So far, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has exercised power well—by the standards of the former Soviet republics. His administration has presided over quite impressive rates of economic growth (admittedly aided by high energy prices), and has not been as oppressive as the Central Asian regimes, as corrupt and chauvinist as the Caucasians, or as incompetent as the Ukrainians.
Many Russians, who reasonably enough compare Russia with her neighbours and not with the West, still find this reason enough to vote for Putin. Above all, perhaps, Putin has based much of his image for the past 12 years on the contrast with his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who not only presided over economic and military disaster for Russia, but was also widely seen to have disgraced the country with his drunken buffoonery.
More and more educated Russians, however, no longer think that being better governed than Ukraine or Kazakhstan is good enough for Russia. The mass protests that they have sparked stand no chance of overthrowing Putin, but they have dented his prestige and exposed his administration’s glaring flaws.
Russia’s trajectory in the 20 years or so after the fall of the Soviet Union conformed to certain wider patterns. In most of the former Soviet republics, the years after the Soviet collapse saw economic chaos and mass suffering. In some cases, this was accompanied by the replacement of the old Communist authorities by new populist politicians. In the southern Caucasus, the Chechen autonomous republic of the Russian Federation, Moldova and Tajikistan, there were civil wars of varying degrees of ferocity. In Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere, a new class of oligarchs seized a large share of economic and political power. In the Caucasus, warlords ruled.
Order was sooner or later usually restored by sections of the former Communist parties in league with the former Soviet domestic security apparatus. Given the weakness or non existence of other institutions, this was probably the only basis on which stable state authority could have been re-established in most of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately though, the new/old regimes combined some of the worst features of the Soviet Union and the new capitalist order: the dour cynicism of the Brezhnev years with the immoderate greed of the 1990s. The result was new oligarchies, with high state officials running large corporations and fostering immense levels of corruption.
Sooner or later, anger at this corruption has led to waves of mass protest in some of the former republics. Other factors however have also been present: resentment at oppression—not perhaps so much the major cases of state oppression highlighted by the Western media and human rights groups as the constant, low level brutality and extortion by lower level policemen. In several areas, nationalism has played a part—including in Russia, for reasons that I will come to. Naturally, the uneducated working classes who suffered from the Soviet collapse and have never recovered have been tempted to join the protests; and in the background has been a wider feeling that the new capitalist order put in place after the Soviet collapse is at some deep level morally illegitimate.
These are features of the Russian political scene and the latest protests that much of the Western media has missed, or chosen to ignore—but which are obvious enough if you look both at the election results and at the banners being carried at the anti-Putin demonstrations. Liberals have provided some of the most vocal elements of the opposition, and have also played a critical role in spreading the message of opposition on the internet, but the bulk of the demonstrators has been made up of Communists and nationalists.
As to the election results, to go by opinion survey organisations including the Levada Center, which has always been found reliable in the past, the proportion of Russians who said that they would vote for Putin was somewhere in the region of 55 per cent, rather than the 63 per cent that he was recorded as receiving. That would seem a reasonably accurate indication of the likely level of actual rigging in the elections. It still means that Putin won, and by a very convincing margin by international standards.
Manipulation of the media in favour of Putin played a big part. But the next biggest vote by a long way was for the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, with 17 per cent. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s clownish but deeply ugly ultra-nationalists received 6 per cent. So if you count Putin as appealing in part to a mixture of Soviet nostalgia and desire for a strong Russia, then parties of a left wing and nationalist hue gained well over 80 per cent of the vote in the Russian elections.
The liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov did surprisingly well with almost 8 per cent, and probably was deprived by rigging of a few more points. But you would have to multiply his vote more than five times over for him to have a chance of winning. One very depressing aspect of the elections was that For A Just Russia, the rather decent and sensible social democratic party of Sergei Mironov, won less than 4 per cent of the vote—demonstrating yet again how a mixture of Putin’s Soviet nostalgia and the fossilised remains of the Communist Party continue to suck most of the air from the left of the political spectrum in Russia. This is dangerous because as the election results demonstrate, a large portion of the Russian electorate always votes left in continuing outrage at the excesses of capitalism in Russia.
In these circumstances, it is foolish for Western commentators to hope that the Putin administration will be toppled by mass protests in the next few years. In the first place, it is not going to happen, and in the second, we might very well not like the results if it did. What we can hope for is that Putin will decide on the basis of the latest protests that this must be his last term in office, and that his successor will need to resume the reforms that Putin pursued during his own first years in office. If this does not happen, then the present structure of power in Russia will not fall soon—but it will certainly fall one day.