Russian Resolution

by Timothy Frye ’92SIPA, ’97GSAS Published Spring 2012
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As the day progressed, blatant ballot stuffing by election officials appeared to be less of a problem than it had been in the parliamentary elections, thanks in part to newly installed webcams at polling places. But videos showed busloads of voters touring from one polling station to the next, and reports came in of company bosses using threats of dismissal to motivate their employees to vote. As usual, votes for Putin in many of the largely ethnic republics were well above 85 percent — figures that stretch credibility.

This is not to say that Putin is unpopular, nor that he could not win a free election under the scrutiny of a free media and critical questioning by rivals. The problem is that we have no idea whether he could or not.

For all the drama of the protests, Russia’s future will be shaped by deeper structural factors, such as its resource-dependent economy; well-educated public; vast regional inequality; and aging, shrinking population. Yet the elections have left their mark. To begin with, they have revealed Putin’s vulnerability. His approval ratings fell from 80 percent in June 2010 to 44 percent in December 2011, before rising to the mid-50s in March. These would be enviable figures in many settings, and Putin faces no clear rival among established politicians; but Putin fatigue has clearly set in even among those who still support him, and it is hard to see how the government can generate the enthusiasm needed to tackle the country’s economic and social problems.

The elections and demonstrations also indicate that Putin will face a more engaged public than in the past. The new activists are likely to push for greater media freedom and use the Internet and social media to keep tabs on the government from the outside. These activists, with their high levels of education, wealth, and social standing, will play a crucial role in economic reform and the future of the country. Still, for all their efforts, they have little organization or political power. The hard work of creating parties, winning local offices, and building alliances lies ahead. The Putin administration has organization but little energy, and the opposition has energy but little organization.

A diminished leader facing a weak opposition is hardly a recipe for addressing deep problems. More likely, we will see political and economic changes at the margin — a privatization here, greater media freedom there, and selective crackdowns on corruption — but not the introduction of policies that would destabilize the Putin government and the status quo. Not that maintaining the economic status quo is bad for the short term. Russia’s economy is growing on the order of 3 or 4 percent a year, which is impressive compared with Europe and the United States. The Putin administration has done a good job managing its oil bonanza and has built enviable reserves of foreign exchange; but in the long run, the country needs better governance and an influx of foreign capital.

The impact of the election extends well beyond Russia. A nondemocratic Russia will continue to support friendly autocrats in the region and frustrate groups pushing for political liberties outside Russia.

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