Presidential elections were held in Russia on March 4, 2012. The President of Russia, usually the most important political office in Russia (though that has not been the case since 2008, it will be the case again starting this year), is now elected for an extended term of 6 years. He may just serve two consecutive terms, but there is no other limit on the total number of terms which may be served. These high-stakes elections follow rigged legislative elections held on December 4, 2011.
Russia is a one-party dominant authoritarian regime. The boss of the Kremlin since 2000 is Vladimir Putin, who served as President between 2000 and 2008 and has served as Prime Minister since then, although in a change of traditional roles, Prime Minister Putin was the de-facto boss rather than his clone, President Dmitry Medvedev. In a cynical game of musical chairs, Putin, term-limited in 2008, ceded his office to Medvedev while becoming Prime Minister instead. While Medvedev would be constitutionally eligible for reelection, Putin emerged victorious from a behind-the-scenes game of power politics and imposed his presidential candidacy while relegating Medvedev to his current office of Prime Minister. Putin’s power is backed by United Russia (ER), the presidential and dominant party whose ideology, officially conservative, is that of any Party of Power in any authoritarian regime.
Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in 2000 and even his triumphant reelection in 2004 was met with much approval in Russia. Putin’s authoritarian regime brought political stability after the chaos of the Yelstin 90s, while an oil and gas-fueled economic boom has brought affluence to Russia’s rising middle-classes. However, the shine has begun to wear off on Putin’s regime. Oil prices are not what they once were and a balanced budget in Russia now requires the price of oil to be at $130 a barrel, against $30 in 2007. GDP growth, 4% in 2011 and 2012, does not hit the peaks of the pre-2009 era. Furthermore, the middle-classes, created and enriched by the regime in the past, is now turning against the regime under the rising liberal influences of the West and rising discontent with government corruption. Liberal, young middle-class Russians now tend to see the regime as corrupt, authoritarian and increasingly anachronistic.
The 2011 legislative elections have been called the dirtiest elections in Russia, because, despite ER’s underwhelming performance, there was still massive rigging. The 2011 elections were the last straw for a grassroots opposition which distrusts the other parties – largely joke parties run by clowns, cranks or crazies – and increasingly loathes Putin. Russia’s winter was marked by mass protests from large throngs of anti-Putin demonstrators, who are disunited in their goals but united in their willingness to get rid of him. The opposition protesters have largely been young, educated and middle-class and united a wide array of ideologies: liberals but also communists, nationalists, anarchists and monarchists. Despite these spectacular grassroots protests against the regime, it must be said that Putin can count on a motivated and equally as numerous base of supporters, something seldom reported by the foreign media. Putin, of course, can still rely on sizable public support but also a still-strong base of support from the establishment and higher echelons of power. ER is still a powerful party machine and some of its governors in the North Caucasus republics (notably Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov) fabricate the craziest of results for Putin’s personal pleasure.
The Kremlin has responded to the protests with a mix of public concessions and behind-the-scenes repressions. Medvedev announced a rather shallow pack of reforms which includes liberalizing laws on political party registration and reintroducing popular elections of governors, something scrapped by the Kremlin in 2005. On the other hand, behind the scenes, the Kremlin has been flexing its muscle and cracking down on the opposition: wiretapping phones, arresting key figures, sidelining opponents and tightly controlling the media. Putin, the ex-KGB man, has appeared to be even more traditionalist and authoritarian than the apparently more liberal Medvedev. He has increased anti-Western nationalistic rhetoric, talking about a final battle with the enemies of Russia, foreign and domestic, who are threatening the country. His record and rhetoric hardly allows us to think that Putin might heed the demands of protesters for political liberalization. He is rather more likely to pursue a course of repression, as he gets more desperate to hang on to power.
But repression alone cannot hold one’s power footing indefinitely. The Kremlin and its boss has also responded with promises of more extravagant spending and tax cuts. Their goal seems to be to placate the public into acquiescing to Putin’s rule for a bit longer.
Vladimir Putin faced five rivals in the race. There were, first of all, the two old clowns who are professionals in losing elections. You have Gennady Zyuganov, the old Soviet apparatchik and authoritarian boss of the Stalinist-nationalist Communist Party (KPRF), the traditional opposition party but which has long since given up on being a real opposition force and is content with playing the role of a not too-threatening fruitcake opposition. Then there is the old clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the insane nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). Zhirinovsky is almost a professional comedian and the LDPR is a creature of the KGB and a pretty loyal ally of the Kremlin. To this mix of old faces, you can add Sergey Mironov, the leader of the left-wing Just Russia (SR) party, another Kremlin creation.
The contender which got the Western media talking is Mikhail Prokhorov, a very wealthy businessman and industrialist in the nickel industry. Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets, is aspiring to be the leader of the liberal opposition to Putin. Unlike veteran liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky, the Kremlin did not block Prokhorov from running. This indicates that he has a base of support or at least acquiescence in the high spheres of the Kremlin, either because he is not threatening or because some of the more liberal elements of the Kremlin such as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin have an interest in him. However, the liberal Prokhorov has failed to appeal to the bulk of the electorate, and especially the anti-Kremlin protesters who perceive Prokhorov as a pal of the Kremlin or at least a part of the establishment.
Turnout was 65.3%, fairly low. The results were:
Vladimir Putin (ER) 63.6%
Gennady Zyuganov (KPRF) 17.18%
Mikhail Prokhorov 7.98%
Vladimir Zhirinovsky (LDPR) 6.23%
Sergey Mironov (SR) 3.85%
Without any suspense or surprise, Putin was easily (re)elected with a predictably big margin. However, compared to the dirty 2011 legislative elections, the general commentary on this election has been that while it certainly doesn’t live up to the standards of free and fair election, it was generally free and not too rigged. Putin had ordered the installation of security camera in all precincts, which might have helped matters somewhat. The Kremlin probably felt the need for a cleaner election to avoid the foreign hand wringing and PR crisis which a rigged election so shortly after a legislative election seen around the world as a joke would have afforded.
The Kremlin also manipulated the whole process in the run-up to the vote, which is oftentimes much more rigged than the actual vote. Threatening candidates were barred from running while the media and the state institutions remained controlled by the Kremlin. Putin ended up facing fairly non-threatening opposition, most of it from only half-serious candidates such as Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky; while Prokhorov’s appeal was limited to non-Russian westerners while being unable to develop a serious footing in Russia. Against these candidates, Putin would have won even a fairly free election. It is also very likely that Putin remains far more popular than his party, ER, which has a very bad image with most Russians and derided, famously, as the “party of crooks and thieves”. Putin understands that ER is unpopular and often goes to great lengths to build an image of himself as some non-partisan saviour of the motherland.
There was still, of course, major rigging in this election. Higher turnout once again showed a strong positive correlation with artificially high results for Putin. In Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov no longer even attempts subtlety, turnout was 94.89% and Putin won 99.73% of the vote. Putin performed very strongly in the bulk of the North Caucasus, where results are fabricated. He won 93.2% in Dagestan, 92.2% in tiny Ingushetia and 91.4% in Karachay–Cherkessia. Other “ethnic republics” also gave strong results to Vladimir Putin, because these regions are oftentimes the strongholds of Kadyrov-like strongmen who control their region with an iron fist and carry their region’s vote to Putin and ER. Putin won 90.2% in Tuva, 87.8% in Mordovia, 84% in Tatarstan (the local boss, Rustam Minnikhanov, is the right-hand man of longtime strongman Mintimer Shaimiev), 80% in Bashkortostan and 78% in Kabardino-Balkaria. The Yamalo-Nenets district, overrun by Gazprom, gave 85% to Putin while Roman Abramovich’s old Siberian desert of Chukotka gave Putin 72.6%.
One region where rigging was notoriously heavy in 2011 was the city of Moscow, which gave ER an artificially high 46% in a city which has a reputation as being a stronghold of the liberal opposition. This year, in contrast to other cities where Putin outperformed ER by up to 20%, Putin won his weakest result in Moscow city – 48.7% against 19.2% for Zyuganov and 19.1% for Prokhorov.
On the opposition side, Zyuganov’s performances in the old Red Belt south of Moscow were fairly weak, as they were in 2011. It seems as if the bulk of support in this poor, agrarian, conservative and ethnically Russian region has shifted towards Putin in recent years, which is of course not surprising. Zyuganov did win 29% in Orel and 26% in Kostroma, but in other parts of the Red Belt he performed below average.
Prokhorov did best in Moscow and St. Petersburg (19% and 14.4% respectively), the two big urban centres of European Russia with a fairly liberal political attitude – especially Moscow. He apparently beat Putin in some precincts near the university in Moscow. Otherwise he won 12.8% in Kaliningrad, 12.4% in Karelia and 11.7% in Sverdlovsk.
Despite his triumphant win, Putin returns to his old office in a far weaker position than in 2004 or 2008. His regime faces the most serious organized opposition force since Putin took office in 2000; and which despite the fact that its strength is overblown and its objectives all over the place, has voiced concerns held by a lot of Russians about political corruption, crony state capitalism and the lack of political liberties. The Putin-created middle-class, with its affluent western lifestyle and liberal European outlook, is no longer a loyal supporter of the regime. Putin’s objective is to rule until 2024, when his second six-year term will end, but he faces a fairly critical choice much sooner than that about the path he chooses for Russia: political liberalization or further repression. His rhetoric and career points to the second path, which observers fear will only lead to a vicious cycle of increased repression responding to increased opposition. Russia now enters a fairly momentous period in which Putin’s rule is no longer as solid as it was between 2004 and 2009, roughly the peak years of the regime.