The election results are in and…Putin is back! What a shocker of a result! With 63.75% of the vote, it has been assured to resemble a decisive win. Of course, he never really left the building so to speak, his agreement with Medvedev to do a ‘switch up’ in 2012 an open political secret. This will be Putin’s third run as president, with a possible constitutional amendment meaning that Russian politics will be dominated by Putin’s peculiar brand of overly-sexualised machismo and uncooperative foreign policy could continue until 2024, and not everyone is elated at this prospect. In light of recent events, it is interesting to examine how the election has panned out and pose a pertinent question – exactly how long can this man cling to power?
This is the moment when Putin declared a glorious victory for Russia over all obstacles and opposition parties, in ‘an open and honest fight’ which has heralded a decisive victory for United Russia. Putin rose through the ranks of the KGB in the 80s, where he undertook an ordinary intelligence posting in Dresden. Following Gorbachev’s reforms in the early 90s, which Putin refers to as the greatest geo-sociological catastrophe of the century, he began his political career in City Hall, St Petersburg. It was here where he met many of his future cronies, including Alexei Kukrin, the Finance Minister and his hand-picked successor and mentee, Dmitri Medvedev. And now, Putin is making history with this ‘unprecedented’ third term. It was emotional.
But before we all break open the vodka and toast to the glory of the motherland, why don’t we examine those two statements. ‘Open’ would imply that there was complete objectivity in the political processes which allow opposition parties and candidates; however tough electoral legislation which dictates the number of signatories necessary for an official opposition makes it very difficult to compete. I’m not sure the term ‘open’ applies either when one of the main ‘opponents’ of the party is allegedly a Kremlin project installed to appease the communist vote and loyal personal friend of Putin. Sergei Mironov, I’m talking about you.
Honest would imply that the elections were fair and there wasn’t mass election fraud in major principalities or multiple accounts of intimidation by officials for students and employees to vote ‘the right way’. Of course, there are hundreds of accounts on the vibrant Russian blogosphere of voting fraud and so we can infer that these elections, like the December elections, were probably not honest. Ballot box stuffing, in which ‘impartial’ polling staff put extra votes into the boxes for United Russia, has been reported across the whole country and in some instances even supposedly caught on camera phone. Then there are the voting carousels, where groups of students and employees have been given the day off and in some instances even paid to take a bus round the various polling stations in their cities and cast votes at every one for United Russia.
Russia Today, an English-language Russian news outlet, has recently reported accounts of official intimidation of two polling officials who refused to take part in election fraud for Putin. The state’s favoured intimidation method seems to be the fabrication of criminal cases against dissidents, notably ex-CEO of Yukos and political dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has languished in jail on suspiciously convenient charges of fraud. Nobody would call these dirty tactics honest. The European Parliament passed a resolution in light of the alleged voting discrepancies, highlighting abnormalities in the vote counting, multiple counts of election fraud and calls for the reinstatement of a disqualified candidate, Grigory Yavlinksky.
Vladimir Chizhov, the permanent Russian envoy to the European Parliament, essentially answered with ‘you aren’t exactly great yourself, whatever.’ One thing which many western media outlets fail to recognise or report, is that the Russian political establishment doesn’t care what European institutions or politicians or media say. I do not believe that Putin is interested in the concept of fairness in the way that we understand it. Even the Russian words for fairness, ‘spravedlivost’’ or ‘chestnost’’ don’t carry the same weight that it does in the English language. It is simply not a concept which pervades their political landscape.
Having lived in St Petersburg myself, I find it hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of an open, free and democratic society in Russia. I remember that on my first flight over, I had to bribe the security staff 4000P (£20) just to get normal drugs through customs. I could buy a driving license for about £50, despite not being able to drive in the UK. Normal procedures which we take for granted in the UK are not straight forward in Russia – only an idiot posts his letters and parcels through the state postal service. Russia is 143rd out of 157 countries in terms of corruption; it sits with the likes of Somalia, Belarus and Afghanistan. For a modern European country, this is an embarrassment. Putin’s party have thrived on this corruption however, the monopoly that they share over state-owned oil/gas is far too profitable for them to let go. Most of the seats in the Duma are held by politicians whose pockets have been lined by state profits from natural resources, they are not about to cease supporting their benefactor.
Considering all this, it is hardly surprising that people are protesting. What is surprising is how long it has taken them to get on the streets. Revolution is hardly unprecedented in Russia; their history is a series of revolutions which produce different autocracies. Traditionally, the majority of Russians attribute the strength of their nation to the power and unity of their government, which can only be guaranteed by a centralised bureaucracy spearheaded by a strong, male figure. This figurehead is interchangeable according to the political climate, which has resulted in Tsars, communist dictators and ultimately, Vladimir Putin. He is a modern Russian leader: a tough, alpha male public persona with an iron grip on the Kremlin’s collective balls. What is different about this situation is that a small percentage of the populace is calling out for the genuine freedom of choice, and that this small percentage is middle class. Unlike previous revolutions, where an oppressed working class rises up against their bourgeois masters, Putin’s main goal for this election was to consolidate his support base of working class voters. The people on the streets are often university educated, they speak foreign languages, they earn decent wages and they want to engage in politics.
Bloggers like the notorious Alexandr Navalny typify the disaffected middle class citizens who are calling for a complete overhaul of the current system. They don’t just want a genuinely new leader (as opposed to recycled version), they want a new system of government, a new body of laws. They are no longer happy with the paternalistic autocratic style of Putin/Medvedev, they want a real choice. The blogosphere is one of the only mediums that the state does not currently control, and so political activism has flourished uncensored. With roughly 50% of the country with access to an internet connection however, the scale of change which can be accomplished through this medium is limited. Still, Navalny holds sway with many of the protesters who are out on the streets, and their numbers are continually growing. Putin has six years in power, he could yet be ousted out through a populist uprising. It happened uncomfortably close in Ukraine in the Orange Revolution, 2004, if things continue on their current trajectory it could yet happen again on home soil. The ‘condom’ revolution is coming.