Don’t count Putin out quite yet

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his associates sought political victory in the usual ways — barring election opponents from running; flooding the airwaves with favorable "news"; and cheating on voting day. Far from succeeding, however, their result was an "election blow," Reuters reports in a typical account of yesterday’s parliamentary balloting. This is because the pro-Kremlin ...

Dmitry Astakhov  AFP/Getty Images
Dmitry Astakhov AFP/Getty Images
Dmitry Astakhov AFP/Getty Images

Russia's Vladimir Putin and his associates sought political victory in the usual ways -- barring election opponents from running; flooding the airwaves with favorable "news"; and cheating on voting day. Far from succeeding, however, their result was an "election blow," Reuters reports in a typical account of yesterday's parliamentary balloting. This is because the pro-Kremlin United Russia party picked up about 50 percent of the vote rather than the 64 percent that it got in the last elections. Yet, one senses a ghoulish strain of gloating, as though observing the distribution of shovels for a funeral.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his associates sought political victory in the usual ways — barring election opponents from running; flooding the airwaves with favorable "news"; and cheating on voting day. Far from succeeding, however, their result was an "election blow," Reuters reports in a typical account of yesterday’s parliamentary balloting. This is because the pro-Kremlin United Russia party picked up about 50 percent of the vote rather than the 64 percent that it got in the last elections. Yet, one senses a ghoulish strain of gloating, as though observing the distribution of shovels for a funeral.

Has the petro-fueled Putin machine in fact suffered a knockdown? This is arguably the case for President Dmitry Medvedev, who according to plan is to swap positions with Prime Minister Putin next May. As this blog has written, a bad election outcome could mean Medvedev being shoved aside and not getting the prime ministerial slot, deal or no deal with Putin. In a jolly video appearance as the results rolled in, the pair seemed prepared to proceed as planned, but Putin — the country’s decider — can change his mind.  

Putin himself has suffered a bruising. But are we witnessing signs of an Arab Spring-like crumbling of his power? As of now, no one sensible is forecasting a Putin defeat in March presidential elections. He appears nowhere near the bloodthirsty-crowds-at-the-palace-gates stage of autocracy.

So what would be a plausible worst-case scenario for Putin?

Authoritative voices suggest that he may have to fight for a third presidential term in a manner that until now was unthinkable. In an email exchange, Steve Sestanovich, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior Russian hand in the Clinton Administration, told me that Putin might not win a clear 50 percent majority, which would force a second-round of voting. Sestanovich said:

This is a wild and woolly moment — hold on to your hat!  Are new candidates going to get into the race against Putin? Almost surely. Will there be an attempt to come up with a unity candidate among democrats? Very probably. [This is the] most interesting development in Russian politics since [oil oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky was arrested, and maybe since Putin was designated [then-President Boris] Yeltsin’s successor.

As a reminder, Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, and Putin’s designation was on New Year’s Eve in 1999. In an analysis, the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti also said that Putin might not win election outright.

Even an eventuality of the sort Sestanovich suggests — while not the ringing endorsement that Putin watchers and he himself previously expected — would not be an earthquake. Consider Russia’s post-Soviet presidential election history: In 2004, Putin won his second term with 71.3 percent of the vote, but his first election four years earlier came with just a 52.9 percent victory against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who won 29.2 percent.  As for second election rounds, let’s not forget 1996, when Yeltsin was forced into a second round after receiving just 35.8 percent of the vote in the initial balloting, also against Zyuganov, who finished with 32.5 percent (in the second round, Yeltsin received 54.4 percent to Zyuganov’s 40.7 percent).

Hence, Putin could argue that Russia is simply returning to normal after a period of irrational exuberance. To that point, United Russia put its best face on yesterday’s result, arguing that it did pretty well against the losses of actual power suffered by the ruling parties in Portugal, Spain and the U.K. amid general post-financial crisis political turbulence.

Given the stakes, the March election will not be cleaner than yesterday’s. Among the apparently quasi-official acts yesterday, somebody shut down independently funded, counter-factual websites such as Golos ("Voice"), an election-monitoring organization; Echo Moskvy, an independent-minded broadcaster; and slon.ru, a news magazine. Livejournal, the country’s most popular blogging site, was down for three days. RFE-RL posted videos of apparent cheating — multiple voting by single individuals; the busing of "carousel voters" from one precinct to another, and so on.

As for the whys of the latest news from Russia, we have a report by the Financial Times’ Charles Clover and Courtney Weaver, who write of their own polling station visits. Voter after voter, they write, "said they were tired of the ruling United Russia party. [The] main reasons were corruption, dirty election tricks and cynical manipulations to stay in power."

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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