Putin Up No Fight

The Russian president won easily, as expected. What now for Russian democracy?


The wonder of Russia’s election result is not that Vladimir Putin got 71 percent of the vote — given his chokehold on the mass media, a massive victory was to be expected — but that he didn’t get the other 29.

The election was dogged, inevitably, by talk of irregularities and shady doings, and more than one commentator pronounced Russia’s “experiment” with democracy well and truly dead. More optimistic souls hope that Putin will now use all the power he has accumulated for good rather than
ill — to implement enlightened reforms in the military and the media. Once again, the West pitied the Russian voters for choosing the enigmatic and eloquent ex-KGB officer who
promised to rule with a strong hand, stamp out corruption and terrorism, and restore Russian greatness. But at the same time, they understood.

To be fair to Putin, he has presided over a period of economic growth in Russia — thanks in part to high oil prices
–- and seems genuinely concerned about the plight of the average Russian in a country where
a quarter of
the population lives below the poverty line
.

More important, the outcome confirmed what has already been evident since the evening
President Boris Yeltsin tearfully resigned as the Russians welcomed the new century: the era of the
revolutionary late-Soviet/early Russian politics is over. As expected, the liberal Irina Khamakada scored 4
percent, as did ex-Communist and former Motherland Duma faction leader Sergei Glazyev. The only
surprise in this highly predictable election result was that the Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov did
better than expected; instead of scoring in the low single-digits, he got 14 percent. On the other hand,
considering that the Communist Party is one of the few true remaining parties in the Western sense (an institution with nationwide grass-roots support and a coherent ideology, rather than a shell organization that revolves around personalities as
many Russian parties do), even this is not so surprising.

In fact, one might have expected the Communists to do even better. It’s worth recalling some campaign
results from the not-so-distant past. In the run-off in the
1996 President Elections, the Communist Party
candidate Gennadii Zyuganov captured 40 percent of the vote compared to President Yeltsin’s 54. And when Zyuganov ran against the then Acting President Putin in 2000, he received 29 percent to Putin’s 53.

Support for the Communists has been steadily declining as their most loyal voters — the elderly, who
were left most vulnerable as a result of Russia’s lurching “transition to capitalism” — are dying out. Nor
did fears that Russia would turn Stalinist if the Communists were to win cause independent voters to pull the lever for the liberals, as they did during the Yeltsin era. The ideals of democracy and capitalism that aroused so much optimism in the late 80s no longer do so. The liberals are tainted by the lingering accusations
that it is the implementation of their free-market reforms that resulted in the impoverishment of the Russian masses and created the oligarchs.
The perception today is that parties like Yabloko and Union of Right Forces (SPS) — the West’s darlings — are hypocritical
and out of touch with the daily concerns of Russians.

The liberals’ close association with the venal Yeltsin regime has played
into Putin’s popular anti-corruption drive. (In truth, Putin gets along just fine with the oligarchs as
long as they keep out of opposition politics.) The 2003 Duma Elections was the first time
a liberal party failed to clear the 5 percent threshold for representation. This result was expected and
there were calls for the merger between SPS and Yabloko. Yet bickering between the parties’ leaders over
the issue –- a reflection more of personal animosities than ideological differences –- scuppered the merger
and brought election disaster to both parties.

To top it all, in spite of their love of all things Western, the liberals run poor election campaigns and
often come off as plain obnoxious. Khakamada, one of the former leaders of SPS responded to the election
results in a way that typified liberal disdain for the average Russian.

“People have been so thoroughly brainwashed that they have come to believe that democracy is a horror,
and that an authoritarian regime is less horrible, and it will provide higher wages.”

The Communist Party has made its peace with Russian democracy and more than willingly accepts
campaign contributions from unsavory businessmen. But, like the liberals, they are stuck in the past. The
liberals and the Communists — in their different ways –- are trying to redefine and justify ideologies that
ordinary Russians see as having failed them. As
RosBalt, a Russian federal news agency, puts it:

“All three parties [Communist Party, Yabloko, and the SPS] in some way compare themselves to the Soviet
past. In fact, for the past 10 years the parties have argued about which road to take out of the Soviet
system. But today that is a dead issue. Russians of the 21st century have already forgotten about Soviet
life or weren’t old enough to really know it. Contemporary Russians are living in a world of current
problems and myths and don’t understand people reasoning with outdated models and myths. Russian
liberalism of the new century cannot be like Soviet liberalism or the post-Soviet intelligentsia. And these
parties have shown themselves poorly equipped to understand and promote such new ideas.”

If there is a silver lining to Putin’s election, it is that the opposition will not only continue to voice its criticisms of the short-comings of Putin’s rule (as it should), but will also take a sober look at
itself. In his post-election press conference,
Putin explained his refusal to participate in television debates

as follows:

“This is not interesting … I don’t think
there is any sense in this for the incumbent. … And simply, I know every word of my opponents down to the
last detail. … Those who criticize from the sidelines are difficult to get at because there is nothing really to
criticize them for. … They haven’t done anything.”

A little high-handed, perhaps, but
the assertion that those in opposition “haven’t done anything” while Putin has worked hard for Russia, rings true to many
voters. Putin’s abuse of administrative resources and his control of the media certainly played their part in
assuring his landslide victory, but even his opponents concede that he would have won even if the election
had been held fair and square. The Communist Party, which usually exaggerates the all-too-regular election
irregularities was timid in its criticisms this election.

Kharitonov said he “talked to many people from various regions. According to them, there were no serious, noticeable
violations during the elections, just some trifles…”

Putin’s post-election words gave comfort to those who seem him as a reformer,

a potential Peter the
Great
:

“We are going to strengthen the multiparty system, we will strengthen civil society. We will do everything
to ensure freedom of the press…And along with this, we are going to create conditions which will allow
neither bureaucrats pretending to represent the government’s interests nor phrase-mongers spouting
democratic slogans to fill their pockets.”

The opposition should hold Putin to his word — Russian democracy is worth fighting for, as Russia’s
bloody history of authoritarianism and totalitarianism has shown. But if Russian opposition parties want to
win, they need to prove that they can achieve results at the local level, they must have a coherent and
relevant campaign platforms, and they must campaign intelligently, not hysterically. And they shouldn’t
get a pat on the back from the West if they’re incapable of doing so.