The Australian

By Anatol Lieven

But the President must heed the dissent

So far, Vladimir Putin has exercised power well — by the standards of the former Soviet republics. His administration has presided over quite impressive rates of economic growth (aided by high energy prices, admittedly) and has not been as oppressive as the Central Asian regimes, as corrupt and chauvinistic as the Caucasians or as incompetent as the Ukrainians.

Many Russians, who reasonably enough compare Russia with its neighbours and not with the West, still find this enough to support Putin. Above all, perhaps, the President 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. The mass protests 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 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. Order was sooner or later 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. Unfortunately, the new-old regimes combined some of the worst features of the Soviet Union and the new capitalism: the dour cynicism of the Brezhnev years with the immoderate greed of the 1990s. The result was new oligarchies, with state officials running large corporations and fostering high levels of corruption.

Anger at this corruption has led to waves of protest in some of the former republics. Other factors have also been present, however: 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. And in the background has been a feeling that the new capitalist order is at a deep level morally illegitimate.

These are the features of the Russian political scene and the protests that much of the Western media has missed or chosen to ignore. Liberals have provided some of the most vocal elements of the opposition, but most demonstrators have been communists and nationalists.

As to the recent election results, the proportion of Russians who said they would vote for Putin was about 55 per cent, rather than the 63 per cent he was recorded as receiving. That would seem a reasonably accurate indication of the likely level of rigging. It still means 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.

The liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov did surprisingly well with almost 8 per cent, but you would have to multiply his vote more than five times for him to have a chance of winning.

One very depressing aspect was that 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 continues 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 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 may 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 resume the reforms that Putin pursued during his own first years in office. If this does not happen, the present structure of power in Russia will not fall soon, but it will certainly fall one day.

This essay was published in American Review, the journal of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney