There can be little doubt that Vladimir Putin will be returned to the Russian Presidency with an absolute majority of votes cast in the March 4 Russian Presidential election. Three elements guarantee this: (1) Putin’s substantial support among the population for his restoration of stability, a modicum of prosperity, and international respect after the social and economic collapse of the 1990s’; (2) the government’s continued virtual monopoly over televised political news; and (3) the obvious implausibility of the four candidates ostensibly running against him.
For most Russians, the eight years of Putin’s Presidency (2000-2008) were the best years in Russian history. Living standards more than doubled and the economy—propelled by a massive devaluation in 1998 and rising oil prices after that—recovered to the level of 1990, before the decade-long depression triggered by Gorbachev and Yeltsin’ failed economic reforms. Moreover, Putin squirreled away enough of Russia’s oil revenues so that the country was able to survive the effects of the 2008-09 world economic crash. By contrast, neither the Gorbachev nor Yeltsin governments ever recovered from the collapse of world oil prices to $10-11 per barrel in 1986 and 1998, respectively.
In addition, the government’s control over the five national television stations means that political news is strictly controlled to prevent any “feeding frenzy” that might damage Putin’s standing, as nearly happened to him after the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in August 2000. And just to take no chances, in recent days the government has moved to change the Board of Directors of the last major independent radio station, the Moscow Echo, which has been relentlessly critical of Putin.
Finally, none of the candidates nominally opposing Putin have the remotest chance of defeating him, or even coming close. The most popular, the communist Gennady Zyuganov, has been running for president fruitlessly for 20 years; the independent Levada polling institute in Moscow has projected that Zyuganov can achieve at most 15% of the vote. And out of an “abundance of caution,” as it were, Putin’s Central Electoral Commission at the last minute disallowed liberal economist Gregory Yavlinsky’s candidacy on patently trumped up claims of illegible signatures on petitions. What Putin feared was not Yavlinsky the candidate—who was unlikely to breach the 10% threshold—but that as a candidate Yavlinsky would have the legal right, which he was well prepared to exploit, to deploy election monitors throughout the country and thereby question the legitimacy of Putin’s announced victory.
The key issue is not whether Putin will win but how he reacts after winning to the growing signs of disagreement with his system of rule. Does he see the recent demonstrations as threatening a new “vacuum of power,” a specter that has haunted Putin since the collapse of the Berlin Wall? Or does he see them instead as foreshadowing the dangers if he does not fundamentally reform an authoritarian political machine that, whatever its genuine accomplishments, seems incapable of shaping Russia into a truly modern society?
Each choice carries its own risks. Without real political reform, Russia will be condemned to the status of a petroleum state and consigned to the margins of the world economy. But if Putin decides to broaden the base of his government, he would have to depend on those he does not really trust and at the same time wage a titanic war against his own loyalists, who control over 40% of Russia’s economic assets. History will judge Putin on how he makes and executes that choice.
The author is Director of Research, Center for International Studies and Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. He is the author most recently of, Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft (Potomac Books, 2011). Between 1984-89 he worked as an analyst of Soviet affairs at the then Institute for East-West Security Studies.