“Throughout the day, it was like receiving reports from a war zone,” said Communist Party deputy head Ivan Melnikov on Sunday, speaking about the thousands of calls he had received from regional offices about ballot-box stuffing and other violations in the Russian parliamentary elections. But despite the manipulation, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party got fewer than half the votes this time, down from almost two-thirds in 2007.
Putin’s party still will form the next government since it easily can form a coalition with smaller pro-regime parties in the Duma, but it has lost the two-thirds majority that let it amend the constitution at will. And Putin still will return to the presidency in March’s presidential elections, but the erosion in his popular support is suddenly visible to all.
The first clear sign that Russians were getting fed up with Putin came two weeks ago, when he made an unheralded appearance at a martial-arts fight at the Olympiyskiy Stadium in Moscow. That wasn’t surprising, as he makes a great public show of his own prowess in the martial arts. But when he climbed into the ring to congratulate the winner, the audience began to boo and whistle at him. They didn’t stop until he left.
It was all broadcast live on Russian state television, and subsequently went viral on YouTube and the Russian social media. There is no credible rival to Putin on the scene, but neither is it certain any more that he will serve out the full six years of his new presidential term. He is wearing out his welcome.
During Putin’s two terms as president in 2000-08, he stabilized the ravaged economy: Average salaries increased fivefold and the GDP grew by almost 8 percent a year. High oil prices helped, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless, and when he left the presidency three years ago he still could do no wrong in the eyes of most Russians.
He left it because Russia’s constitution forbids a third consecutive term as president. It was a nice gesture, but he didn’t really leave power. His close ally Dmitry Medvedev was elected to the presidency, and then Medvedev appointed Putin as prime minister. In practice, Putin went on taking the big decisions himself — including the decision to return as president next year.
But the past four years have not been as kind to Putin as the first eight. The economy has stagnated and the scale of the corruption has grown too large to ignore. (He is not personally corrupt, but everyone thinks he tolerates the massive corruption among his allies in order to maintain their loyalty.) So when he announced in September that he would run for the presidency again in March, something seems to have snapped.
There were two straws that broke the camel’s back. One was his and Medvedev’s public admission that they had agreed on the swap long ago. Everybody kind of knew that, but it still was galling to have Putin’s total ownership of the state apparatus rubbed in their faces. The other was the fact that while Putin was prime minister, he amended the constitution so that the presidential term is now not four but six years.
In the past couple of months, Russians have woken up to the reality that they may face another 12 years of him as the all-powerful president (he’s only 59 now), and a lot of them have realized that they don’t actually like that prospect.
He’ll still win, of course, but it may be a long and miserable six years for him unless the oil price goes through the roof and Russia experiences another economic boom.
Despite the chronic abuses of power, the perversion of the courts, and the intimidation of the media, Russia could re-emerge as a real democracy quite smoothly if Putin ever decided to let it.
Could he lead Russia through such a transition? It is not to be excluded, for Putin is acutely conscious of his place in history and would not want to end up being rejected at the polls or, even worse, being forced to yield power by a popular revolt. Better to hand the country over in good condition and retire gracefully in four or five years’ time. He is egotistical and arrogant, like most powerful people, but he is not just a thug.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.