After Russia's elections, public anger at Putin: Can he fix corruption?
A protest vote against Putin's United Russia party in parliament is being followed by sustained protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin is still headed for the presidency, but if he doesn't fix corruption, Russia risks the stagnation of the Brezhnev years.
There is something delicious in discovering when conventional wisdom gets it wrong, and when the public pokes the proverbial sharp stick in a politician’s eye.Skip to next paragraph
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Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party lost its two-thirds majority in parliament after elections on Dec. 4, seeing it dwindle to about 50 percent – and this amid reports of widespread election fraud.
The protest vote has been followed by protest demonstrations against manipulated elections for three consecutive nights in Moscow and St. Petersburg. More protests are scheduled for Saturday. These are among the most serious protests in Russia in years, and police have arrested hundreds of demonstrators. Mr. Putin went so far as to criticize US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for encouraging the protests – and accused the US of funding them – in order to weaken another nuclear power. He promised a stronger crackdown.
Yes, Mr. Putin will likely be back as head of state after presidential elections in March. But predictions of a cakewalk for his United Russia party in this month’s parliamentary elections ignored the very substantial reservoir of public dissatisfaction and marked changes in Russia’s political climate after 12 years of Putinism (first as prime minister, then as president, and again as prime minister).
A middle-level Russian businessman, who fears retribution if he’s named, recently complained about Putin and the business oligarchs who support him. “Look at these guys,” he said. “The country has all this oil wealth and billionaires. Moscow has the highest concentration of millionaires of any city in the world. But the country has no infrastructure. Look at the road between Moscow and St. Petersburg. It’s a goat path!”
Russian politics have ever been convoluted. Still, on the eve of the parliamentary elections, an astute American businessman just back from a month in Siberia, Moscow, and St. Petersburg observed, “I don’t think Putin or anyone else is popular. Russians know the system is rigged against them and they believe that all their politicians are crooks.” (A recent independent poll put Putin’s approval rating at 61 percent – but that was his lowest in a decade.)
As a former intelligence officer of the Soviet era – a lieutenant colonel in the KGB – Putin should have seen this coming. The Russian magazine Kommersant Vlast’s recent cover story featured Putin attending an international kickboxing match between the reigning American champ and a Russian challenger.
When the Russian won, Putin, a martial arts aficionado, jumped into the ring to present a prize and grab some of the glory. But, Vlast reports, on seeing Putin, the Russian crowd suddenly began tumultuous booing. Kremlin spin doctors explained the crowd was jeering the losing American, but no one in Russia bought that – especially once an uncensored version went viral on the Internet.