This Time, Putin May Get the Message

Russia’s presidential elections are fueling political passions, with the anti-Putin camp crying “Foul!” and the pro-Putin camp crying “Fair!” To a certain extent both are right.

There can be absolutely no doubt that Vladimir Putin still enjoys the support of a large majority of Russians — as reflected by the 63 percent of the votes cast for him. There are several reasons for this, but the all-important one has to do with one crucial fact: Never before in their entire history have the Russian people enjoyed the standard of living they enjoy today: more money, more cars, more homes, more food, more goods.

The anti-Putinites will grumble that this has everything to do with the high price of oil and nothing to do with Putin. Be that as it may, for the average Russian that argument rings hollow. Most people, not just Russians, vote with their wallets and stomachs, and most Russians, as I pointed out, are enjoying their best-ever lifestyle. Hence, they voted for Putin. And in that sense the “Fair!” criers are right: the elections were legitimate.

Nevertheless, the political playing field was tilted in Putin’s favor: he had far more television exposure than anyone else, the true opposition parties were not allowed to register and could not have their candidates run, Putin refused to participate in any debates (thereby avoiding unpleasant questions), there was ballot-stuffing and, to an even greater extent, the busing of people en masse to vote for Putin. In that sense those who cry “Foul!” are right: the elections were unfair.

What now? There are several factors one should keep in mind.

• In Moscow, Putin received only 47 percent of the vote, dropping below 50 percent for the first time. What happens in Moscow is very much akin to what happens when you throw a stone into placid waters: there is a ripple effect. The message is clear: there is disenchantment with Putin, and it is spreading.

• Mikhail Prokhorov came in second in Moscow with 20 percent of the vote. This is a man who, from a Russian perspective, had not two, but three strikes against him: the rumor that he is a Kremlin decoy, the fact that he has little political experience and is not well known, and that he is a billionaire (many Russians have a fervent dislike of the rich). Nevertheless his was a major success, and it clearly points to a promising political future.

• Another point: Putin’s majority comes from four sectors of the Russian population: the elderly (55 and over), the less-well educated (at best, high school), the less affluent, and women. These groups form the majority of the nation. Those who voted against Putin come overwhelmingly from the middle class — still relatively small, but growing. They are the people demonstrating against a corrupt, all-powerful bureaucracy, against a corrupt judiciary, against the quasi-democracy that is Russia today.

Putin is first and foremost a pragmatist. He was caught flatfooted by the spontaneous furor and protest movement that was provoked by him and President Dmitri Medvedev on Sept. 24 when they blandly announced that four years ago they had agreed on the switcheroo that would bring Putin back into the presidency.

Ever since then Putin has been trying to restore his balance by a) backing away from the United Russia party, which is no longer his support base; b) supporting democratic reforms that will facilitate the registration of political parties and the direct, popular elections of governors; c) coming out in favor of creating a public television network; and d) promising to curtail many of the bureaucracy’s privileges.

It is far too early to state that Putin has gotten the message and will be less authoritarian and more democratic in his third term. But one should never underestimate the Russians, who, as the proverb says, are slow to hitch up their horses, but move very fast.

By Vladimir Pozner, a journalist and author who has worked as a television presenter in America and Russia.

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