Friday, December 9, 2011
The End of Putin?
While electoral manipulation is not uncommon in Russia, such manipulation generally does not attract much attention, as it usually does little to change the overall results. Putin has long been very popular among Russians and thus never needed to rig elections, unlike other autocrats/dictators around the world. And he faced little resistance from political elites, many of whom were aligned in one way or another with Putin, as long as they were happily climbing his coattails.
Until this week.
In spite of massive electoral manipulations, Putin's party, United Russia, received its worst showing in years, winning only 53% of the electorate, down from 70% -- and analysts believe that without fraud, the number would have been much lower.
So what happened?
First, I think there's an "exhaustion factor," that Putin, having ruled since 2000, had overstayed his welcome. It was one thing to become prime minister, so Russia could have a "transition period" between his regime and the next one, but it is another thing to make a blatant power grab--that is, his plan to become once again the Russian president--that even President Medvedev was caught off guard.
The Russians have a great capacity to tolerate bad incumbents in the Kremlin. Back in the 1990s, they tolerated Yeltsin and even reelected him, for the alternative was either the return of the Communists or the uncertain rise of Fascism under Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As a result, the people reelected Yeltsin with a comfortable margin.
The logic was that even though we keep the bum, at least we got the bum that we know, not the bum who would bring great risk.
Putin rose to power with great popular support. Russians were tired of the lethargic old leaders, who seemed to be more often drunk than sober, and Putin was a very energetic, young athletic guy who brought the promise of jolting Russia out of its slumber.
The 2011 parliamentary results were less about Putin's achievements than the desire to keep moving forward, ending the endless "Groundhog Day" of corruption and fraud. Seeing that Putin's party, United Russia, was again on the ballot, people simply revolted.
Still, could Russia really kick Putin out? Could a Russian spring finally thaw Kremlin's endless winters? It's doubtful in the short-run. Even though the opposition now got its figure in Mr. Alexei Navalny, they are not organized well enough and lack a clear agenda except to throw the bums out. Putin is still quite popular and has lots of support within the armed forces, police force, the intelligence (former KGB), and state bureaucracy.
The Arab dictators fell like a bunch of dominoes because they relied on a very small segment of society for support (e.g. Gaddafi's mercenaries, Mubarak's army, Ben Ali's party.) Putin, on the other hand, is very careful about maintaining his bases of support and husbanding his resources. Unlike the Arab autocrats who concentrated the wealth on their small retinue and family, Putin made sure to spread his wealth, getting almost everyone on the payroll.
In a long run, however, this may be the beginning of Putin's downfall. Russia's over-reliance on the energy sector means that it is very vulnerable to global economic downturns. When the protests are well organized enough to be sustained and the profit from gas dries out in the next couple of years, the piper finally will have to be paid.