The mood in Russia did not change following Putin’s triumphant victory in the last week’s presidential elections. It confirmed the sad realisation that Putin had always been the president of Russia, and that another twelve years of Putinism are to follow. Thousands of Muscovites swarmed the Pushkin Square in their final attempt to protest the unfair and dishonest elections. However, their efforts were to no avail. Although Putin won over 65% of the votes, the official numbers, reported by the League of Voters and Golos, put Putin’s results at just over 50%. More importantly, Putin’s victory is a subtle reminder that the one who rules Russia owns Russia.
The lack of strong candidates in the race is partially to blame for Putin’s victory. The closest rival was Gennady Zyuganov, a Communist veteran, who garnered a pathetic 17% of the votes. He has also been criticized for his failure to modernise the country, and his popularity has been dwindling since the 1990s.
The Independent Party leader, Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, came in third place, receiving a meager 7%. He is a manifestation of the chaotic Yeltsin years, bringing back bad memories. He, like many other Russian businessmen, was a lucky recipient of Yeltsin’s privatisation scheme, which sold off state assets to young, ambitious entrepreneurs at bargain prices. Many Russians still feel that the oligarchs unfairly profited from the scheme and that they should be held responsible for the corruption that permeates all political and economic life. Nevertheless, the real reason for Prokhorov’s presidential bid was to split the opposition parties; he is neither a politician nor a man of the people.
The Liberal Democratic Party came in fourth place. The party leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is known for his controversial, sexist, and racist views. He is seen more as of figure of fun rather than as a serious political leader.
This is hardly the opposition that one could expect. No other decent alternative existed; Mr. Putin was the best choice, and even the US displayed very little objection to the election results. Hillary Clinton announced that the US is ready to work with the ‘obvious’ winner, implying here that the people have spoken and they have chosen their leader.
Putin knows Russia, a country he has managed for over a decade. His presidential victory came as no great surprise for Russia or for the world. In fact, the elections were the least of his worries. Many consider it a ‘double’ victory for Mr. Putin who by default secured two six-year terms. Nevertheless, Putin will have to deal with more momentous problems at home such as: a dying population, unruly corruption, and a broken social welfare system. Putin shouldn’t be too comfortable either, regardless of his international backing. The recent ‘social awakening’ could weaken his stability and therefore undermine his authority in the country.
Even the Orthodox Church has expressed its discontent, an institution which traditionally adheres to the political machine. Archpriest Aleksei Uminsky perfectly puts it: ‘people can’t live like this any longer.’ Others have echoed his words: the environmentalists, human-rights activists, and the Memorial (a civil rights group). However, the survival of these groups completely relies on the Internet where they may remain anonymous. The challenge now will be to take their voices to the streets where it can be heard. Although the protests have had very little impact on the election results, they have emphasised the need for more society and less state. It will be difficult for Putin to ignore this internal development, in light of the recent Arab Spring uprisings.
The December protests were not only significant for the country, but also marked an important historical period – the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia was reminded by the protests that it is still transforming and that its recent Soviet past continues to linger in its political life, impeding social, economic and political change.
Putin is often praised for his abilities to promote a stable Russia through oppressive means, an art form he learned from the Soviet era and demonstrated by his brutal victories in Chechnya. However, people are fed up with Putin’s stability. Putin will have to introduce real changes to the country – a country which is fracturing at the social seams. He will have to address the internal problems that continue to cripple and hold Russia back from becoming a real ‘great’ power. Health, education, pension, and tax reforms are long overdue. The December and February protests will be a reminder for the ‘new’ government to take these issues seriously. Having won the elections, Mr. Putin will now have to focus on winning the people.
Image Credit- RIA Novosti