The Putin-factor

This Sunday the Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured a stunning 76,66% of support during the presidential election in Russia. In his post-victory speech at the Manezhnaya square he encouraged a cheering crowd to proceed with Russia’s development: “We are destined for success.

While that is yet to be seen, it is clear that Mr. Putin is the one who is so far destined for success — and he uses cleverly-crafted manoeuvres for it. Hence, ahead of the election Mr. Putin in his usual, rather persuasive and eloquent manner, unveiled new types of weapon systems capable of striking targets even in Florida. The Federal Assembly’s audience loved it, interrupting the President 36 times with applauses.

This speech, despite seemingly being addressed at the West, was in fact predominately aimed at the voters. Mr. Putin is well aware that the Western sanctions had an unfavourable impact on Russia’s socio-economic scene. Thus he used his ace in the hole in order to mobilise the voters and avoid the 2016 Duma election’s low turnout which was below 50%. And he succeeded: The turnout has reached 67,49%.

For many the mere notion that authoritarian Mr. Putin, with the sanctions’ impact and recent scandal involving the poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal in the UK,  continues to appeal to a substantial chunk of voters may be puzzling. However, they also rarely fathom Russia’s turbulent past which never created an environment for liberalism and individual’s rights to flourish in, empowering Russians to reject him.

The double-death of Russian liberalism

Before the Bolshevik’s created Communist Soviet Russia in 1917, Russia was a Europe’s typical absolutist Empire, engaging in often successful wars contributing to the national pride. Yet comparing to its Western counterparts it was also, arguably, the least industrially and democratically developed of the states. If the British Empire, for example, had already a fully-functioning and representative* Parliament by 1884, the Russian Empire installed one solely in 1905, abolishing slavery in the rural Russia in 1861 — nine years before the Second Industrial Revolution took place in other quickly developing European states.

The Russian historian Kirill Solovyov points out that the 19th century liberal adherents, like Konstantin Kavelin, substantially differed from the Western promoters of a night-watchman state: “A liberal is associated with ideas of constraining state power. Russian liberals, however, praised the state’s authority.”

While in the early 20th century, the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party had already modified views supporting the Parliament’s central role in the decision-making, its ideas, however, were confined to small intellectual circles. Cadets, as they were also called, unlike the dissimilar socialist camp failed to strike a chord with the Russian wider public. Eventually, liberals left Russia, while their views were buried, leaving the public unfamiliar with the individual-centred life approach.

Russian liberalism resurrected in the 1990’s, following the USSR’s collapse. For the first time in its history the country had a chance to not just promote democratic institutions, but also build them. However, the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his government failed to mitigate the market transition’s negative impact, banish the organised crime and preserve the country as America’s counter-balance.

For a typical Soviet well-respected scientific associate, who in the new world had to sell fruits at the bazaar to make ends meet, it was of a mild amusement to contemplate Tsarist’s adherents engaging in public, relatively democratic, debates with their Communist opponents. Consequently they mistakenly confused liberalism which they knew little of with a state where everything is allowed. And developed a grudge against it and its promoter the U.S. which is best portrayed in Danila Bagirov — a soldier-turned-bandit hero of the cult 1997 Russian movie “Brother”.

Ironically, Mr. Putin fulfilled Danila older brother’s intention, expressed in the movie, to make the “Ukrainian bastards pay for Sevastopol” when he annexed Crimea in 2014. Since he was first elected in 2000, Mr. Putin together with Dmitriy Medvedev, who served as president between 2008-2012, has been playing a two fold game of restoring the Russian´s feeling of glory and raising the level of income to such an extent that even the average breadwinner could enjoy a vacation in a Turkish family resort.

Acting as a Tsar’s prototype, Mr. Putin managed to create a unique image of a leader who deals with economy and military, albeit addressing the “little Russian’s” needs. A rather amusing illustration of it concerns Vyatskiy Kvass — a local low-alcohol drink which a journalist personally asked Mr. Putin to try and promote. Now, it is sold around Russia and is being prepared to be exported to Israel

This kinship with the ordinary Russians, who feel that many of the hardships are due to “evil America” and not the “amiable” Mr. Putin, is central to his support.

Living in a muppet show

However, not all Russians are “little”. In fact, a recent survey carried out by Carnegie Moscow Center (CMC) and “Levada Center” shows that 42% yearn for radical changes and “don’t care who exactly carries them out – Mr. Putin or Mr. Stalin.”, while 40% simply want something new. Both, however, fail to identify the necessary reforms.

These results are both curious and mixed, as while showing public dissatisfaction, they also reiterate how highly state-centred, as Mr. Andrey Kolesnikov from the CMC points out, Russians are. They believe that one man should solve their problems and see no alternative to Mr. Putin. The Russian historian and journalist Dmitriy Galkin stresses that this is because Mr. Putin installed a “muppet show” on the Russian political and media scene with no true competitors in sight.

In this muppet show, Mr. Putin’s supporters, like Viacheslav Nikonov who is the grandson of Viacheslav Molotov, the concluder of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, debase opponents on the popular federal channels. Such as Michael Bohm, whom the Wall Street Journal described as an American Russians love to hate. He frequently attends the local political talk show “Time will tell” where the “wiser” guests counter his critique, often employing the “whataboutism” approach and occasionally attempting to beat him up.

A candidate for the presidential election Ksenia Sobchak, who encapsulated, as Alexander Baunov, the editor-in-chief of CMC puts it, the idea that Russia could have preserved the 1990’s state of art, was called a “**ore” by her opponent in the election the notorious and supportive of Mr. Putin’s policy Vladimir Zhyrinovskiy. Having been systematically debased during the campaign, the former daughter of Mr. Putin’s first political boss, the deceased former mayor of Saint Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, received solely 1,64% of the vote.

Mr. Putin, however, like all paranoia-prone authoritarian leaders, did ensure that the most well-known opposition candidate Alexey Navalnyi stays out of the competition. Mr. Kolesnikov admits that he could have gotten substantial support. However, its exact level from electorate yearning changes, yet accepting a potential Stalin to carry them out, remains unknown. More so, since the already-mentioned survey revealed that the 18-24 years olds, on whom Mr. Navalnyi could potentially rely, turned out to be more conservative than pensioners with a totalitarian past.

Hence, Mr. Putin is left alone in the society which remains to be predominantly liberal-sceptic winning over not only the candidates listed in the ballots, but also the intangible scenarios of Russia’s past and future. “Mr. Putin needs to show that during his rule he did everything right,” emphasises Mr. Baunov.

With the unambiguous majority saying yes, discarding even tenuous blinks of Ms.Sobchak’s liberal rhetoric, Mr. Putin is enthusiastic to continue.

Lesia Dubenko, professional political analyst and journalist.

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