While the presidential election has provided an eagerly-awaited and most convincing (even brutal, perhaps) answer to the question of political power, it has also prompted observers to ask some other questions – no less urgent, even if rather vague.
In general terms, these new questions seem to sound approximately as follows: how has all this come about? Or: why have things turned out this way, rather than any other way? Or, even more incoherently: what will happen now?
In the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, Dmitri Oreshkin says: “The victory has been won. It is indisputable. It is democratic – the majority supports the president unambiguously. It is lawful – there are no court decisions to serve as grounds for a legal challenge. But it is ‘inelegant.'”
Oreshkin easily demonstrates the “inelegance” of Putin’s victory by using some figures cited in virtually all the Russian media over the past few days.
Before the election, says Oreshkin, all the polling agencies promised Putin no less than 70% of the vote (the VTsIOM-A agency, run by Yuri Levada, even promised more).
Yet the election results (for example, 92% of the vote for Putin in Chechnya, and over 95% in some other North Caucasus republics) have left no doubt that “the ill-fated state administration resources have made their mark” on the voting figures. And the impact of state administration resources has amounted to at least 10-15% – maybe more. Thus, simple arithmetic indicates that support for the president among “free voters” is actually around 55-60%. “So where did the figure of 70% in the forecasts come from?” asks Oreshkin.
This is just one of a multitude of post-election questions. It is extremely difficult to find a definite answer to it, says Oreshkin: “Perhaps the cunning pollsters adjusted their forecasts in advance to take state administration resources into account (indirect evidence of this can be seen in their vague references to ‘coefficients based on practice’). Or maybe poll respondents try to appear more loyalist, energetic, and patriotic than they really are.”
In short, the presidential election proved to be “a festival of triumphant servility,” according to Moskovskie Novosti. By taking advantage of the regional leaders’ entirely understandable wish to keep their jobs, the regime was able to achieve the result it wanted – but only at the cost of an obvious decline in quality: “The numbers will be whatever the authorities order them to be. We are familiar with this from the Soviet era. After all, even in Belarus under Lukashenko, the official figures show economic growth of 10% of year… though judging by the range of products available in stores, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Kommersant-Vlast magazine notes that the Kremlin’s main objective in this election was achieved: it managed to ensure a normal level of voter turnout. “Yet even so, in 25 regions the number of eligible voters who did not vote at all was higher than the number of votes for the incumbent.”
Based on the number of citizens who are eligible to vote, calculations show that 45.8% of all adult citizens voted for Putin, while 35.7% did not vote at all. Kommersant-Vlast emphasizes that the number of those who did not vote exceeded the number of votes for Putin in almost a third of Russia’s regions.
Curiously enough, ten of the 25 regions where voter turnout was especially low used to be part of what was known as the “red belt” in the mid-1990s – regions with a high level of support for the Communist Party (CPRF).
There has been a great deal of media commentary on apparent changes in political preferences over the past few years: politicians promoted by the United Russia party have become more popular. However, according to Kommersant-Vlast, the outcome of the presidential election prompts the thought that those regions are just as “red” as ever.
In 1999-2000, a significant number of voters in those regions supported the centrists and Putin, because they were using virtually the same slogans as the CPRF, only “stripped of dogmatic ideology.” Four years later, disillusionment has clearly set in.
Those who voted for Putin in 2000 have realized that the present regime will never deliver Soviet-era prices for goods and services or Soviet-era wages. On the other hand, they no longer believe in the CPRF either. Thus, at the election of 2004, many voters simply took the stance of “a plague on both your houses” and didn’t turn out to vote at all.
Kommersant-Vlast predicts that by 2008 the situation will only get worse, especially if the regime really does go through with its plans for some painful reforms during Putin’s second term. After all, Putin still remains “the president of hope” (a term used by pollsters); but if the electorate is deprived of that hope, the reaction will undoubtedly be strongest in the former “red belt” regions.
Moskovskie Novosti adds that the rural areas and small towns of Russia’s provinces have always been distinguished by fairly conservative attitudes, as well as “a dislike for know-it-alls from Moscow and anything unfamiliar or incomprehensible.” From the viewpoint of these provinces, Moscow and St. Petersburg are “oligarch cities, full of ill-gotten wealth which ought to be confiscated and redistributed among the honest (and therefore impoverished) regions of Tambov, Penza, Kursk, and Ryazan.”
The Novye Izvestia newspaper reports the results of a study done by the Expertise Foundation think-tank on the topic of radical authoritarianism in Russia’s collective consciousness. According to Expertise Foundation Chairman Mark Urnov, these results are fully consistent with the outcomes of the parliamentary and presidential elections. They indicate that 60-75% of Russian citizens support authoritarian ideas, are prone to nationalism, and prepared to give up some or all of their civil liberties.
Urnov explains that respondents were asked to choose between two diametrically-opposed models of thought – authoritarian and liberal – and the overwhelming majority sided with the former.
In particular, 49% of respondents said they don’t care what kind of methods politicians use, as long as their activities “work for the public good.” And 45% said that “there is no place in our country for people who obstruct the president’s implementation of his policies.”
Half of respondents said that no matter what happens in international affairs, relations between Russia and the West will always be based on mistrust. And 60% agreed that “great caution is required in allowing foreign companies to operate in Russia.”
What’s more, 65% of respondents believe that most of Russia’s rich people are thieves, and 61% think it’s impossible to get rich without breaking the law. Then again, 61% of respondents admitted that they themselves would like to be rich (only 25% said they would not).
Seventy-three percent of respondents said it is acceptable to imprison people without trial, while only 16% said this is unacceptable under any circumstances.
Forty-eight percent of respondents said the main priority for the law enforcement agencies ought to be “stopping crime, even if this requires violating the rights of the accused.”
Thus, it appears that supporters of authoritarianism vastly outnumber those who support democratic ideals in Russia.
Morever, according to Professor Urnov, “the wave of nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism in Russian society is gaining strength.”
The Expertise Foundation points out that no such poll has ever been done in Russia before, so from the scientific point of view there is no basis for comparison; observers have made assumptions about social trends, but no figures have been available.
All the same, according to Urnov, some conclusions about dynamics may be drawn by comparing “what is happening now with the situation in the past.” The comparisons offer no reassurance.
For example, the Expertise Foundation notes that never before have skinhead gangs been so numerous and active in Russia. The aggression building up in society is seeking an outlet.
Urnov says such trends are not directly linked to “life in Russia being hard.” On the contrary, he says, “such phenomena occur whenever life becomes just a little easier, and people’s demands start rising rapidly. The rest depends on the moral climate in society. People can use their energy in a creative way to achieve their goals, or they can express it via envy, hostility, and psychological disturbances. At present, the latter situation prevails.”
Paradoxically enough, says Urnov, people working in the private sector tend to support returning industry to the state’s control – naively assuming that this would give them their current wage levels along with extra stability provided by the state. Urnov notes: “For the collective consciousness, which has always been inconsistent, it is not at all obvious that freedom and high incomes always entail risks. The average person just wants to have everything and pay nothing.”
Moreover, this “average person” has no wish to be constantly thinking of politics: “People would like to elect a strong politician once and for all, so he can make all the decisions for them afterwards.”
Novye Izvestia notes that this is a textbook example of the “flight from freedom” syndrome, as described by American psychologist Erich Fromm. “Go ahead and take this freedom from me. I don’t need it.” And Russia is not evenly divided on this issue. “The majority really does want to flee freedom.”
Thus, the prospects look fairly alarming, Urnov warns: “Russia could slip into a coma of authoritarianism, without any hope of modernizing or becoming more productive.”
Modernization is essential, but in Urnov’s view, Russia’s circumstances are such that the necessary changes can only come about through the efforts of the authorities: “Either Russia will fall apart – or the regime, while it still remains highly popular, will start instilling the ideas of modernization into the collective consciousness and the consciousness of the elites.”
Actually, Urnov observes, the elites are not at all inclined to pursue modernization. In the same issue, Novye Izvestia quotes “a regional governor” as saying: “Political power is given by God, and whatever the president does is right.”
It’s not hard to imagine what kind of impression such opinions, quite characteristic ones in contemporary Russia, make on Western observers.
“So where do we go from here?” cries the Toronto Star emotionally. “How long will it be before Russia breaks with tsarist and Soviet traditions that leave the country’s fate hanging on the whims of one man?” (A translation of this article was published by Kommersant-Vlast.)
Meanwhile, Les Echos (Paris) draws a parallel between elections in Russia and Spain (article translated in the same issue of Kommersant-Vlast). “Thousands of kilometers apart, elections were held on March 14 in two countries – Russia and Spain. Both were grimly overshadowed: in the former case by the shade of terrorism, in the latter by authoritarianism… Spaniards proved that democracy has taken root in their nation’s heart within only one generation… But Russians, after surviving 70 years of communist dictatorship, are once again retreating into the totalitarian past…”
“It is too soon to tell whether this is a new Red Tsar bringing back Soviet autocracy through the back door,” says United Press International (another article translated in Kommersant-Vlast). “It is still just possible to see Putin as a Russian version of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, who launched a bloody military coup against an elected government, slaughtered opponents by the thousand, but put Chile back on the path to becoming the prosperous and stable democracy of today.”
At any event, says UPI, the next four years “will probably reveal whether the old KGB major is a closet democrat or a Stalin-in-waiting.”
Thus, the West continues seeking an answer to the question: “Who is Mr. Putin?”
Meanwhile, as Viktor Shenderovich says in Moskovskie Novosti, in Russia many are asking a different question: “Why Mr. Putin?”
Shenderovich says the election results clearly require “a detailed explanation.” However, it is not all that easy to find one.
The first argument in Putin’s favor – “economic stability” – doesn’t stand up to criticism, according to Shenderovich. At least, Shenderovich is sure he has a much better grasp than Putin “of how stability would look at the grass-roots level, since Putin’s window does not overlook a garbage container in which some Russian citizens continue to forage for clothing and personal items. My window does. And the speed of my travels across Russia (without the benefit of a motorcade) enables me to see that a cashless economy still begins as soon as one leaves Moscow.” It’s difficult to expect any changes for the better during Putin’s second term, says Shenderovich: “Even this crude form of stability, in which wage rises are still lagging behind inflation, has only been achieved thanks to Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush, whose joint efforts have boosted oil prices. As soon as all that comes down, so will Russia’s budget.”
As Shenderovich puts it, Putin “couldn’t be bothered” to provide any coherent explanation during the election campaign as to why everything is supposed to change for the better over the next four years. Then again, “the people didn’t insist…”
Another widely-used argument in favor of Putin is the democratic argument: “Putin is restraining the national-socialists, and if it weren’t for Putin, the situation would look even worse.”
If anyone is seeking a more detailed understanding of this issue, Shenderovich refers them to the recent history of the Motherland bloc (Rodina): “Putin led Glaziev and Rogozin out for a walk, like dogs on a leash, in the political yard. One of them slipped off the leash prematurely. The other is competently playing the same role in the Putin era as Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov played in the Gorbachev and Yeltsin era: the role of a bugaboo, for domestic consumption and especially foreign consumption.”
Shenderovich, a well-known satirist, is only prepared to accept one of the commonly-cited reasons for Putin’s popularity: “Some middle-aged women vote for Putin because they think he’s really sexy. That is the only point for which I have no counter-argument.”
There have been some other attempts to answer the troublesome “Why?” question.
In Argumenty i Fakty, Vyacheslav Kostikov makes his own attempt at explaining why Putin – “without De Gaulle’s looks, or Winston Churchill’s bulldog tenacity, or the political experience and Byzantine cunning of Francois Mitterand, or the wisdom of Deng Xiaoping – has managed to surpass them all in winning the people’s confidence and stable affections.”
Kostikov notes that even Stalin, with whom Putin is so often compared these days, required “over a decade, and the fearsome purges of the ‘Bolshevist guard,’ to activate the mechanism of ‘universal public affection.'”
“Unlike Nikita Khrushchev, Putin makes no attempts at populism; unlike Leonid Brezhnev, he does not make himself out to be a ‘hero of Novorossiisk’; unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, he does not play at being a democrat; unlike Boris Yeltsin, he doesn’t promise to ‘lie down on the railroad tracks’ for the sake of the people’s happiness. Yet his popularity continues to rise…”
What’s more, Kostikov has no doubt that Putin, “like any ordinary person,” does have some flaws: “But the amazing thing is that the people simply don’t want to see them.”
Meanwhile, according to opinion polls, Putin’s only flaw is that he is not quite “resolute” enough.
He is believed to be far too scrupulous in keeping to the “contract” made with Yeltsin during the transfer of power; he has delayed too long in making a break with “Yeltsin’s Family,” and has been too “timid” in dismantling the oligarchic system.
However, says Kostikov, if the president had made any kind of resolute moves during his very first year in power, “wouldn’t that have resulted in an oligarchic coup with some fairly dangerous consequences?” After all, Boris Berezovsky – Putin’s main opponent – did hint at the possibility of that.
So Putin’s supporters tend to take a positive view of his lack of resolve, seeing it as caution and avoidance of hasty, ill-considered decisions.
What’s more, says Kostikov, it is quite likely that Putin’s popularity is partially due to citizens being tired of the extravagant antics of his predecessors: “People don’t want the Russian president to wear embroidered peasant shirts and thump the table with his shoe at the United Nations, as Khrushchev did; they don’t want him to kiss foreign leaders, like Brezhnev, or conduct an orchestra as Yeltsin did when Russian troops were withdrawn from Germany.”
In Kostikov’s view, voters may not be entirely conscious of it, but they have sensed that Putin, who rose to power by chance, does possess a certain range of qualities which enable him to address the immediate tasks of modernization “without resorting to the mobilization methods of the Stalin era.”
In Komsomolskaya Pravda, political analyst Alexander Tsipko explains: “The people did not vote for Putin due to a longing for democracy – on the contrary, they did so because they fear democracy.”
In Tsipko’s view, Putin’s unconditional victory is nothing other than “the result of a resonance between Putin’s fear of all that is outside his control and the ordinary voter’s fear of possible change.”
By voting for Putin, people have expressed the hope that nothing much will change. We can confidently predict that voters will get an “unpleasant surprise,” at the very least, when they realize exactly what the president has in store for them over the next four years.
The Russkii Kurier newspaper says: “Putin’s second term will be a crossroads for turning back along the same old imperialist track, or going further by tripling the stregth of the right-wing liberal policy agenda.”
Undoubtedly, the second option could prove fateful for the future successor of 2008: “The people maintain their illusions for a long time, but eight years is long enough for anyone’s patience to wear out.”
Yet this very circumstance may dispel the fears of those who are defending the Constitution against the alleged wish of the authorities to change the length of the president’s term in office. It would be impossible to repeat the unprecedented success of the 2004 election – especially since Putin, who until now has basically continued Yeltsin’s policy agenda, has already “opened the second envelope.”
That is a reference to an old Soviet-era joke about an old director’s legacy to his young successor, in the form of three envelopes to be opened consecutively, in the event of any major trouble.
The first contains a note saying: “Tell them you’re still inexperienced.” The second says: “Blame everything on me.” The third says: “Start grooming a successor.”
This old archetype is working perfectly in Russia today, says Russkii Kurier.
According to Russkii Kurier, there’s a fairly simple answer to the riddle of Vladimir Putin’s phenomenal success with Russian citizens: during “the reign of Putin I,” there haven’t been any unpopular reforms – but neither has there been a restoration of the Soviet order. And everyone has seen whatever they wished to see in preserving the status quo. This is how the ambiguous term “president of hope” ought to be interpreted.
But the need for reform is clearly becoming more urgent. If Putin decides to go ahead with it, says Russkii Kurier, he will probably require an internal enemy – so that the discontent of the people, who have not been expecting any tricks, can be shifted onto that enemy.
There are plenty of candidates for this role. For example, there is every chance that the oligarchs will fill the gap; or insufficiently-loyal regional leaders (that’s why they are so servile these days – as insurance against potential problems); or – a tried and tested option, this – the Chechen separatists.
Or perhaps it might be the Boris Yeltsin of his second term in office, who never did manage to fit in with civil democracy (in line with the abovementioned joke).
“Once we know who the opponent is, we will understand the main direction of the reforms,” says Russkii Kurier.
And after that it will be time to groom a successor.