When Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath of office for a third time on May 7, he will be facing two unexpected new challenges that will rattle and shake his once formidable power base.
First, Mr. Putin may have won the election in March, sweeping 64 percent of the vote. But he lost the battle for Moscow, where he took less than half the vote. Muscovites have dethroned Putin as “national leader,” and in a country as centralized as Russia, it will only be a matter of time before the provinces follow suit.
Second, the antigovernment protests in Moscow and other cities this winter saw the sudden coming of age of a generation with little, if any, memory of the Soviet Union. These young urban Russians communicate via social networks, travel the world, and are demanding the end of an archaic political system based on loyalty and patronage.
Of course, the Putin machine is hardly about to collapse. Yet the demonstrations sparked by charges of election fraud in December’s parliamentary elections have exposed the vulnerability of a top-down system that depends on one man.
During his first two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, Putin enjoyed genuine popularity as an unprecedented rise in oil prices helped fuel a dramatic rise in living standards. His continuing success depends on whether oil prices stay high enough to meet his campaign promises – and the rising expectations of a restless middle class.
Putin tried to frame his campaign as a struggle between patriots and traitors ready to sell out Russia to American subjugation. But the young people who took to the streets aren’t foreign stooges; they’re the latest generation of Westernizers in Russia’s 400-year-old conflict between modernizers and traditionalists that began with Peter the Great. In the past, Russian leaders could lock down the country in self-isolation. Now, even Putin acknowledges a need for open borders.
Putin at first was seen as a reformer when President Boris Yeltsin handed power to him 12 years ago. But he soon revealed himself as a statist, determined to defend and amplify state power at any cost. As a KGB agent based in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Putin watched as people power swept away the once mighty Soviet empire. That experience goes a long way in explaining his aversion to street protests and his messianic belief that only he can save Russia.
Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor in the 2008 election, was to be the next great modernizer. Yet his initiatives to uproot corruption and reform the criminal-justice system went nowhere, as it became clear he was keeping the presidential seat warm for Putin, because of a constitutional ban on three consecutive terms. This missed opportunity to pass on power to the next generation leaves open whether that transition will play out in elections or on the street. The next parliamentary vote won’t be for another five years; the next presidential election for six.
Moscow’s new generation isn’t waiting. In elections for city district councils that coincided with the presidential vote, dozens of young people with no previous political experience ran as independents and won. On April 2, an independent candidate swept 70 percent of the vote in a mayoral runoff election in the town of Yaroslavl. Activists plan to monitor local elections to raise awareness and keep authorities on the defensive.
The next major electoral battle will be in 2014, for the Moscow City Council, where Putin’s United Russia party holds 32 of 35 seats, because of disputed elections. Putin’s election has only highlighted the problem that Russia’s most active, progressive citizens are politically disenfranchised. Running on a liberal, pro-Western platform, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov won a fifth of the presidential vote in Moscow.
The protest movement briefly united a wide spectrum of political forces that have been denied representation in the tightly controlled parliament. Now the president-elect will try to split his opponents. A new law easing the registration of parties could lead to a plethora of tiny, harmless political groupings.
Yet Putin’s war rhetoric during the campaign betrayed nervousness in his government. The deployment of thousands of riot police and Interior Ministry troops to Moscow’s center on the eve of the election was a sign of weakness, not strength.
Political legitimacy is more than an official election result; it requires trust. In 2008, Putin refused to tinker with the Constitution and run for a third consecutive term out of concern for his international legitimacy. Now his legitimacy is questioned abroad and under siege in his own capital.
Lucian Kim is a journalist who has worked in Moscow since 2003. He is writing a book on Putin’s Russia and has chronicled the Moscow protest movement on his blog, http://lucianinmoscow.blogspot.com.