What the Russian protests mean for Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. (Getty Images)
December 13th, 2011
01:19 PM ET

What the Russian protests mean for Vladimir Putin

Editor’s Note: The following is reprinted with the permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Bernard Gwertzman, CFR.org

Russia's December 4 parliamentary vote has prompted mass demonstrations over allegations of electoral fraud and, in part, due to public frustration with former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to run again for president in March.

Stephen Sestanovich, CFR's Russia expert, says the demonstrations may pick up steam and Putin's opposition candidates may gain enough strength to deny him an easy victory in the March elections.

"One of the things that has characterized Russian elections is a very strong spirit of anti-something or other," he says, and this time it may be hostility to Putin. Whatever the outcome of the presidential elections, "there's a potential here for changing the atmosphere and rules of Russian politics in a fundamental way," adds Sestanovich.

Bernard Gwertzman: Do the events surrounding the disputed election for the Russian Duma (parliament) presage a "Russian Winter" analogous to the "Arab Spring" or is that an exaggeration?

Stephen Sestanovich: Even if this doesn't become the Arab Spring, it has already become something very important in post-Soviet Russian history. It's the first real outpouring of grassroots popular sentiment. It may subside, but it's probably more likely that it will grow and be marked by greater mobilization, organization, and focus.

What is often true of post-election protests throughout the post-Soviet world is that they burn out fairly quickly and people figure, "Well what…are we going to do now? The election is over, and we can't change it." This one has a special wrinkle apart from all the other reasons that have motivated people to oppose Putin.

It's not just the element of electoral fraud, but there's another election coming up right away that can be the focus of people's interests and dissatisfaction. That's the presidential election in March [in which Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, is running again]. [And] it's less likely the anger will subside because they have something new to focus on. They are mad and they have a way to express it, which is to get involved and deny Putin a first-ballot victory [more than 50 percent of the vote].

In September, after President Dmitry Medvedev declared that Putin would run for another term, you said there would be a lot of opposition to this by Russian voters. Was much of the motivation behind the protests due to resentment of the way Putin pushed himself forward?

Absolutely. Putin's problem is the problem of any modernizing autocrat. If you're promoting modernization, logic argues that you should step aside because it's not modern to have autocrats. But the modernizing autocrats always come to the conclusion that they are indispensable, they'll be persecuted if they step aside, and it's too much fun to boss people around.

I thought that before Putin made his announcement to seek another election as president, that they had a strategic problem in the Kremlin. They had to find a way to make it look not just like the most vulgar, power seeking self interest on his part. I didn't know what that would be, but I thought they would have something to try to take the sting out of his self re-imposition. And what struck me about the way he did it is how little effort there was to take the sting out of it. It was almost a kind of brazen reminder to people that he's the decider and their views didn't count. I think that all of his advisers, in retrospect, would acknowledge it was very badly handled.

They could have had some type of primary vote or something like that for Putin.

They could have done a number of things, but instead they actually said that [it] had been decided years ago, which made everyone think that it was all a trick.

Billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (NYT), owner of basketball franchise the New Jersey Nets and several gold mines in Russia, has said he is going to run for president. Is this a joke?

It's not a joke at all. Prokhorov was originally seen as what the Russians call "technical opposition"–somebody who runs largely for show or for the purpose of taking votes from some of the regime's opponents and dispersing opposition votes. Prokhorov's constituency is the liberal middle class, the technical intelligentsia, people who are educated and Westernized and well off.

The question is, will he go about this presidential run in a way that is perfunctory, as many of Putin's opponents have been in the past, or will he try hard to exploit the moment. We can't say for sure, but one of the things that is interesting about the way the Kremlin has treated Prokhorov is they really made life difficult for him after he emerged as a leader of this kind of liberal party called Right Cause. They ultimately conspired in ousting him as the leader. So he's mad or has every reason to be mad, as do many of the other opponents whom Putin will face in the election.

So you think this election will actually be rather interesting?

It's going to be very interesting. That doesn't mean Putin will lose, but one of the things definitely on people's minds now is this: Is there a way that the other people running in the first round could get 50 percent of the vote and deny Putin an outright victory? Putin has won twice in the first round in 2000 and 2004, but this time you've got half a dozen candidates who could plausibly get in the neighborhood of 10 percent. Some of them are plausible, by no means guaranteed, for 20 percent.

They include Prokhorov, Gennady Zyuganov the Communist leader, [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky [of the Liberal Democrats] who may or may not decide to run. There's the leader of Just Russia, Sergey Mironov, who is not a giant among politicians and whose party was created in the spirit of technical opposition but who's been pushed aside by the Kremlin too. He is probably mad too. There is Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of Yabloko, which is the longest-standing party of the democratic intelligentsia.

These are all people who in a bad year could get as little of 5 percent of the vote, but in a good year with a tide of anti-Putinism rising, can aspire to more than that. So if you add up the numbers that all these candidates can get - we haven't even mentioned some of the other people that are possible candidates - you can imagine 50 percent.

That's really a shock for the Putin people. I'm sure they are looking at these numbers and trying to figure out if they're in serious jeopardy of not winning in the first round, and this is quite a plausible scenario.

So how does it work? If one person doesn't get more than 50 percent, then the person who's second highest runs against him in the second round?

That's right. That's what Yeltsin had to do in 1996 when he ran against Zyuganov. It was thought there was a certain amount of hanky panky in the vote count. A lot of Russians will tell you today that it probably would have been better for the country if Zyuganov had won. I don't share that view, but I know a lot of genuine democrats who have that view. For Putin's people, that memory is sobering, because they are worrying that in a second round, if Putin has just one other candidate, an awful lot of Russians might just simply vote against Putin.

One of the things that has characterized Russian elections is a very strong spirit of anti-something or other. Putin's real political genius was to identify some cause, some antagonism that would mobilize people. His first campaign was hostility toward Chechen separatism, and in the second campaign it was hostility to the oligarchs [billionaires] and in the third, the one that Medvedev won, it was actually, hostility to the West. Maybe now it will be hostility to Putin, that's what the Putin people are afraid of. 

So Putin's reelection as president is not guaranteed?

This is a campaign that has all sorts of question marks ahead, but the one thing we know right now is there is a tide of anti-Putinism. We don't know how high it will go, but we know that there are a lot of candidates out there who see this as their big moment in politics and the moment where Putin could be humiliated.

Even if Putin wins but does so with a greatly reduced vote, there will first of all be protests against the results and claims that they were falsified; there will be a sense that his aura and authority have been deflated. So even if the election doesn't go against him, there's a potential here for changing the atmosphere and rules of Russian politics in a fundamental way.

The Orthodox Church has criticized apparent corruption in the parliamentary elections (NYT). Is that significant?

Putin has made much of his Orthodox belief. But for all of his going to church and having his special spiritual adviser, he doesn't get any loyalty from the church when the chips are down. It shows you a lot of people are distancing themselves from the Putin regime. One should not write Putin off; this is a guy who commands all the resources for winning an election, but he may not demand the resource that counts the most this time - what in American politics we call the "Big Mo"[Momentum].

The Economist compared Putin's situation with that of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, where the upper middle-class intellectuals finally decided they don't need this autocrat anymore, and they rejected his bid to stay in power for life.

A Russian friend of mine about six months ago predicted that there would be more significant opposition to Putinism in this round of elections, and I said to him: "I don't get it. How can that be when you've got so much prosperity, so many people who have benefited from Putin's rule?" He said, "You know, that's easy. Our politics isn't about economics, it's about legitimacy." 

Putin blamed the demonstrations on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (AP), which backfired on him and became a source of ridicule. Should Americans keep quiet about the upcoming elections?

They shouldn't try to get into the middle of it or pretend as though we invented it. Some of the same caution that the Obama administration showed during the Tahrir Square demonstrations [in Egypt] probably makes some sense here, but you can go too far with that.

The administration's view should not be that we are standing aside from all of this because the outcome is of no interest to other countries. Their view should be that Russia, like any country in Europe, has taken on an obligation to run itself democratically, and other countries that have taken on those obligations will be watching to see how well Russia will fulfill them.

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Topics: Elections • Protests • Russia

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. lember

    Utter lies about demonstrations all fabricated by the west as usual.

    December 13, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Despite a handful of electable candidates who could beat Putin in March, we shouldn't underestimate him. As a former head of KGB, he is crafty and will resort to all means to achieve his goals.

    December 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      In light of the recent protests, Putin's enemies don't need to fear that Putin would stay for long, should he win the elections.

      December 13, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        He won't get the majority in the Duma to change the consittution allowing him to hold 2 six-year terms.

        December 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  3. Joseph McCarthy

    Let's all hope that Vladimir Putin comes out on top in March's elections next year. Otherwise, Russia may get stuck with another good-for-nothing Yeltsin which will be another disaster for Russia but another boon for the West!!!

    December 13, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • ElRoz

      Agreed. Why do some people select to pretend that these tiny parties are anything but that? Put should win thanks to the majority that is glad for the changes and have hope for continual direction and improvement. The "silent" majority in Russia will support Putin. But in the West the propaganda machine will make up something and pretend that this did not happen...they did this for WMD in Iraq.

      December 18, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  4. DOWN WITH COMMUNIST AND RUSSIA

    GET RED OF THIS STUPID RUSSIAN IDIOT, HE STUPID, KILLER , THUG, COMMUNIST AND HELPING SYRIAN THUGS AND KILLERS.
    RUSSIAN MUST BE STOOPED IN ANY COAST. DONT HELP THEM AND DONT HIRE THEM UNTIL THEY GO BACK AND MAKE NEW REVOLUTION TO GET RED OF IDIOTS

    December 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Here goes another mindless right-wing idiot with an IQ of about 15! Even anybody with a 5th grade education would know better than the above. If being stupid was somehow a virtue, the bozo who posted the above would be a living saint!!!

      December 14, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • ElRoz

      cretin

      December 18, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  5. Benedict

    As known from Putin's history with the KGB, it's not surprising that he feels that he's indispensible to the Russian state. In keeping with this tune, Russian have been ruled by the Czars for how many centuries and this servitude has continued to play a role in their reaction to unpopular decisions. I will give them some credit for protesting the fraudulent parliamentary elections and only if this momentum is held, will change come to the former USSR!

    December 15, 2011 at 5:21 am | Reply
    • ElRoz

      what do you know "from Putin's KGB history" and what do you know about Russia besides the word "Czar". Please study, learn, and don't live by moronic stereotypes taught to you by Rambo movies and other mass garbage.

      December 18, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  6. ElRoz

    The tiny parties who could not get even 1-2% of the vote is not civil society...the "silent" majority (it is silent for the Western media, which ignores their rallies) is the civil society. The small parties pretend to be the voice of the people; western media pretends that they are; western pundits chose to believe them and thereby contribute to misleading the readers.
    Very sad.
    These protesters are fringe elements from parties that got 0.5-2% of the vote. Across all of Russia no more than 150,000 marched: compare that with 1 million marching in London against invasion of Iraq (British government ignored them, preferring to follow Washington), and several million marching across the US to protest the planned invasion of Iraq (U.S. government ignored them). It's too bad the Western media are trying to make more of this than it is. The silent majority are satisfied with the elections, as were the 700 foreign observers Russia invited – they gave a "good" and "satisfactory" grade to the elections. If United Russia wanted to cheat, they would not have invited so many foreign observers, including many from EU. Plus there were communists and LDPR observers as well.

    This is why the fringe elements will never get their way (no matter how much the West wants to see a Russia with a weak leader instead of Putin) because they have no popular support.

    The presidential elections in March 2012 will only show this to be true even more, since Putin has a higher approval rating and popularity than the "United Russia".

    Of course there will be those that are against – just recall how G.W. Bush was inaugurated for his second term: the streets were lined with protesters holding anti-Bush posters as his closed and armored car raced through the streets.

    December 18, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Reply

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