Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Vladimir Putin – an Exceptional Candidate in Ordinary Elections

Dragomir Ivanov, January 29, 2012

Lately, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been exceptionally active in the media. Within only a week he published two articles – the one on the challenges for Russia in the Izvestia newspaper another on the “national question” in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Inbetween, he managed to hold a long talk with chief editors. The communication offensive is not unexpected in the light of the Russian presidential elections, scheduled for 4 March, where the success of candidate Vladimir Vladimirovich looks far from certain.

The article “Russia Is Concentrating – Challenges We Have to Meet”, published in the officious newspaper Izvestia on 16 January reveals Kremlin strategists' zeal, along with Mr Putin’s desire, to show flexibility on the eve of a presidential contest expected to be tough and in the face of looming protests. Statements and conclusions, perceived as blasphemy in the mouths of the critics just half a year ago, flow freely today. The PM admits, for instance, that the fuel-income based economy has exhausted its potential. Or, that many Russians are engaged in productions based on technologies that are environmentally harmful and dangerous for human health.

Mr Putin's attempts a turn toward civil society too. The citizens’ initiative, he states, has to become an engine for growth that is impossible without personal responsibility. Admitting that the society is suffering from deficit of trust among people and unwillingness for involvement in public actions, the PM promises programmes for support of civil organisations. He names the finalisation of the political reforms and the establishment of structures for social protection and for support of the economy as primary tasks during his mandate in the Presidency that are evoked to maintain the overall stability of the state organism.

The article underlines the expansion of the middle class in Russia to 20-30% of the population (from only 5-10% in 1998) and the trend for growth of the rate of the young people with higher education. The PM announces also the key challenge before Russia: to benefit from the “educational drive” of the youth in combination with the mobilisation of the middle class and its newly discovered readiness to take responsibility for its own welfare.

Some paragraphs, however, throw a different light over the values shared in Kremlin and its intention to continue playing on the string of post-Soviet nostalgia. According to Mr Putin “Russia emerges today from the deep downfall that followed the crush of the totalitarian model of socialism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.” The article states further on: “We have restored and surpassed the living standards from the most prosperous years of the USSR." It is also added that the actual incomes of the Russians have exceeded 4 to 5 times the 1989 levels which, according to Mr Putin, was the “peak of USSR’s development”.

The publication is valuable also for its suggested explanation why Vladimir Putin has decided to participate in the presidential elections: in 1999, when he became Prime Minister for the first time and then President, the state was experiencing a system crisis. The team of people, who surrounded him then and shared the same views (with the support of the majority of the citizens), succeeded in leading Russia out of the civil war's dead end, in getting over the ridge of terrorism, restoring the territorial integrity and constitutional order, and reviving the economy. “Today, we see that what we made, was effective and we understand what needs to be corrected.”

Rhetoric and dalliance with the discontented

The article’s rhetoric, however, contradicts to some data. A Europe-wide study from August 2011 of the German Foundation for Future Studies shows that the Russians are the most unhappy people on the Old continent. A study of the officious Russian Centre for Study of Public Opinion (VCIOM) from the same summer complements the picture: PM's beloved group - the young people - do not actually like their country - 40% of the Russians between 18 and 24 years of age wish to emigrate.

It looks as though Vladimir Putin is trying to flirt. Not only with the middle class, but also with various groups of discontented. A VCIOM poll from December 2011 states that 34% of the Russians support the demands of the protesters against electoral manipulation. And, although it is not likely that they would rush to topple the regime, their potential is a subject of concerns in Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin’s uneasiness and nervousness about the complications of the plan for a painless return to the presidency are clearly demonstrated in his frequent verbal outbursts. In December 2011 he commented that the protesters’ ribbons looked like condoms. At a meeting on 18 January with media bosses he revealed himself as xenophobe by linking the opposition activity of novelist Boris Akunin with his Georgian origin (Akunin’s real name is Grigory Tchkartishvily). At Alexey Venediktov, editor in chief of the oppositional radio The Echo of Moscow, Mr Putin snapped: “I do not take offence while you are smearing me with diarrhoea every day”.

For now, the strategy consists of moving around the pawns and befriending the various opposition groups, while stowing them with Trojan horses like recent financial minister Alexey Kudrin or the family friend (known for her excellent sense for publicity), stylish beauty Xenia Sobchak, the daughter of former Petersburg mayor and Mr Putin’s mentor Anatoly Sobchak. The reshuffle on New Year’s eve, when Deputy PM Sergey Ivanov has been appointed a chief of the administration of Kremlin and the hated by the opposition deputy-chief of the presidential administration, Vladislav Sourkov has become deputy PM, was also intended to represent (willingness for) reforms. It is not unlikely that the PM would fire even the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Vladimir Chukov, (as a sign of yielding to the demands of the protesters). But this will not alter the general picture.

The stakes for the system “KGB in power”

We should not overlook the background that reveals Vladimir Putin as the face and the spike of a powerful entity that grew rich and drew benefits from the chaos in the 1990s to gain access to power. Along with secret service agents, who took control over huge resources, behind him stand oligarchs who won hundreds of millions of dollars from natural resources. Soviet Union’s secret service KGB and business in Russia already live in a symbiosis that provides them with the means to control the entire state mechanism.

The closest circle to the PM is the so called “Ozero cooperation” named after the association created by Mr Putin and his colleagues back in 1996 to manage their lake-shore villas. Today, those former officials and members of the state “Militia” originating from the “Northern capital of Russia” are his closest assistants and manage strategic sectors such as Gazprom and Rosneft, the non-ferrous metals production, the banks and the media.

This comes to say that not only Kremlin and the inner circle around the presidential candidate, but also a number of units in the system “KGB in power” (according to the expression of French researcher Thierry Wolton) will mobilise their efforts to the benefit of Mr Putin's re-election. The aim will be a victory on the first round to prevent the unpleasant situation from 1996 when Boris Yeltsin went to a second round against communist leader Genady Zyuganov. The vote outcome this time (taking into account Zyuganov’s chances to qualify again) would be rather unpredictable.

The conditions are such, that the March elections could suffer huge manipulations. Not only because of the high stakes of the people around and behind Vladimir Putin but also because of the deeply-rooted culture of administrative intangibility that would hardly be tamed by the cameras in the electoral sections.

On top of it, many Russians remain non interested in politics and the popular support for Mr Putin remains strong, especially in the provinces. Many are fed up with his governance but not sufficiently to rush for toppling him. According to VCIOM, only 11% of the people would join the protests against election fraud. This odd logic of passive and domestic discontent is very similar to the current situation in Bulgaria.

The optimistic view to the events in Russia could be summarised by the comments of novelist Vladimir Voinovich for The Los Angeles Times: “In the course of the decade he has gotten hopelessly outdated as a leader, like a typewriter in the era of computers." And further: “It doesn't matter if Putin soon produces a very new, a very liberal and convincing program. People won't listen, as they don't love him anymore ....” However, it is worth remembering the advice of Otto von Bismarck, the Iron chancellor of Germany in the end of 19 century, who at that time had had a plenty of headaches with Russia: “Never fight with the Russians. Every cunning of yours will encounter unpredictable foolishness.”