by Paolo Sorbello
Vladimir Vladimirovich was used to obey. During his secret service years, he responded with martial accuracy to commands coming from the Kremlin. However, in the past twelve years, he had to learn to rule the Russian Federation from the driver’s seat. In fact, ever since the very last hours of the Nineteen-hundreds he has been organizing every single election in his country. Putin has become the electoral dictator of Russia very early in this century, but many say it won’t last much longer. The Financial Times argues Putin’s next term will also be his last one. Pessimists laid back in their chairs on Sunday, preparing for another twelve years of Putinism. The tears in Putin’s eyes might well be a sign of his struggle to be in charge of a nation for so long.
After his administrative experience in St. Petersburg, Putin found himself, almost inadvertently, in Moscow. There, like most of the things that happened to the West’s surprise, he became acting president when Yeltsin left. He understood well the power that he took and used it to project his personal views onto the country. Flexing muscles, Putin showed a tougher stance on his neighbors, antagonistic towards the Baltic states and the western neighbors, while paying deeper attention and lip service to energy-rich former Soviet republics in the south. He garnered most of the power institutions under his influence. In 2004 he decided that regional governors should be nominated from above, rather than elected. In 2001 he made Gazprom and Rosneft into the energy-army that was to strengthen the Russian economy at home and foster Russian interest abroad.
Looking south, he saw Kazakh president Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, both products of the last years of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin is younger, better shaped, and did not show his real authoritarian side until his second term. Gas crises with Ukraine, skirmishes with the US over old-fashioned defense issues, and the violent crippling of the Chechen opposition were his trademark, making him an enemy of the West and of democracy, just like his southern buddies.
One thing that many forget is that Russia has never had free and fair elections, if we don’t count the very first years of the Soviet experience. Furthermore, Putin’s strongest opponents might not even represent characters that a Western-style democracy would like to watch arguing from the Parliament’s seats. They are United Russia’s spinoffs, rich entrepreneurs from the Nineties’ economic feast, or hard-headed extremists who retain their own electoral basin each timePutin and his party represent “leadership” in Russia. This is something that every Russian is born with, not having experienced an alternative power establishment.
To everyone’s surprise in the West, nothing happened when Putin single-handedly decided that his friend Medvedev was to be his successor. And everyone hurried to predict that Putin would be the de facto ruler from his post of prime minister and that he would run again in 2012 for the highest post. Moody and tired of the forced exile, Putin delegated to Medvedev the harsher moves. The most recent was a law passed last March, sanctioning the incompatibility between holding a government post and a position within the board of state-owned companies at the same time. This decision was a huge blow for some “Friends of Putin”, as M.I. Goldman calls them.
On Sunday, WebElections2012 (webvybory2012.ru) showed the world how advanced technologies can display the advances in Russian democratic practices. However, only a few dozens of Chechens did not turn up to the voting booth and only a few doze of those who did decided not to cast their vote for the president, whose name has replaced “Liberty” in Grozny’s main street. In the oil-rich Tyumen region, as pictured above, the ballot box looked like a recycling bin while old ladies glanced at it with lazy eyes. In Dagestan, clashes between activists and policemen left a few corpses lying just outside the “gym” where democracy is practised. The outskirts of the Russian territory gave Putin the landslide he needed to triumph in the first round against Zyuganov’s 17% percent and Prokhorov’s 15-20% (only in Moscow and St. Petersburg).
Provided there won’t be any Russian Spring, there’s little need to worry about 2018. Then the world will be very different and the next challenges are precisely what will shape Russia’s future. For now, the only hope is that Putin keeps carrying the burden, with his wise international face , and that he loosens the leash on the freedom of expression. Should he choose to act otherwise, perhaps counting on extreme nationalists like Nashi or even blogging activist Navalny, then everybody should start worrying about a war-prone autocracy, with or without Putin.
Paolo Sorbello coordinates the Energy Policy Studies unit at the Portal on Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans (www.pecob.eu). His interests include the energy and foreign policies of the former Soviet republics, especially in the Central Asian region. He has worked at several think-tanks and online publications based in Europe and the United States. Additionally, he has published a book with the title The Role of Energy in Russian Foreign Policy towards Kazakhstan (Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbruecken, June 2011). He holds a MA in International and Diplomatic Studies from the University of Bologna.