If any election in Russia in the last 100 years has evoked interest and concern, it is the presidential election scheduled for March 10.
Russia is far more open and free now than it has been. Also, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not the superstar he once was. According to the respected Levada polling organization, Putin is struggling now with only 44 percent support. This is a major comedown for a man whose public support regularly exceeded 70 percent. According to Russia’s constitution, if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, there must be a run-off election. That’s something Putin wants to avoid; his approval ratings could drop even lower by March.
Adding to interest in this election is that Mikhail Prokorov — best known in the United States as the owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets — is in the five-person field. Prokorov, one of Russia’s richest men, has unlimited financial resources for the campaign. The other candidates are well-known to Kremlin watchers: Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov; the nationalist (and sometimes bizarre Vladimir Zhirninovsky; and Sergei Mironov, a new figure from the Just Russia party.
Another reason for attention to this election is the protests that occurred in the aftermath of the Duma elections on Dec. 24. The fact that the government permitted these demonstrations meant that Russia was more open and democratic than in the past. However, the protests must have shocked Putin. Clearly, a new restive opposition is loose in the country.
What isn’t known is what Putin will do. Is he prepared for true democratic elections? Is he prepared to lose? He seems determined to hang on to power — this time as president; he and current President Dmitri Medvedev are expected to change places.
One clear sign that Putin is not prepared to lose is his refusal to debate his opponents. On occasion he has suggested sending subordinates to debate for him, though this has not gone over well. Satire and other forms of criticism do not seem to bother him. If anything, he is a practitioner of “realpolitik.” If he does debate and does not come out on top, he could drop below 40 percent. It is one thing to manipulate votes to make up 6 percent (to reach 50 percent), but it will be much more difficult to make the election appear remotely honest if it he lacks 10 percent or more of the votes needed. Everything I have seen over the last decade tells me Putin wants t 51 percent in his favor.
It is not known how strong his opposition is. How serious are the protesters, for example? The Dec. 24 demonstrations drew close to 80,000 people. Authorities have already given permission for 50,000 protesters, If the coming demonstrations exceed that number of participants, protesters risk arrest. If fewer show up, Putin will appear to have won. Politics is often about perceptions. The big question is whether Putin will simply falsify the results to guarantee his election.
Putin opposes anything resembling radical change. Since he took power more than 10 years ago, he has made clear that he believes Russia needs “evolutionary change.” He wants stability above everything else. He worries that radical change will cause the kind of chaos that marked the Yeltsin era, when the country came close to collapse. Another problem in dealing with Putin harks back to his KGB days. He finds the protesters’ vague goals of minimal use. As a former KGB agent, he reacts to specifics. What does “more freedom” mean? Freedom from what, for what, to achieve what?
The Economist was right to note that despite the democratization in Russia, “key institutions, including courts, police and security services, television and education, are used by bureaucrats to maintain their own power and wealth.” To reiterate, the real issues are how many protesters will show up and how Putin will respond?. He has avoided the heavy-handed use of police as in the past, but he has given no sign that he is about to give up power. Again, Russia is at a crossroads.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.