Technically, he has yet to win reelection on Sunday but in Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy,” there is no doubt who will be Russia’s president for the next six if not twelve years. Considering the alternatives, the West should be relieved.
There is a good chance that Putin will win up to 60 percent of the vote which would save him the embarrassment of a second-round runoff against probably the Communist Party candidate who is set to win around 10 percent.
As in December’s parliamentary election, when the ruling United Russia party lost 77 seats but maintained a majority, there will be fraud but not on a massive scale. There is no need for it. Putin’s approval rating has hovered north of 60 percent for nearly all of his interregnum four year premiership. His party (although he isn’t formally a member) has lost some credibility but Putin remains Russia’s most popular politician by far.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Putin restored pride and stability to Russia after the economic and political turmoil of the 1990s. He lowered taxes, balanced the budget and claimed a healthy share of oil revenue for the state which enabled him to invest in education and infrastructure. The Russian economy expanded throughout his first terms as president while poverty rates plummeted. Putin created a Russian middle class, one that now haunts him as the very people whose livelihoods he vastly improved demand political accountability and transparency in government.
Although he broke the power of the oligarchs who were able to buy many state-owned enterprises that were rapidly privatized after the collapse of the Soviet Union, corruption is still endemic in Russia. Putin recognizes the problem. One of the greatest challenges facing Russia’s leaders, he likes to say, is that a majority of the nation’s youth aspire to a career in government because they expect to be able to enrich themselves as public servants.
For all his talk of fighting corruption and diversifying the economy, his deputy, Dmitri Medvedev, made more of a concentrated effort as president to modernize the Russian state than Putin did. He must continue these efforts during his third term if he is not to lose the great silent majority of Russian voters who, on Sunday, will give him the benefit of the doubt.
Westerns should too. Liberal opposition to Putin’s autocracy may be growing but it is disorganized. Established opposition parties, including communists and nationalists, are also just as popular. The latter especially worries Putin and it should worry foreigners too.
His reelection campaign may have seen an upswing in anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric; Putin is above all a realist who does not seek to jeopardize relations with the United States to the extent that there is confrontation. This was evident from his willingness to enter into the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty after the Bush Administration unilaterally withdrew from an earlier missile defense accord. It was evident from his country’s support for New START.
Whatever Russian “aggression” occurred under Putin’s watch, it followed more than a decade of NATO’s eastward expansion and the Bush Administration’s frantic support for reformist Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili who came to power in 2004 by ousting Moscow’s strawman in a transfer that was negotiated by the Kremlin.
Emboldened by his alliance with Washington, Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia in 2008 in an attempt to reclaim the territory for Georgia. Only then did Russia respond because it could not tolerate military adventurism on its border, certainly not if it had the blessing of the United States.
Putin also allowed American forces to transit Central Asian territory to fight the war in Afghanistan however. Last year, Moscow let NATO cargos cross Russian territory in order to facilitate the drawdown in combat operations in the South Asia. Russia supported the War on Terror because it coincided with its own struggle with Islamist extremists in the Caucuses.
Putin will not meet every Western demand and will lash out against America if it encroaches further on what it considers to be its sphere of interest — a markedly less impressive array of allies than it had during the Cold War. He also cannot appear to be dictated to for fear of invigorating nationalism at home. Behind the tough talk, there is a desire for preservation, not expansion. Russia has no designs of world domination anymore. At best, there is a glimmer of hope of restoring some pride to the nation
Russia’s once and future president represents these hopes; hopes that have been enhanced by years of predictable economic growth and stability which Putin is associated with. If Russian foreign policy is more assertive under his leadership, it is only a return to normalcy after the humiliating Yeltsin era. Because his aims on the world stage are relatively modest and rational, Putin is a man we can work with. Again.