From Soviet to Putin and Back: and Back Again
The news from Russia on Sunday was far starker and much less exciting but far more definitive than the ongoing Republican electioneering in the United States. No American-style TV talking heads will be necessary to analyze the results. Vladimir Putin was triumphantly re-elected as President of Russia in a landslide with 64 percent of the vote. It is telling that Gennady Zuyganov of the Communist Party, a man that looks and acts the part, came in a distant second to Putin with 17 percent of the vote.
Putin’s triumph that will prolong his12-year undisputed hold on Russia’s power was partly a victory and partly a deferral of choice fueled by the fear of the unknown and the lack of compelling alternatives. Russia, more than twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union is still not close to a Western style representative democracy. It may not be so for decades. Putin of great physical shape will be around for that long.
This is not to say that Russia has not changed. In spite of his overwhelming victory, when Putin returns to the presidency in May, he will be taking the helm of a Russia that has experienced unrest over the past four years. In the wake of December’s parliamentary elections, protests and discontent have rippled throughout the country. The struggle is between conservative Russian nationalists and the rest, some of which are internationalist intellectuals. Putin provides an illusion of importance to the nationalists, often also religious and of lower financial class. Those make up his core support.
Will there be a Russian Spring? Unlikely and those who speculate, trying to apply western criteria on Russia and its society perform the same faux pas like those who became enamored with the original (Arab) Spring. When British historian Lord Acton wrote “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he might as well have been sitting in Putin’s Kremlin. It’s no secret that corruption in Russia is among the world’s most prevalent and systematic.
Putin will resume the presidency for a third non-consecutive term to continue the abhorrent for the West legacy of his second term: crackdowns on media freedom; criminalization of political opponents (e.g. Mikhail Khodorkovsky); and governmental “reforms” (recall that Putin launched an initiative to replace the direct election of governors with his own appointment system).
Fueled by $100 oil and the fact that Russia has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer with more than 10 million barrels per day, the Medvedev-Putin “tandem’s” modernization agenda has yielded some potentially important results, providing building blocks for what could be a more politically robust future for Russians, disagreeable as it may be to the outside.
What’s most important to note here is that Putin absolutely realized something early on in his first presidency: most Russians love power more than money. How mis-placed was President George W. Bush who, after looking Putin “in the eyes,” saw a “remarkable leader,” and an “honest, straightforward man.” For Putin the things that have been remarkable were the consolidation of power and the meteoric rise in energy production.
The geo-political reality remains the same: Putin has won. He has been particularly provocative towards the United States, knowing how his core support loves the overtones some prevalent during the Cold War, when Russia was clearly the number two in the world, competing head to head with the number one. The near future will once again pit Moscow and Washington in an intensified race to secure new energy, namely oil and gas resources – for Russia to continue Putin’s grip on power; for America to get her economy back on its feet. It will become a seminal issue in the next US election and will dominate the next US Administration.
Surprisingly, there are changes in Russia of a different kind. For example, at rates higher than the West, increasingly, Russians are turning to the internet for their social networking and news, distrustful of traditional media, creating a virtual society that may have little to do with the real one. Ultimately, what matters about this election has less to do with Putin’s victory and more to do with whether the budding social movement can harness the opportunity to build viable alternatives, based on Russian, not European or American, realities.
Politics is all about the art of what is possible. An old Soviet-era saying was “Please, God, may it not get better.”
Economides and D’Aleo are the authors of From Soviet to Putin and Back: The Dominance of Energy in Today’s Russia.