Andrew Mycock: New presidency puts Putin at the crossroads

Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, left, flanked by President Dmitry Medvedev, has tears in his eyes as he addresses a massive rally of his supporters at Manezh square outside Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 4, 2012. Putin has claimed victory in Russia's presidential election, thanking his supporters for helping foil foreign plots aimed to weaken the country, an election which the opposition and independent observers say has been marred by widespread violations.     (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, left, flanked by President Dmitry Medvedev, has tears in his eyes as he addresses a massive rally of his supporters at Manezh square outside Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 4, 2012. Putin has claimed victory in Russia's presidential election, thanking his supporters for helping foil foreign plots aimed to weaken the country, an election which the opposition and independent observers say has been marred by widespread violations. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
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VLADIMIR Putin faces an uncertain future – irrespective of his victory in the Russian presidential election.

This support must be seen within the context of the chaos of the tenure of Russia’s post-Soviet first president, Boris Yeltsin. Putin has carefully juxtaposed his image as the ever-youthful, tee-total, action man with that of his ageing, inebriated former mentor.

But the winds of change are blowing through Russia and Putin is largely culpable for the growing calls for political reform. Putin’s decision to become Russian Prime Minister in 2008 is key to the current unrest in Russia. His decision to honour the Russian Constitution, standing down after serving two terms as President, was for many evidence of his commitment to the progressive democratisation of Russia.

However the “dual monarchy” established saw his successor as President, Dmitry Medvedev, dominated by Putin as newly-appointed Prime Minister. Medvedev was forced to accept the reallocation of many powers from the President to the Prime Minister and also extended the term of Presidency for his successor from four to six years.

Throughout Medvedev’s one term in power, Putin controlled the political direction of Russia and ensured that further liberalisation of the political system was curbed.

Two events though are at the core of the current unrest in Russia. First, Putin’s decision to stand for President again was widely seen as autocratic. It undermined the legitimacy of Medvedev and effectively ended his political career.

Though initially seen as Putin’s stooge, Medvedev’s tenure as President saw him develop an increasingly popular public profile. Many Russians therefore feel that Putin’s return is retrogressive.

Second, the accusations of electoral corruption during the parliamentary elections of December 2011 have provoked a strong response in some sections of the media and also on the streets. Likewise, the fraud allegations that resurfaced following Sunday’s election.

The political apathy that has been a feature of public life during Putin’s pursuit of stability is on the wane. Anti-Putin activists now appear unafraid of the response of the state and it is unlikely they are going to accept Putin’s return quietly now they have a taste for protest.

Putin is therefore faced with at least three challenges which will need to be quickly addressed during his third term as President. First, the propriety of Russian democracy is under unprecedented scrutiny. Suggestions that Sunday’s election were not free and fair will certainly see more demonstrations. Putin may adopt more coercive responses to suppress dissent. But unless he initiates significant reform of the Russian political system, his third term will be defined by a new era of protest that brings large numbers of Russians together in opposition to Putin.

Second, how Putin governs Russia during his third term of President will be crucial. Unlike in previous elections, Putin’s campaign actually offered some limited political vision of the future to the electorate. He promised a “new economy” through development of education and industry but also claimed that he sought to solve Russia’s “national question” concerning immigration and inter-community tensions. However, such declarations are light on detail and have been consistently underpinned by an appeal to regressive Russian nationalism. Such an approach has a limited shelf-life. His challenge will be to develop policies that quickly provide a clear and detailed reformist agenda or it is likely Putin will become increasingly isolated in the Kremlin.

Third, Putin’s campaign has focused on the threat of a Russian “Orange Revolution” supported by “external forces”. This approach has sought to place issues of Russian sovereignty within a broader narrative that emphasises persistent and intrusive threats from “the West”. Russia cannot, however, exist in some form of splendid isolation. There is an urgent need to engage with Europe and the United States as well as China to encourage trade and economic development as well issues of regional and global security.

How Putin balances the isolationist political rhetoric with the need for sustained and cordial engagement will be crucial to the success of his third term.

Sunday’s election is hugely significant for Russia and Russians. Putin’s election is a reflection of loyal support among significant sections of Russian society but is also a product of a lack of viable alternatives. But unlike previous elections, Putin will not have a “honeymoon” period to settle back into his old job. How he responds to the complex and significant challenges facing Russia could determine Russia’s post-Soviet path for a generation.