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Russia’s Once and Future President

A depressing victory for Putin.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By CATHY YOUNG
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Opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny tried to sound upbeat as he addressed the crowd: “We are the power! We’ll teach them to respect the law! We will come out into the streets and the squares and we will not leave!” But his promises struck a hollow note. At the end of the permitted rally, people began to disperse and the riot police arrived. Demonstrators who would not leave were forcibly ejected from the square; many, including journalists, were shoved and clubbed, and one female activist suffered a fractured arm. About 250 people, including Navalny, were briefly detained (in St. Petersburg, arrests numbered 300 to 450). Elsewhere in Moscow, an attempt to form a human ring of protest around the Kremlin, as activists had done on two occasions during the winter, fizzled early.

“One or two more pointless and hysterical events like the Pushkin Square rally, and the opposition will squander all of its gains,” liberal commentator Nikolai Svanidze wrote in the Internet magazine The editors of the Internet daily, strongly critical of the Kremlin, concluded that the movement for fair elections had lost momentum as a result of the widespread acknowledgment that the ballot box fraud, however extensive, had not altered the election result. “The carnival of protest is over,” they wrote, urging the opposition to channel its energy instead into the prosaic day-to-day tasks of reforming laws that hobble political activity in Russia.

And yet the 2012 election cannot be regarded as a total loss for the opposition. Putin suffered at least one defeat—one without practical consequences, but major symbolic or psychological weight: Even by the official count, he received only 47 percent of the vote in Moscow. Perhaps this accounts for the startling humility in the pro-government press, whose commentary often sounded no more optimistic than the opposition’s.

Thus, Izvestia columnist Maksim Sokolov noted that most Putin voters were choosing “the devil they know” and giving the regime one last chance; if it did not justify this grudging trust, Sokolov warned, it would fall. In the same paper, Andrei Ilnitsky, a top functionary of the ruling United Russia party, wrote that the pre-2012 system of governance could not continue and that without more open and competitive politics, Russia might join Belarus in its authoritarian mire and international isolation. Ilnitsky welcomed the growth of pro-democracy, pro-market parties and urged United Russia to modernize. 

Of course, this could amount to mere talk. It remains to be seen whether Dmitry Medvedev’s lame-duck initiative to remove barriers (created during the first Putin presidency) to the registration of independent parties will translate into genuine reform or more Potemkin politics. Today, at least, the opposition has leaders with real influence. Navalny is one; another intriguing figure is tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, the election’s only liberal candidate, who came in third (after Putin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov) with over 8 percent of the vote—up from early polls that gave him 1 percent. The unofficial analysis by the League of Voters has Prokhorov placing second, with 16 percent. While many Russian liberals were disappointed by Prokhorov’s willingness to concede the election and meet with Putin the next day, he also appeared at the opposition rally, where he promised to “fight for a free country where our citizens will vote based on dignity rather than fear.”

As for the once and future president himself, many are wondering how his third term will differ from the first two and whether his weakened support will make him more flexible or more aggressive, both toward the opposition and toward the West. Putin’s language, so far, suggests the latter: He and his cronies have repeatedly fallen back on portraying dissenters as tools of the West, with particularly strident attacks on U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, a serious scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union. Nor did Putin tone down his rhetoric after the vote. At his victory rally, he denounced “political provocations that had only one goal: to cause the collapse of the Russian state and usurp power.”

At the moment, Putin is biding his time. Whether the opposition manages to stay unified and focused will no doubt influence his course. So will the Western response. A strong message that a new wave of repression would cost Russia its ego-stroking and profitable foreign friendships will go a long way toward ensuring that Russia’s newly awakened civil society is not crushed as it takes its first steps.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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