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Opinion

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.

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While accommodating the less radical demands of the protesters through cosmetic adjustments, Putin has also moved to court those voters who engineered the success of the leftist and nationalist opposition parties over United Russia in the December vote. He vowed to introduce tougher restrictions on migrants and installed well-known nationalist Dmitry Rogozin and conservative commentator Aleksei Pushkov as deputy prime minister and speaker of the Duma’s international affairs committee respectively.

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However, none of the measures that Putin (or Medvedev) has proposed so far guaranteed that the presidential vote would be free and fair, which is what Putin needed to ensure his legitimacy as president. Nor do the measures significantly alter the system of managed democracy and state capitalism that he has built in Russia and that protesters now want dismantled.

Putin – in power for over a decade already and who emphasizes stability – will hardly be motivated to launch deep reformation of this system during his third term as president, especially since his supporters in the bureaucratic and business elites benefit from the status quo.

Nor should Russia be expected to initiate tectonic shifts in its foreign policy under Putin, since the latter has had a major say on most major issues during Medvedev’s presidency.

Given Putin’s taste for tongue-lashing against Western powers, his comeback may result in a toughening of Russian rhetoric vis-à-vis the West. But it is rather unlikely that Russia under a President Putin will take steps to intentionally reverse the reset in US-Russian relations, even as Moscow and Washington exchange barbs over ongoing contentious issues, such as Syria and missile defense.

One fundamental problem with the reset, however, is that both sides have already picked all of the low-hanging fruit. And while there is hope that Moscow and Washington will eventually work out a deal on missile defense if President Obama remains in office, deep reductions in nuclear arms, including nonstrategic weapons, a new round of substantive UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, or any other substantial advances in the bilateral relationship would be much more difficult to attain, especially given the approaching election cycle in the United States.

Should Obama be voted out of office, however, there will be a greater probability that US-Russian relations may sour.

As for the European Union, Putin’s Russia should be expected to seek deepening of economic, educational, and cultural cooperation with the EU, pushing for a visa-free regime, while at the same time focusing on bilateral cooperation with individual European powerhouses such as Germany and France.

While pursuing closer ties with Europe, Putin should also be expected to continue cautious cooperation with Beijing, wary of China’s rise, which contrasts sharply with Russia’s sparsely populated and economically stagnant far eastern provinces.

Putin is also likely to try more actively to tie down post-Soviet neighbors, primarily Ukraine, which Moscow wants to join the Eurasian Economic Community.

While largely staying the course in foreign policy, Putin may have to concede to considerable domestic pressures. The ongoing protests underline the demand for deep and far-reaching change in Russia. Putin may have to initiate reforms if the main groups behind the protests organize as a single force with a clear-cut common agenda that not only sustains but also considerably increases pressure on the Kremlin beyond the immediate aftermath of the election.

Apart from the increase in public pressure, a deep and protracted economic crisis may drive Putin to pursue structural reforms, not only in the economic but also in the socio-political sphere.

Factors that may trigger such a crisis, leading to a rupture of this contract, are: the economy’s dependence on energy exports (oil accounts for half of Russia’s revenues) and the dominance of inefficient state-controlled giants; rising public expenditures (which jumped tenfold in 11 years to exceed 20 percent of GDP in 2012) and the creeping pension fund deficit, already $40 billion a year; social inequality; severe regional disparities, where the GDP of one region is 440 times smaller than that of another; and depopulation and labor shortages (Russia is forecast to lose 10 million workers by 2025).

If a deep crisis erupts, Putin’s ability to implement profound changes will depend on how rigid his social contract with the poorer sections of society will be and on how entrenched the bureaucratic and business elites have become.

Nabi Abdullaev is a researcher and deputy editor of RIA Novosti’s international news department, and holds a Masters in Public Administration degree from Harvard Kennedy School.

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, focusing on security and U.S.-Russian relations, and has worked as a journalist in Russia.

An earlier version of this piece was originally published by the EU Institute for Security Studies. It also appeared at the Belfer Center's Power & Policy blog.

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