By Habibe Ozdal
A scrutiny of votes is in progress after the presidential elections in Russia, which took place on March 4, 2012. According to the public announcement made by the Central Election Commission of Russia, throughout the elections wherein 45 million people voted, Vladimir Putin has gained 63.64% of the vote up to now. His closest rival, leader of the Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov, has gained 17.18%, while billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov followed him with 7.94%. The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has gained 6.22% while the leader of A Just Russia, Sergey Mironov, has remained at 3.85%.
After the elections for the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament (Duma) on December 4, 2011, hundreds of thousands of Russians marched on the streets with the popular slogan of those days, “Russia without Putin.” Moreover, at the same time while the opponents of the Putin regime organized around the claim that the elections were corrupted, supporters of Putin also took to the streets. The presidential elections took place under such a climate. Against the claims of corruption during the elections, Putin and his team have placed webcams, traceable through the internet, over more than 90,000 ballot boxes.
The result of the elections was no surprise for anyone at all. Because according to the public surveys prior to the elections, the support for Putin was between 58% and 66%. Putin was expected to declare his victory after the first round since the expected support rate for his closest rival (Communist Party leader Zyuganov) was around 20%. Among the presidential candidates, Sergey Mironov manifested that the polls conducted by his staff also demonstrated similar results and that therefore the elections were impartial. Communist Party leader Zyuganov, on the other hand, claimed that the elections did not take place under even and just conditions, the media functioned only for Putin, and the results are not legitimate.
The inheritance which Yeltsin left Putin in 2000 was a country with a bankrupt economy and a socially and politically instable one as well. With the shock therapy that was initiated in 1992 and was aimed to pave the way for a liberal economy, inflation rates peaked to 250% and the accumulations of the middle class were minimized in a short time period. The economic crisis of 1998 deeply shook an economy which was indicating signs of recovery. In addition to the breakdown of the economy; with the political turmoil created by the First Chechen War and with the Yeltsin government forced to sign a ceasefire, the situation in which the country was in can be perceived better. Hence, Putin symbolized not only political but also economic stability during his presidency between 2000 and 2008. With the use of asymmetric power during the Second Chechen War domestic instability ceased, and with the positive effect of increasing oil prices the Russian economy overcame the economic depression which the country was in. Moreover, the middle classes reemerged during this recovery period. In a similar fashion, with the reflection of economic power in the international arena; the idea of Russia’s reemerging prestige in foreign policy was realized under Putin’s leadership. As a result of these developments it was possible for Medvedev, who was denoted by Putin, to be his successor after gaining 70% of the vote during the national elections of 2008. At this point, Putin is still equivalent to stability for many.
In the elections which took place yesterday (March 4, 2012), one of the main reasons for the people to elect Putin is that there is nearly no other alternative. Among the current candidates, Communist Party leader Zyuganov has participated in the presidential elections three times since 1991, while the Liberal Democratic Party’s leader Zhirinovsky has participated four times since then. With confirmed grassroots and electoral capacities, the discourses used by these leaders were of no use to help them emerge as powerful alternatives and gain increasing support among the electorate. Billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who was nominated for the first time during these very elections and the leader of A Just Russia, Sergey Mironov, seem to be far from competitive with the current ratios of the vote they gained.
Six years after the second time he participated in the presidential elections in 2004, it may not be as easy for Putin to remain a powerful leader even if the consecutive 53% and 71% victories in 2000 and 2004 are considered. Forasmuch as the current challenges Russia is facing, its social fabric as well as the public demands are changing.
Understanding the Discourse of Russia Without Putin
Ever since the Duma elections of December 4, 2011, a part of Russian society has been showing up in the streets with demonstrations against Putin. Beneath the foundations of these demonstrations lie the disparity in income distribution and the lack of an effective initiation of policies against bribery and corruption. Since inside the country Putin is identified with the system itself, the discourse of “Russia without Putin” is preferred. But the main frailty of Putin’s opponents is that the opposition is currently immature. Neither the questions of who will replace Putin nor how the system will evolve afterward are answered.
Besides the inequality of incomes and corruption, there may also be questions of whether the political preferences of the public are determinative in the administration behind the discourse. Putin’s declaration of his candidacy for presidency in September 2011 and President Medvedev stating that this was a decision that was taken long before have both created unrest within some segments of society. However, apart from comprehensive political demands, election results show that there is an ambivalent structure far from singularity if these segments’ political preferences are considered.
In conclusion, there is a new Putin era ahead of us in Russia. For Putin, who holds the constitutional right to be elected twice, to guarantee being elected six years later; he needs to implement significant reforms in various areas. Fighting poverty and sustaining a just income distribution, together with providing the people a feeling of being able to decide their political future, are the expectations of the public from Putin in this new era. In fact, this very message can be conducted through the planned reforms ahead. On the other hand, when the primal role of economics as one of the most decisive influences on politics is considered, the popular remarks regarding the diversification of the economy must be realized from now on. Finally, it was understood that the Russian economy is fragile and sensitive to external influences after the recent economic crisis in 2008. From this perspective, it seems likely that Putin will face overtime work to some extent.
USAK Center for Eurasian Studies