I mean, seriously. According to pretty much every opinion poll throughout his time in office, Putin has scored a 60-90% approval rating. He’s insanely popular in Russia, while the opposition – given considerable airtime in the West largely due to having the well-known and fluent English-speaking ex-chess champion Garry Kasparov as spokesman – barely manage to register in the polls. Protests organised by the Kasparov-backed coalition The Other Russia may have managed to draw a few thousand people (from a population of 145 million), but in elections and polls they can’t even muster up as much as 5% of the population in support.
So yes, there may well have been significant ballot fraud in yesterday’s elections (due to the paucity of independent observers it’s very hard to tell) – but there isn’t actually any need for it. Hell, even without the 7% cut-off needed to gain any seats in the Duma (which means that only three parties are represented out of the eleven that took part), only four – all more or less pro-Kremlin – managed to get over 3% of the vote. Even if you take electoral fraud to be widespread, that’s a bit insane. In a country the size of Russia, the level of organisation needed to completely rig such a result would be almost impossible – and no one (that I’m aware of) is suggesting that the result is a complete lie.
You could, of course, take the view that the lack of a viable opposition makes any Russian election little different to the old-school Soviet democracy – that with so many pro-Kremlin parties there is no real alternative but to vote for someone who’s going to support the government, just like under the communists. It’s a fair enough point – only it’s also perhaps worth noting that since the fall of the USSR a decade and a half ago there has also been no real sign of popular resentment over the lack of such choice, bar the occasional poorly-attended demo.
Why? It’s the economy, stupid. The standard of living in Russia has been rising consistently since the last year of Yeltsin’s presidency, with the Human Development Index on the rise solidly since 1995.
Considering the dire state the Soviets left the place in, that may be no surprise (The Only Way Is Up could have been the anthem of post-communist Russia, and I for one wish that it were) – but political/historical memories of the Soviet era are still vital for understanding the Russian political mindset. Yes, to the West Putin may not be the world’s greatest fan of human rights. Yes, opposition parties may still be subject to state oppression. But no one in their right mind would argue that the people of Russia are worse off now than they were at any point between 1917 and 1991. Russia under Putin is the best, for the average citizen, that it has ever been.
The real clincher to explain Putin’s mass appeal is the continued popularity of the Communists – the closest there is to an opposition group within the Duma (in that they do, very occasionally, express mild disapproval of Putin’s policies), and the second-placed party with 11.6% of the vote (compared to Putin’s United Russia‘s actually surprisingly low 62.8%). In Russia, if you don’t like Putin it’s more likely to be because he’s not authoritarian enough and that you long for the good old days of the USSR than that you aspire to broader, Western-style democratic liberalism.
Of course, this doesn’t really help anyone outside Russia. Putin (or his masters, if you buy the line of some of his opponents, like the late Alexander Litvinenko, that he is little more than a pawn of the FSB) has – even if you assume as many as 50% of the votes to be fraudulent – received a renewed mandate for his approach of the last eight years. He will now almost certainly shift from the presidency to the office of Prime Minister – and then, perhaps, back to the presidency again. With the lack of any viable opposition, at the age of 55 he could easily carry on in power for another two, perhaps three decades.
The only trouble is that Putin is one of the least understood, most unpredictable political leaders the world has ever seen. Nobody really knows what he’s going to do next. Theories run the full range from him being a mere puppet for shadowy forces behind the scenes to being an autocrat along the lines of Stalin and the Tsars. He may rule the country for decades to come – or he may fade into complete obscurity following March’s presidential elections (at which he must stand down), to be replaced by yet another classic Russian riddle wrapped in an enigma.
The one thing that is certain is that, for the first time in the country’s history, the vast, vast majority of the people of Russia are neither enslaved nor being massacred in their millions. Who can blame them for wanting to keep the status quo?