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. 

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. 

Despite the fact that Putin and his Kremlin lieutenants have a chokehold on TV’s political news reporting, what is available to Russian viewers today is nothing short of remarkable compared with the staged and stale programming under the Communists. There are now documentaries on the shameful state of Russia’s roads – especially the Trans-Siberian Highway, where mudholes swallow whole cars and trucks.

Much has been said in the West of the so-called Putin dictatorship. But for all his maneuvering, he has not stifled internal criticism of Russian government failures on many levels.

TV comedians ridicule police bribe-taking with wicked jokes. One features a policeman who stops a driver, who in turn rolls down his window and says to the officer, “But I didn’t do anything.” The Russian cop retorts, “Yeah, but my wife and child can’t wait for you to break the rules.”

Russians are not infrequently heard to say, “It’s a shame we live this way. We know it’s bad for the country and society.” That’s yet another reason the voters spoke so eloquently in the last election. Russians have essentially said, “a pox on all of you.” Of course, the parliamentary elections were largely rigged. Everyone expected that. But the public still sternly rebuked Russia’s politicians.

And yet, it seems astounding how far Russia has come in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We should not lose sight of the fact that disposable income for Russians doubled during Putin’s eight-year term as president. Unlike in the United States, no one in Russia talks about economic collapse, except perhaps in provincial villages where people remain as destitute as they were under Communist rule. There is now an economic system in place that is stable as long as Russia’s minerals , oil, and natural gas hold out.

In one very important sense, Russians and Americans now have this in common: Both peoples seem willing to sacrifice some liberties in order to gain economic security and safety. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge Putin faces is that he must now govern a Russia that has changed from the one he inherited from Boris Yeltsin, who left behind political and economic turmoil. He captains a ship that threatens to slide back into a stagnant sea of Brezhnevism. That’s his greatest threat: becoming like the venal Leonid Brezhnev of the 1970s, losing all that Russia gained in 20 years. 

He now knows the Russian public is angry; not angry enough to stage a revolution, but sufficiently disgruntled to embarrass the Kremlin. Unless the public’s concerns are addressed, the public goodwill required to govern any modern state will elude Putin. Good governance, like perfect Communism, will remain somewhere beyond the horizon.  

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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