Wednesday, 28 March 2012 10:58
Russia’s once and future president Vladimir Putin won his expected landslide victory in the 4th March election, though the victory was marred by allegations of fraud and by violent clashes between police and protesters at a post-election opposition rally in Moscow.
Political uncertainty spread to the markets: at first investors welcomed Putin’s return to the Kremlin as a guarantee of stability, but then worried his legitimacy deficit with the urban middle class could become a chronic problem for the regime over the next six years and may even prevent him serving a full term.
The key question is whether the opposition fizzles out in the aftermath of the election – and, if it doesn’t, how Putin tackles liberal demands for political and economic reform.
Putin obtained 64% of the vote, thus avoiding the need for a second-round run-off that would have tarnished his authoritarian image. The second-placed candidate, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who has been runner-up three times before, got about 17%.
The billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who drew support from the angry urbanites, even though some liberals regard him as a Putin proxy, registered almost 8%, beating the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky (just over 6%) and former parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov (less than 4%) into fourth and fifth place respectively.
In Moscow, significantly, Putin failed to get a majority, polling only 48% compared to 20% for Prokhorov in second place. In some districts his margin of victory was in single digits, according to the official figures.
The opposition claims that Putin’s official result was inflated by fraud. Fixing and ballot-stuffing undoubtedly occurred, but on a lesser scale (and less blatantly) than in December’s parliamentary election. In the victor’s own words, during a televised meeting with the defeated candidates, the election “was devoid of excessive dirt”.
This was largely due to the introduction of webcams into polling stations and to a huge increase in voluntary election monitors. It was still pretty dirty, however. According to the electoral organisation Golos, the most common form of fraud was so-called “carousel” voting, i.e. the abuse of absentee ballots by state employees voting at multiple polling stations.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the result was “skewed” by administrative resources, lack of competition, biased media coverage and numerous technical flaws. A confidential report by the Council of Europe put the aggregate level of falsification at between five and seven per cent, which suggests that Putin would still have obtained a majority of the vote even if no fraud had occurred.
Optimists believe the outcome of the election provides Russia and investors with the best of both worlds: the guarantee of political continuity and the emergence of a non-revolutionary opposition movement that will press the government to pursue a much-needed reform agenda.
There is already some evidence to bolster the optimism: the day after the election, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a review of guilty verdicts against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. A decision to free Khodorkovsky would send Russian stocks soaring, because most investors regard the Yukos case as a primary example of the failure of the rule of law in Russia.
Pessimists argue that Medvedev’s Yukos review is merely a symbolic gesture by an outgoing president, and that no decision will be taken until Putin is back in office anyway. That decision is unlikely to be favourable to Khodorkovsky and Lebedev.
On foreign policy, Putin’s victory represents a setback for the West’s attempts to engage with Russia, and for the US government’s so-called “reset” policy especially. In Russia, because the president, not the prime minister, directs foreign policy, Western leaders have had the more amenable figure of Medvedev to deal with over the past four years. Putin’s return to the Kremlin is likely to bolster Russian opposition to international military interventions in Syria, Iran and elsewhere, and to the deployment of US missile shields in Europe. It will also result in a more assertive Russian attitude towards the affairs of other former Soviet republics.
The post-election outlook is messy. The opposition has lost momentum and morale as a result of Putin’s clear-cut victory, which will probably draw a line under the protest movement in its current form. Nothing, however, can disguise the discontent of Russia’s middle class, a new political force. If the discontent spreads beyond the relatively affluent centres of Moscow and St Petersburg – as it may do, given Russia’s fragile economy – Putin will be in trouble.