Bunin, director of the Political Techniques Center. He explained that the changed situation in these regions is due to the fact that “large industrial regions like Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk are accustomed to elections with a normal amount of competition, so they weren’t very happy about the lack of options.”
Vremya Novostei points out that both are “oligarchic” regions. Alexander Khloponin came from the Interros conglomerate; and the Irkutsk region is “the fiefdom of Russia’s aluminum corporations.”
Nevertheless, according to the sources of Vremya Novostei, the presidential administration even seemed glad to see these results. The Kremlin considers them to be evidence that all the talk of “directives from Moscow” is nothing more than the invention of journalists with too much time on their hands.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta offers its own explanation of the uneven distribution of election results among the regions.
As Nezavisimaya Gazeta emphasizes, incredibly high turnout in some regions and complete voter apathy in others are not correlated in any way with living standards or awareness of the law in those regions. “The high turnout figures are not coming from regions where the people are relatively prosperous and very aware of the Constitution. They are coming from regions where the regional leaders are dominant and the people are submissive.”
In the opinion of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, voter turnout in the presidential election has become “a vivid indicator of the degree of authoritarianism and enserfment of the citizenry.”
Nezavisimaya Gazeta also finds it necessary to warn that “Turkmenistan style” voting is not without its dangers for the regime.
“Turnout in excess of 90% has generally been reported in regions that rely on subsidies from the federal government. It’s a kind of deal: the federal government provides funding in return for regions providing ballot papers filled out in the proper way.” The arrangement is legally flawless, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, but politically dangerous: “If oil prices crash, could the Kremlin find enough money to buy loyal votes? What if the next election becomes a mechanism of blackmail?”
However, there are also some other points of view. Vremya Novostei takes up a philosophical question: “Is all this evidence that Russian democracy is vulnerable? Undoubtedly.” But whether we can say that democratic institutions in Russia “are becoming totally degraded” – that, according to Vremya Novostei, still remains to be determined.
What is actually being proposed as a basis for comparison? “Did we witness a true triumph of democracy in 1996 and 2000? Or did the threat of a communist or neo-communist revanche seem so realistic at the time that it was acceptable to ‘overlook’ obvious departures from the canons of democracy?”
What’s more, as Vremya Novostei recalls, four years ago voter turnout was higher than this week’s figure – 69% versus 61%.
As for the “almost Central Asian” voting results – according to Vremya Novostei, the first question to ask is this: “At whose expense did the favorite improved his tally?”
Vremya Novostei says it was primarily at the expense of the Communists: “In 2000, Gennadi Zyuganov received almost 30% of the vote, but Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov got only half that figure now.”
Then again, Vremya Novostei notes that it’s very difficult to answer the following question: whether it’s a good thing that a substantial proportion of Communist voters have chosen to vote for Putin this time.
On the one hand, “from the standpoint of the market economy and carrying out further reforms,” it seems to be a good thing. On the other hand, “anyone who still remembers the history of the 20th Century is bound to have somewhat unpleasant feelings at the sight of universal love and approval for the incumbent regime.”
Novaya Gazeta observer Boris Vishnevsky points out: “The election of 1991 was an ‘election of hope.’ It seemed to be a logical extension of the ‘springtime of democracy’ in 1990, and there were hopes that this would melt the ice floes separating Russia from the normal world, once and for all.” And Yeltsin was elected precisely because those hopes were associated with him.
Moreover, throughout the following years many people remained convinced that Yeltsin was a real democrat.
As a result, the idea of democracy as such was discredited. The general impression was that the “conquests” of democracy amounted to inflation, devaluation, a default, and wars in Chechnya.
On the other hand, this widespread conviction made it impossible for a democratic opposition to Yeltsin to arise, so a Communist comeback essentially became the sole alternative to the existing order.
It was fear of a Communist comeback that made it possible to increase support for Yeltsin thirty-fold in 1996.
That was when the regime became convinced that obedient television channels, “managed democracy,” and a strict hierarchy of governance could work electoral miracles. These skills proved very useful in the course of “Operation Successor.”
As a result of all this, by 2004 elections have become an empty formality. Boris Vishnevsky says: “No wonder Russian voters are completely apathetic about elections – just like Soviet voters were apathetic about all elections that resulted in a convincing victory for ‘the indestructible bloc of Communists and non-Party members.'” People are aware that their votes don’t affect anything. Bitterly, Vishnevsky asks: “Have we come all the way from hope to apathy in only thirteen years?”
However, it is clear that the democratic press has still retained its faith in the power of the written word, in these new conditions.
“How lovely all this is,” says Yevgeny Kiselev, editor-in-chief of Moskovskie Novosti. “First Putin tramples the political ground so that nothing can grow on it.” Some of those who decide to oppose the regime become emigres, others find themselves in jail. And “more cautious” politicians have preferred “to hide – since no one wants to meet the same fate as Khodorkovsky. But when it became clear that the election outcome was a foregone conclusion and therefore of no interest to anyone, the regime suddenly became alarmed.
Titanic efforts were made to boost voter turnout (right up to demanding absentee ballots from sick people before admitting them to hospital, and even from arrestees before sending them to pre-trial detention centers).
As Kiselev puts it, Putin wanted “to defeat himself” – that is, to better his own result from four years ago (as he succeeded in doing).
Most of all, however, he was seeking “a completely different kind of mandate” – carte blanche for any transformations he chooses to make – and he could get this by winning an absolute majority of the vote (not just the majority of those who actually voted, but a majority in terms of eligible voters).
This second goal was not achieved, despite the extensive use of state resources (or perhaps precisely because the efforts applied were excessive).
In the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, an observer for Versiya weekly, the people decided to “slack off” in this election: “After all, this is just about the only liberty that still remains to us.”
Radzikhovsky emphasizes that he sees no ideological opposition to the regime in this line of conduct – in contrast to an election boycott, as emphatically promoted in recent weeks by Yevgeny Kiselev on the pages of Moskovskie Novosti. For Radzikhovsky, there is a clear difference between “a boycotter who spends voting day lying on the couch for the sake of an idea, with the sanction of Yevgeny Kiselev,” and a “slacker.”
“The boycotter wants everyone else to do the same – he has a firm opinion about how to engage in politics, and how we ought to put Russia in order (with or without Putin).” But the “slacker” really doesn’t want everyone else to slack off – since that would mean he’d have to drag himself to the ballot box after all: “Because unfairness is preferable to disorder, and he definitely doesn’t want to see a repeat of 1991-93.”
To illustrate the popularity of this attitude, Versiya cited the results of its own opinion poll. People were asked which of the post-1917 regimes they view as the most stable.
Leonid Brezhnev’s stagnation era used to be ranked highest in polls of this kind – until recently. But times change, and the views of the electorate change with them: the top place is now held by – of course! – Putin (37%). In second place – a real sensation, this! – is Stalin (18%). Brezhnev has dropped to third (11%). He is followed by Lenin (9%), Andropov (8%), and Khrushchev (4%). At the bottom of the ranking are post-Soviet reformers Gorbachev (2%) and Yeltsin (1%). It seems that democratic values have become greatly tarnished in the eyes of Russian citizens.
Further details are added to the picture by a poll from Yuri Levada’s Analytical Center, published in Novye Izvestia. It indicates that the capitalist path of development has no more than 20% support in Russia, while only around 9% of respondents identify themselves as consistent liberals.
The Levada agency’s poll indicates that support for revising the results of privatization has risen from 25% to 31% over the past four years. The idea of returning to a state-regulated economy now has 29% support; and restoring state subsidies for fundamental sectors of the economy would be approved by 15% of respondents.
Meanwhile, only 13% of respondents were in favor of continuing reforms and strengthening the positions of private capital. The number of those in favor of private ownership of land has also fallen, from 8% to 6%.
Leonid Sedov, senior analyst at the Levada Center, says Russia “now has a combination of a conservative citizenry, unadapted to modernization, with a gigantic bureaucracy concerned solely for its own welfare.”
According to Novye Izvestia, it follows that over the next four years Russia can expect to see existing attitudes being maintained.
However, most analysts believe Russian society is now on the threshold of significant changes. It seems that almost everyone has a different opinion about Putin’s policy program for his second term.
In Novaya Gazeta, Boris Kagarlitsky says: “Anyone who thinks the next four years will simply be a continuation of the previous term is mistaken.”
In his first term, says Kagarlitsky, Putin was engaged only in entrenching his own power, without getting involved in economic and social problems: “Even the battle against the oligarchs was not an expression of any coherent strategic course: it was a matter of removing everyone who was obstructing the Kremlin.”
This battle had little impact on the lives of ordinary citizens: for some time now, they have thought of the war in Chechnya as something happening far away; while the crackdown on the media and the increasing influence of the security and law enforcement agencies seem to have made a strong impression only on the West. Kagarlitsky observes that terrorist attacks in Russian cities have probably served to strengthen the regime rather than weakening it: “The more frightened we are, the more we love our leaders.”
And so Putin has defeated his opponents, winning the election. “Now the stage has been cleared for one political performer. What kind of performance shall we see?”
Kagarlitsky notes that the president isn’t concealing his plans: he proposes to continue the liberal economic reforms. Next in line are reforms to housing and utilities, and the conclusive commercialization of health care and education. The Russian market will be opened up to Western companies. And so on.
The public, having voted for Putin, is hoping that stability will continue – just like in the past four years, when there haven’t been any noticeable reforms, but living standards have increased little by little. However, those times are over.
The problems are building up, and something must be done about them: the “good fortune of oil” cannot last forever.
The Kremlin team is ready for battle: with television broadcasting brought under control and the opposition crushed, this is just the right time to launch some unpopular reforms.
Kagarlitsky says: “During his first term in office, Putin wasn’t a politician – he was an approval rating. A symbol, an office, whatever – but not a state leader charting a course of his own.”
And that was the very reason for his overwhelming popularity. As the media often observed, he was “the president of hope.”
But as soon as he starts taking action, the situation will change.
In the Gazeta newspaper, Andrei Ryabov says: “As soon as he takes the first steps along the path of complicated, unpopular reforms, the president will immediately encounter the risk of losing support.” The almost-universal approval he has now will inevitably be eroded.
At present, it’s hard to predict what will happen after that. Ryabov believes that Russian politics will be “greatly polarized.” The groups that find their expectations cheated will start seeking someone new to express and protect their interests. And the requirements for a new leader will be fairly stringent: “To clearly formulate a program for redistributing property, weakening the power and influence of the rich, and so on.” Meanwhile, the president will be forced to seek a new support base for his reforms, “since the state bureaucracy is unlikely to become a reliable ally for the head of state in this cause.”
So who might become a reliable ally for Putin, at a time when attitudes are shifting again?
The Izvestia newspaper says: “It must be admitted that both the Russian elite and the public have always cherished the idea of there being some kind of ‘special cohort’ made up of the very purest, bravest, and cleverest people – a kind of political special squad, capable of moving those mountains which the ‘plebes’ don’t even dare to approach.”
As everyone knows, Putin’s first term has seen an influx of “siloviki” – people from a security and law enforcement background – into the upper reaches of political power. Certain unnamed pollsters have even calculated that the proportion of such people in the highest echelons of government has risen from 5% in the Soviet era to 50% now.
In Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, Alexander Golts observes: “The Russian president’s words about secret service agents having accomplished their mission of infiltrating the government seemed like an unsuccessful joke until recently – but now those words have become an obvious reality.”
According to Izvestia, the mobilization of special service personnel into politics is by no means an end in itself; rather, it is “a search for that impetus which would be capable of launching reforms – as seen from above.”
Then again, there is also a danger here: if the siloviki are “drawn into” the market as well as politics, there will be more and more “werewolves in uniform” corruption.
Needless to say, there would also be some threats to democracy.
As Alexander Golts emphasizes, the people from a secret service background seriously claim that “they owe all their good qualities – their matchless analytical capablilites, brilliant education, strong will, courage – to the Soviet special service, the secret police of a totalitarian state.”
Neither should we forget, says Golts, that it was a state “steadily moving towards its own destruction.”
Apparently, there are still far more questions than answers.
The New York Times says: “We pose the familiar questions: is Mr. Putin a reformer or a hard-liner? Is he his own man or is he controlled by the dreaded siloviki, the former security officials who have become the powers in the Kremlin? Was it the president or the siloviki who arrested the oil mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky, seized control of the news media from private owners, purged and re-purged the benighted dystopia of Chechnya?” (Gazeta published a translation of this article.)
One thing is clear, the New York Times observes sadly: “Vladimir Putin is never going to become a Western-style, liberal-democratic politician, no matter how much we wish it… A reforming liberal leader in Russia is the Holy Grail of Kremlinology, but the search for one is as misguided and hopeless as that for the relic of the Last Supper.”
Russian analysts hold similar views. At any rate, in one of his post-election interviews, Gleb Pavlovsky thoughtfully observed that “a state cannot be better than its society.”
And those are the scales on which we will have to balance throughout Putin’s second term in office.