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Putin election victory doesn't pave an easy path through his third presidential term

Beyond mass protests in Moscow against what observers have confirmed as a fraudulent presidential election, several key demographic and economic factors mean that Russians will continue to contest the legitimacy of Putin's presidency during his third term.

By Simon Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev / March 5, 2012

A Russian opposition activist holds a poster depicting Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin during a protest against vote rigging in St. Petersburg March 5. More than 100 protesters were arrested there, where some 2,000 gathered for an unauthorized rally against Mr. Putin's victory in the Russian presidential election held March 4.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP


Cambridge, Mass.

There was little doubt that Vladimir Putin would be elected president of Russia on Sunday and return to the Kremlin for a third term. The Central Elections Committee announced on Monday that Mr. Putin won more than 60 percent of the vote and avoided a second round. 

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But there is also little doubt that the legitimacy of his presidency will be contested during his third term, given the scale of recent protests against his return and strong criticism of the Sunday vote, which some of the opposition leaders and independent observers condemned as unfair and fraudulent.

The political awakening of Russia’s urban middle class, demonstrated in recent rallies that drew tens of thousands, will continue. As recently as last summer, few experts predicted that this awakening would occur so soon. But then came incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev’s announcement last September that he would not be seeking a second term, paving the way for his mentor’s return to the Kremlin. Putin then publicly claimed that he had agreed with Mr. Medvedev early on that he would be reclaiming the presidency.

The prospect of Putin returning to the Kremlin for another 6 or even 12 years became “the last straw” as far as the Russian public was concerned. Even though last December’s parliamentary elections were probably no more fraudulent than previous contests, tens of thousands of angry voters took to the streets to demand a rerun and to protest against Putin’s return. But even if Medvedev had stayed on, it was only a matter of time before Russians demanded sweeping changes.

Russia has already crossed the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita line of $10,000, after which a population is generally expected to begin actively demanding democratization, as a recent study of over 100 countries by Russia’s Renaissance Capital investment bank demonstrates.

More than 80 percent of Russian respondents to opinion polls place themselves somewhere in the middle classes, according to a recent Citibank report. The report says urban Russians, who account for 74 percent of the population and are increasingly wealthy, demand better governance. As renowned economist Anders Aslund has noted in a recent op-ed, Freedom House ratings show that only seven small oil-exporting states and Singapore are wealthier than Russia and still authoritarian.

In addition to growing wealth, demand for democratization in Russia is also facilitated by factors such as high levels of college education and soaring rates of Internet penetration, which has made Russia the largest Internet market in Europe. Even high-ranking Russian officials, such as First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, have acknowledged that the rise of the Internet and greater wealth have changed the political reality in Russia.

“We need to treat this as the new political reality,” Mr. Shuvalov told Reuters in January, adding that when GDP per capita reaches $15,000 the political system would have to become more flexible and modern.

But an Arab Spring-like violent regime change in Russia is unlikely. Such regime change can succeed only if an insurrection were staged in Moscow. While Putin’s popularity has indeed dwindled in the Russian capital, Moscow is unlike Tripoli or Tunis, and has an abundance of economic opportunities. Unemployment is considerably below the Russian national level. Other social factors that facilitate revolt, such as a “youth bulge” and relative poverty, hardly apply to Moscow.

The average age of Moscow residents is around 40 – among the oldest of the Russian regions – and the average Moscow family owns property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while representatives of the growing middle class are increasingly demanding political liberalization, better governance, and an end to corruption, they want these changes to occur in a peaceful manner.

Even if protests suddenly turn violent, the Moscow area boasts one of the highest concentrations of law-enforcement and security personnel, which remain loyal to Putin and could be employed to tame violence.

Putin initially dismissed the protests that erupted in the wake of December’s flawed parliamentary elections, which had drawn together politically disparate forces, including corruption fighters, ultranationalists, and members of established opposition parties. He has since shown more signs of taking the public demonstrations of dissent seriously.

He has made some liberalization gestures, including promises for the semi-direct election of governors, establishing administrative courts to hear citizens’ complaints against the state, installing video cameras at polling stations, and even creating a business ombudsman post.

Putin’s  protégé, Medvedev, proposed easing registration rules for political parties and presidential candidates, and met with organizers of the protest rallies. The Putin-Medvedev tandem has also demoted some of the high-ranking officials who were particularly unpopular with the opposition, including Vladislav Surkov, architect of “managed democracy” and deputy chief of the Kremlin staff, and Boris Gryzlov, a top figure in the pro-Putin United Russia party and speaker of the Duma.

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