World, Politics

Putin wins – but who did he beat and what does it mean?

By Kevin Bloom 5 March 2012

The results of Sunday’s presidential elections in Russia were never in doubt. Vladimir Putin, who installed Dmitry Medvedev as his proxy while waiting for the chance to run for another term, was always going to take it. Yet the men that he “allowed” to stand against him say a lot about who Putin is, and where Russia might be headed next. By KEVIN BLOOM.

By the time this story is published, Vladimir Putin will officially have been elected the president of Russia. That a statement of such certainty can be committed to writing while the votes are being tallied boils down to a few key facts: not one pro-democracy opposition leader appeared on the ballot against him; the Russian electorate has been force-fed a strict media diet of government propaganda in all matters to do with the presidential race; and the Kremlin owns the Central Election Commission.

In fact, within two hours of polls opening in Moscow at 8am on Sunday, as per The Telegraph, “Twitter and other social media were flooded with reports of suspected ‘carousel voting’: a ploy widely used during disputed parliamentary elections in December in which organised groups of people vote at several different polling stations using the same absentee ballots.”

Although still unconfirmed by late Sunday, such tactics were as unsurprising as they were unnecessary – because the four other names on the ballot were never considered a serious threat to Putin.

Photo: A man stands near a screen, which displays portraits of the candidates and shows the preliminary results of the presidential elections, at the Central Election Commission headquarters in Moscow. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin.

First there was the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, who may have accused the Putin regime (by which he also meant the “caretaker” government of Dmitry Medvedev) of “humiliating the country” by only chasing dollars, but whose support base has always been a collection of voters nostalgic for the Soviet Union. The Communist Party, although the big winner in the December elections – the world financial crisis provided ample fodder for the party’s marketing machine to trumpet the evils of capitalism – has not managed to translate its successes into a coherent plan of governance. On the one hand Zyuganov has been known to call for a “re-Stalinisation” of Russia, while on the other, in an attempt to “rebrand for the youth,” he appears to favour democratic institutions and the retention of much of the economy in private hands.

Then there was the former Putin ally Sergei Mironov, of whom a paragraph on the website says everything: “Mironov ran for president in 2004, but managed to gain less than 1% of the vote. The seriousness of his attempt to win the contest was cast in doubt by his open support for then-President Vladimir Putin serving another term. Mironov has also backed changing the constitution to extend presidential terms of office.”

The third name to appear on Sunday’s ballot, the billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, is most famous in the West for being the owner of the New Jersey Nets, although readers of Forbes magazine will recognise him as the 32nd richest person in the world. He made his $18-billion in the precious metals sector, mostly on palladium, nickel and gold, and entered politics in 2011 as the leader of the pro-business political party Right Cause. He left the party in September last year, condemning it, according to the New York Times, as “a ‘puppet Kremlin party’ micromanaged by a ‘puppet master’ in the president’s office,” but his status as an oligarch was never going to endear him to a Russian voting majority who have been denied the spoils of capitalism.

Still, by far the worst candidate on the ballot – in terms of the odiousness of his political platform – was the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who over the course of his career has advertised his virulent racism (his hatred runs the gamut from Jews and blacks to Chinese, Turks and Caucasians), endorsed the forcible reoccupation of Finland, Poland, Alaska and the Baltic countries (where he thinks Russian nuclear waste should be dumped), and regularly gotten into fistfights with his opponents (sometimes on live television).

If nothing else, the fact that Putin effectively “allowed” only these four gentlemen onto the ballot meant that he felt they would make him look good, both as a democrat and as a politician. Russia is not lacking in leaders with the charisma to take on the man whose first stay as president lasted from 2000 to 2008, it’s just that, as happened to chess champion turned pro-democracy activist Garry Kasparov, measures have been taken over the years to keep them out of mainstream national politics. The question now, as younger and more affluent Russians grow increasingly weary of the tricks of Putin, is what happens next?

According to Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, this will be a pyrrhic victory that will further diminish the legitimacy of the Putin regime in the eyes of the ever-growing protest movement. “To be sure,” wrote Aron in the Los Angeles Times, “these protesters are a minority, as the Kremlin is never tired of reminding everyone. But so what? Few, if any, regime changes, let alone revolutions, have been started by the majority. The majority has families to feed and a living to make. It is the younger, the urban, the better educated who have led successful modern revolutions. And recent revolutions have added one critical factor: People who start them are getting uncensored news and opinions from the Internet and social media, not state-controlled television.”

Is it far-fetched to suggest that the lessons of the Arab Spring can spread as far east as Russia? Maybe not – 2011 showed that, in modern politics, “impossible” is no longer an applicable term. DM

Read more:

Photo: Supporters of Russia’s current Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin wave flags during a raly in his support in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin in central Moscow. Putin won a resounding victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday, exit polls showed, securing a new six-year term in the Kremlin and a mandate to deal with opposition protests after a vote that opponents said was marred by fraud. REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky.


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