March 4th, 2012
09:47 PM ET

Putin beats the spread

Editor's Note: Matthew Rojansky is the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

By Matthew Rojansky - Special to CNN

Waiting for the returns from Sunday’s Russian presidential elections was a bit like watching a lopsided football game at a Las Vegas sports bar - everyone knew who was favored to win, but what really mattered was the spread.

On the gridiron of Russian presidential politics, Vladimir Putin was the heavy favorite and he did not disappoint.  Despite months of anti-regime protests and a relatively transparent voting process, Putin appears to have won well above 60% of the vote, with a respectable turnout of just over 56%.  This means that Putin will not only return to the Kremlin in May, but will claim a mandate to govern based on the will of the Russian people.  As in sports betting, this outcome promises a big payoff for some, and a long, cold winter for others.

So who were the winners and losers after Sunday’s blowout?

The Winners:

Putin:  Clearly the MVP of the season, Putin has proven himself the indispensable man in Russian politics.  From the declaration that he would seek the Presidency in September to his refusal to participate in televised debates, Putin set the rules for this contest, and spared no effort to make sure he would win it convincingly.  Putin has often compared himself to Tsar Nicholas II’s authoritarian but reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.  With this new mandate, he has the opportunity to follow Stolypin’s example and deliver on promises to root out corruption and backwardness while deploying the full coercive power of the state against his critics.

Dmitri Medvedev:  After years of speculation as to the true nature of Russia’s leadership “tandem,” Medvedev removed all doubt last September when he personally called upon Putin to stand for the Presidency, and promised his own loyal support.  That loyalty will surely be rewarded.  Putin may be many unsavory things, but he is a man of his word, and he has promised that Medvedev will be Prime Minister.  How long Medvedev lasts in that job depends in part on how the economy performs - the Prime Minister oversees state industries and the budget - and in part on whether protests continue, which might cause Putin to seek a scapegoat.

The Oligarchs:  Despite the poor showing by “independent” presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s wealthiest oligarchs, he and his neighbors on the Forbes list of Russian billionaires stand to profit handsomely under a new Putin presidency.  Putin makes no secret of his disgust for the crooked 1990’s privatization schemes that made Prokhorov and others rich, yet he has no intention of undoing the results.  Putin’s message to the oligarchs is simple: make your money but stay out of politics.  And they have done so, with the exceptions of Prokhorov, who is suspected to have run on Putin’s orders, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky who lost his company and is rotting in jail.  The reward for the oligarchs’ obedience?  Putin plans a new round of privatization worth some $50 billion over the next five years.

The Losers:

The Middle Class:  The mere existence of a Russian middle class is, according to Putin, proof that his leadership has made life better for ordinary people.  While it is true that many Russians live much better today than they did a decade ago, that prosperity is attributable largely to rising energy prices, high state spending, and the lingering effects of reforms undertaken during the 1990’s.  Meanwhile, many in the middle class resent the privileges enjoyed by Putin’s retainers, chafe at restrictions on freedom of speech, and above all despise the corruption that pervades practically every level of business and public life in Russia today.  If the price of oil returns to last decade’s highs, then decent wages, reliable state services, and freedom to travel are probably enough to keep the middle class busy - but take any one of those away, and the tens of thousands marching on Moscow’s streets could become millions.

Young people:  Russia’s post-Soviet generation may be the biggest losers from Putin’s latest victory, but judging by the apparent indifference of the majority or the carnival antics of an outspoken few, their particular plight hasn’t sunk in yet.  Think of it this way:  If this year is the beginning of two more presidential terms for Putin–who is not yet 60 and could change the constitution to remove term limits altogether–today’s teens and twenty-somethings may be about to spend the best years of their lives in a modern version of the Brezhnev era.  One key difference, of course, is that Russians now enjoy the freedom to emigrate, and if Putin’s return does bring Soviet-style stagnation, talented Russians young and old will continue to vote with their suitcases.

The United States:  Putin ran a distinctly anti-American campaign and despite lingering goodwill from the 2009 “reset” it will be hard to bury the hatchet with Washington.  The Kremlin has depicted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a puppet master pulling the strings of Russian liberals and activists who seek to bring about a “color revolution,” or ignite a Libya-style civil war that can justify NATO intervention.  Sure, Putin can come across as a bit paranoid, but that doesn’t mean America isn’t out to get him.  In the run-up to a U.S. presidential contest, and with Congress preparing to debate granting Russia permanent normal trade relations when it joins the World Trade Organization later this year, there will be more than enough Russophobe rhetoric to go around.  The relationship might go off the rails well before next November, since a NATO-Russia summit set for May in Chicago looks unlikely to break the current deadlock over missile defense, to which Putin has threatened a “disproportionate” response.

Some might say that Russia’s democracy is the biggest loser from Sunday’s contest.  And indeed, despite a dolled-up veneer of campaigning, protests and counter-demonstrations, most Russians will admit that they only ever had one real choice.  But even in his triumph, Putin faces serious challenges to keep Russia on track.  And for the democratic opposition, there’s always next season.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Matthew Rojansky.

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Topics: Elections • Russia

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soundoff (101 Responses)
  1. Mikhail M

    The situation is not simple. Putin won mostly due to those factors:

    Part 2:

    Yes, Putin made several steps towards "stabilizing" Russia, made it "controllable" again, made government functional. Those measures were required and those were good steps. The general prosperity level is significantly higher then it was 10 years ago too. We need to understand though that a lot of successes are (at least in part) due to high oil/gas prices.

    I personally feel like more radical steps are required now, especially in fighting corruption, quickly moving towards non conscription based army, removing government control over TV and other changes in political system, changes in educational, health care and insurance systems, clarifications in tax law, tax amnesty etc – and it is hard to say if Putin will dare to implement those. After all, without control over TV and "support" of local governors with organizing the voting process, it will be much harder for him to win elections in 6 years. I guess we will see.

    March 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
    • AlexShch

      So what is the substance of your proposal? If you have a better idea, just tell it straight.

      In reality we all like criticize Putin using irrelevant terms and comparisons (like non-democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian, brutal dictatorship, suffocator of freedom, etc... Our American friends even bring Stalin's name from time to time). The point is that all this criticism is merely waste of time. When it comes to real decision making and elections Putin always ends up being the best choice among available. And even if you add all hypothetical alternatives, like Yavlinsky, Nemtsov, Navalny, Parfenov, and whatever else bright personalities from the opposition and put all of then on the ballot - the outcome will still be the same: Putin.

      March 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  2. Mikhail M

    In those areas where I feel like I have something to offer (military, education, innovations) – I'm hoping for the Prohorov's party to create a moderated forum where those proposals can be discussed (it would be too long to post/discuss here). In short:

    -every year Russia sends a few hundreds thousands young people to be humiliated and mistreated in the army. Mostly people who could not enter universities, people from very poor families, who could not buy them out one way or another. I think this has to and can be changed, where people voluntarily join the army – for example, as a good step to a higher education paid by the government, as a way to earn a skill, earn money etc. Look at USA model – it mostly works, I have a lot of ex marine friends – they are decent people, for some of them army helped to start a career.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Reply
    • Clave

      The accdenit of finding this post has brightened my day

      April 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  3. Mikhail M

    -USSR (and now Russia) had/has a very good education system – up to and including a high school. In terms of amount of knowledge it seem to be better then in USA. However, Russian higher education (universities), that now exist in such a great numbers, mostly do not teach people what is really needed on a labor market. Most people (apart form a few best places like Moscow State) just go there to avoid army, to get some "high education degree" and later do not work according to what they were taught. Even my MIPT ("Russian MIT") was (is?) lagging way beyond what is really needed. This can be improved too. In some cases, 70+ years old guys who sometimes do not even track/know modern state of their industry are still in charge of curriculums...

    March 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  4. Mikhail M

    -a chain between education/research and development is essentially broken. There are not too many venture funds, there are difficulties bringing "smart people" and "busyness people" together. And when it exists – it is only in Moscow and a very few other places. Government is trying to do something – by putting money into Rosnano, Rostelekom etc – but it looks like government people only know how to redirect those money into their own pockets.

    BTW: I do not blame Putin personally for all the problems. Alas, we Russians seem to use every opportunity to steal anything that comes from government (well, 70 years of communist regime taught us that...).

    March 6, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Reply
    • Igor

      I don't believe that 'communist regime' taught anyone to steal. In fact, it didn't. If anyone has a propensity to steal from an individual or a government, it's not because of 'regime', it's because of poor individual morals. It's not about excess of Vladimir Putin, it's about deficit of Jesus Christ.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Reply
      • Mikhail M

        @Igor. Alas, there were 2 main ways to have a nice house, car, good cloth, TVs, etc:
        -be one of the communist party officials or "party approved" singer, painter, writer, scientist, general etc
        -steal.

        In many cases, stealing was not "direct": it was typical to pay "extra" to a person in a shop for decent – usually imported – goods that otherwise just "would not be available"; you pay somebody who works at the machine building plant to make you a garden fence poles (or almost anything you need – of cause not from materials you or anybody paid for)... You pay some professor to get your kid to enter university and so on.

        Markets did not exist, you could not pay for a lot of goods and services openly, there was a shortage of many things (cars, TVs – and later even food) – so people are used to bribes, to treating almost everything as "this is governments, so this is nobodies". Moscow was not so bad, but I did not live in Moscow at that time...

        It IS because of 'regime' – but yes, it has nothing to do with Putin. It is already "in our blood". Will take a while to clear...

        March 7, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  5. Mikhail M

    ah – the above 3 posts were @AlexShch, but there are limits on message length and frequency of posts here, so back to work for now :) Maybe Prohorov's party can create some "civilized" forum... Alas, most Russian forums tend to have the 3rd post in a thread calling the other guy an idiot (or worse) – no matter what the original topic is... As Prohorov said – one of the biggest issues is our level of culture, tolerance to differences.

    March 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  6. AlexShch

    @Mikhail M etc. Let's be realists here and separate foam from beer from foam.

    I generally view changes during the last three month - events related to both
    Duma and presidential elections - as a positive move, specifically

    - The Power (Putin et. al.) has received a very clear signal from the society
    that not everybody is so happy, and basically growing fed up of the luck of
    fresh ideas and the overall situation which shows clear tendency of stagnation.
    And it seems that that the power is receptive, at least they are talking right
    words right now. It is yet to be seen what stands behind these words and how
    deeply they will go in practical implementation of the proposed changes
    (I hate word "reforms" because it is overused and devalued at this point).

    - at the same time the "orange" tendencies have been flatly rejected by
    the society: Nemtsov and Yavlinsky lost their appeal long time ago. Kasparov,
    Kasyanov never actually gain one. Limonov is merely a clown. The new faces
    of opposition appeared, notably Navalny, Yashin, and Udaltsov, but they mostly
    lost than gained during the last three month (although I have some sympathy
    to Udaltsov, even though he is fundamentally a communist). Navalny mainly
    discredited himself. A respected journalist and intellectual Leonid Parfenov
    looks like clown now after appearing together with Xenia Sobchak and Vasya
    Oblomov in their clip on Youtube.

    - Communist fraction in State Duma has increased to the point where they
    cannot be ignored as they were during the last Duma, and I view this a strongly
    positive change: prior to that the whole legislative process was basically a
    single-artist play without subjecting it to proper analysis. I do not
    particularly see any useful contribution from Zhirinovsky party into the
    process. Nor I see the usefulness of the quite significant presence of
    famous sportsmen within the United Russia Party: what specifically Valuev
    is doing there? He should be either on ring fighting Klitchko, or supervising
    a gang of racketeers in Moscow Central Market, but as a member of legislative
    process he is kind of useless.

    - In my view, Pres. Medvedev lost his face one year ago by insisting on
    non-vetoing the UN resolution on Libya (it appears that MID diplomats insisted
    on veto, but Medvedev overruled them). He also made quite a few stupid
    statements regarding the recent plane crashes, especially after Yak-42 crash
    near Yaroslavl. I guess, this eventually led to the decision to switch places
    with Putin.

    - Prokhorov gained, and I expect him to be involved in the government or way
    or the other.

    - Most importantly, rumors about polarization within the Russian society have
    shown to be be exaggerated: in the end everybody is talking to everybody.

    What is wrong an needs to be fixed effective immediately:

    Blatant non-professionalism within the Government:

    - Defense Minister Analoliy Serdukov is basically ...a furniture salesman
    (later promoted to sales manager). This is a kind of democracy in its extreme
    form: one can say that democracy is when a housewife and a kitchen woman plays
    some role in governing of the State. Then why furniture salesman cannot become
    Defense Minister? The secret of his skyrocketing career is simple: he married
    the daughter of former prime minister Zubkov.
    In reality this is wrong. He is screwing things up, and screwing it badly.

    - The chief ideologist of the regime Vyacheslav Surkov known otherwise as
    "the puppet master" is basically ...a dropout from theater/movie director
    department Culture University - yep, in the past when MPhTI students wanted
    to get a quick s e x they usually take bus No 368 to Levoberezhnaya. Yep, the
    guy is from there.

    - Vice-prime minister Sechin is ...a literature critique specialist.
    Now he is responsible for managing economy.

    - Vice-prime minister Sergey Ivanov is perhaps the symbol of non-professionalism.
    Being a KGBist is the same as being a lawyer in US: I gives you access to
    virtually anything. He is managing technology and military industrial complex.
    Does he have a clue?

    - Dmitry Rogozin is a professional diplomat by training. While being ambassador
    to NATO he was in the right place. Now he is responsible for space industry.

    - Sergey Kiriyenko mosty known as "kindersurprise" is now the head of RosAtom.
    Does he have a clue? May be, after all I can also read about atomic industry
    from Wikipedia.

    - Andrey Furcenko, minister of education. Interestingly enough, in the past
    he is a computational fluid dynamics specialist one of the very few Russian
    names known on the west. But now his educational reforms, to say in politely,
    suck.

    ...The list may be contunue ...and finally, the award-winning...

    - Anatoliy Chubais "the chief privatizator" (or privateer, to be specific) is
    not responsible for nanotechnologies. Standing ovation!

    March 7, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
    • Mikhail M

      A lot of good thoughts in your post... One of the reasons I think a change would be good. New team, hopefully more professional. Putin/Medvedev recycle a lot people they know (from the past or personally) – they just move then around...

      We need strong, "serious" right and left parties to keep more "center minded" Putin from making mistakes. Alas, with control over media and local officials, the government is not too afraid to actually loose a vote...

      I think defence minister could (probably should) not be a military officer. I interacted with a bunch of them... Not saying all, but most have... specific mindset... that is Ok for following orders, but not ok for reforming the whole thing...

      And as to UN resolutions... I would stop trying to derail whatever Europe/US (and most of the free world) want and stop supporting the last dictators... But I understand they want to keep "situations going" as long as possible to keep oil prices high... Tough call...

      March 7, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
      • AlexShch

        ...As far as UN resolutions we should distinguish between reality and virtual reality. Obviously, Russian Foreign Ministry knows what is now going on in Syria directly from its own sources and not from CNN and FOX news, and based on their past actions, Russian Foreign Ministry is generally speaking sane.

        The jury is still out about whether it was a good idea to let NATO intervene in Libya. Russia had some influence on Gaddafi regime and was able to force him to negotiate. Instead it let the whole thing to be escalated into an all out civil war which is not quite over yet. Of course, it was a tricky position. It is like being a lawyer for a criminal in court - a person is not entirely innocent, but is accused of being guilty of much more than he is actually guilty of. And the accusers are very pushy. Then what? The real-life situations are not always black and white.

        Oil prices are irrelevant in both cases. Besides, Russia's economy is only ~20% consists of oil. The rest suffers from high oil prices the same way as any other country's economy.

        I also afraid that Afghanistan will be turned back to Taliban after US withdrawal: the talking right now is basically about face saving - how to withdraw without admitting that it was an all-out failure. From the Russian point view this makes the whole cooperation with NATO on that war highly questionable - would it be a better policy to simply stand neutral and not to allow NATO planes into Russian and middle-Asian airspace? It was not obvious back in 2001 when it started, but it kind of emerging right now - the negative consequences - primarily spread of instability, but also drugs - outweight the potential benefits, even though US promptly pays for the transit.

        US was very quick to relabel its ally for 30 years Mubarak as a "dictator". Of course, supporting such regime is a tricky business in sense that if it is falling, the newly coming power will remember who was supporting the one from the past.

        March 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
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    June 1, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
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