One week on from the Russian presidential election, the various media outlets have been alive with commentary focused on some key questions in relation to the conduct of the election and what it will mean for Putin. Was the election free and fair, is Putin really popular, will he serve his 6 year term or will he be ousted by the Opposition? There is much debate too about what the future holds for Russia, what we can expect from it in foreign policy terms and how the West should now act towards Russia. Some of the answers to these questions are easy and predictable. Others will prove to be far more complex and contentious.
To begin with the immediate past, the elections were not free and fair. Even if the web cams installed in nearly all the polling stations (at enormous cost to the Russian taxpayer) had acted as a hindrance to blatant violations, they would not have helped with preventing intimidation outside the polling station or the carousel voting that was seemingly so prevalent in Moscow particularly. However, far too much emphasis has been placed on what happened on the day and far too little on what happened before. One of the reasons that there is no real alternative to Putin is that constitutional structures don’t allow anyone but the very wealthy and well-connected (à la Prokhorov) to come through and once that hurdle is leaped there is the further problem of lack of media access compared to the Kremlin/White House incumbent. Until there are meaningful structural changes, Opposition groups such as those that have emerged in the last 12-24 months will not be able to translate their popularity into electoral success.
That brings us to the second question, of whether Putin is popular. Commentators and politicians in the West just need to understand and accept this. Yes, Putin is very popular. Even if there had not been electoral violations, Putin would have won, perhaps even in the first round. Incidentally, for Putin it may have been more important that he won convincingly in the first round but actually the ‘skewed’ nature of the elections lost him legitimacy so he would have been better off having to fight off a meaningful opposition. Thus, while none of this means it is okay that the elections were tainted, ultimately they have tainted only one person – Putin himself. As for why he is popular: because there is no credible alternative and one is unlikely to emerge as long as no meaningful structural reform is forthcoming. This is the real challenge for Opposition activists, to keep pressure sufficiently heightened so as to force compromise from Putin. But there is another aspect to Putin’s popularity that we should not ignore, no matter how inconvenient a truth.
If the discourse is to be believed, Russia is divided into two groups: those who are looking to the future; and those for whom the past is more salient. On blogs, on tweets, in press interviews, many ordinary Russians have expressed the desire for Russia to be ‘normal’. They want Russia to follow western European models of government and policy more closely. For others though, the memory of the 1990s is paramount and they are most preoccupied with ensuring there is no return to the uncertainty of those times. For these Russians, ‘stability’ is what is most desired. There is no real reason why Putin would not be able to offer both these, here he has sufficient agency at home. But Putin seems to have travelled a personal road of divergence rather than convergence with other European states. Arguably, therefore, the preference for stability is the outcome of Putin’s own discourse which emphasises threat rather than challenge, risks rather than opportunities. Thus the choice for many Russians is one between stability and instability rather than anything more hopeful.
That said, while there are plenty in the West and in Russia itself who like to downplay his achievements to date, the fact remains that Putin did ‘rescue’ Russia from the turmoil of the Yeltsin years, he did take on the oligarchs, and he did preside over an astonishingly fast economic recovery. Oil prices might have been high but such a quick recovery was far from a given so some credit is due Putin for successfully taking advantage of favourable external circumstances. Many commentators have talked about the correlation between high oil prices and an aggressive Russian foreign policy. But were there other reasons why Putin would want to assert Russia’s presence more? Reasons such as the NATO intervention over Kosovo? Or NATO’s enlargement to the Baltic states? Or the EU’s enlargement to a number of ex-Soviet and former Warsaw Pact countries? In circumstances of vulnerability, any state will seek to make others equally vulnerable to it. This is not to defend Putin’s policies, or the means by which he achieved so much, but it is to say that from the perspective of many Russians, it was Putin that rescued Russia from the worst effects of the Yeltsin years and it was Putin who put Russia back on the map. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he remains popular.
As for whether he will serve the 6 years, and even 12 years, which is now constitutionally possible, that belongs in the realm of speculation and that’s not something to which I am much given. However, I would be surprised if Edward Lucas proved to be right and he only served 2 years. The vastly reduced Opposition numbers out on the streets on March 10 suggest the struggle will take place over the longer term and while I think Putin and I probably mean different timeframes when we speak of the need for change to be ‘gradual’, if Russia is to avoid another prolonged period of turmoil, uncertainty and decline, it would be better if reform could occur peaceably through concession and compromise. The Opposition activists who have been out on the streets demonstrating need time too to decide what they are opposing and what they offers as an alternative. We know that what currently binds these people together is Putin, or rather opposition to him. But how many groups they actually constitute, how close they are in respect of ideas and ideology, and whether they have what it takes to be credible policy-makers, we – and they – don’t really know. So some time would be good. On the other hand, there was little in what Putin said in the lead-up to the elections and since to make anyone think he is in accommodating mood. After all, Putin was successful in his first term in office as President because he very clearly sent the message that he would employ whatever methods he needed to in order to win compliance from even the most powerful actors in Russian politics: witness his actions in Chechnya, how he dealt with uncooperative regional governors and, of course, what happened to Khodorkovsky. Over the last few months, Putin has looked vulnerable, it would be surprising if he did not re-assert his authority in order to overcome such perceptions. If Russia is lucky, the focus will be on the external arena, if it is unlucky, he will turn such attentions to those who oppose him at home as well.
But here’s something that we don’t talk about nearly enough in the West. Who would replace him if he did leave the Kremlin and what would they be like? Putin does not have nearly as much domestic agency as media and some academic analysis suggests he does. Zhirinovsky may not win much of the vote anymore but that isn’t to say Russia doesn’t have its fair share of nationalists and xenophobes and in a vast country like Russia their views cannot simply be ignored. Think about Zyuganov and the Communist proposal for introducing ethnicity stamps in passports and what that says about the prominence of racist thought. We know very little about the Opposition, including its most prominent actors such as Navalny and Udaltsov. What kind of Russia would they be responsible for building? So again, evolution rather than revolution is looking like the better option.
So what now for Russia? I remember as an undergraduate one of my lecturers telling me that he was interviewed in 1991 and was asked about prospects for the USSR collapsing: he was adamant that no such thing would happen. Politicians may not learn from history, academics should. So perhaps it is better to talk about hopes rather than predictions. I hope that the genie will not go back into the bottle. That what we have seen since December is a sign that ordinary Russians have gained in confidence, that they have not just convictions but also courage, that they believe that change is possible and know that change can – and should – only come from them.
Which just leaves the rest of us – what will Putin’s foreign policy look like now? It is striking how often in recent days it is the Reset that has been scrutinised. In one breath Putin is criticised, in another, he is implicitly complimented – after all, if his primary foreign policy ambition is to be a great power, the fact that the USA remains so very concerned about the future of the relationship suggests that Putin has succeeded in this ambition. Given Putin’s very recent statements on foreign policy and his electioneering discourse, the USA is in for a difficult time. We can argue about the reasons, say that Putin talks about a threat from the USA (and NATO) to distract from what is happening at home. But let’s not forget that foreign policy is not made first or foremost in the international arena, it is made at home. Putin has interested parties to whom he must make some concessions. The USA can take what Putin throws at it, without it much affecting US interests. It would be far more worrying if Putin were to adopt an anti-EU tone, far too much is at stake there for far too many states, including Russia. Syria is worrying, of course, but for all those who still think of Russian foreign policy as unpredictable, on the question of intervention it is very predictable. It’s about time someone started taking Russia seriously on this and engaged them in meaningful dialogue. In broader terms, most will be watching closely what happens in respect of WTO membership. This is the issue most often invoked in conversations with policy-makers about the future of economic and trade relations with Russia. If Russia does not join the WTO, it will be difficult to remain optimistic about the West’s ability to engage Russia in anything at all.
So what should the West do? Firstly, continue to raise issues related to rule of law and human rights. For those fighting to improve conditions in Russia, such rhetoric will be vital. Connected to that, we have to be more careful about our discourse in respect of Russia. Putin is successful in casting the West as the enemy at least partly because so much of what we say about Russia is cast in such negative terms. We need to distinguish far more between Russia/Russians and Russian politicians/elites. Secondly, continue to develop trading relations with Russia and to encourage people-to-people contacts. The protests during and since December are vindication of the long-term approach taken by some states in the West, notably the UK. Intergovernmental relations are important but they are not everything. Exchange must continue to take place on a range of levels and in even the smallest degree of intensity. Putin may talk of this as intervention. It really doesn’t matter. We live in an interconnected and interdependent world and Putin knows that as well as anyone else. An isolated Russia is not an option for anyone.