The prompt arrival of the presidential elections in Russia have instigated an abundance of media coverage about the inevitable return of Putin to power, a 3rd term in office, but questions remain whether his post-Soviet mentality will survive the calls for democratization.
Vladimir Putin was president from 200 until 2008 when he helped usher his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, into the Kremlin and became premiere because the Russia constitution sets a limit of two successive presidential terms. Nevertheless, Putin has remain Russia’s dominant leader and forging a “tough-guy” image in the media, demonstrating his physical capabilities and taking part in unusual or dangerous acts, such as extreme sports and interactions with wild animals. Despite his correlation to a fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December, Putin has illustrated his political prowess by reversing the drop in popularity to such an extent that many suggest Putin will be elected Russia’s new president with two-thirds of the vote. Similar to Putin’s previous two presidential terms in 2000 and 20004, Putin will most likely win the election in the first round and a run-off is practically impossible, dashing hopes of many opposition groups. The level of popularity for Putin is not entirely unfounded, as Putin’s initial years as President came at a time of unprecedented economic and social decay, mostly a result from the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. During Putin’s presidency, the Russian economy grew for 9 straight years, seeing GDP increase 72%, poverty decrease by more than 50%, and an average monthly salaries increase from $80 to $640. So saying, why is it that Putin’s popularity has begun to drop? Why is it that Putin’s past history may conflict with the modernization of Russia, and result in either his usurpation or reversion of polices?
“In spite of everything, Yeltsin’s time saw radical change, with very little control. The whole time there was something ‘Wild West’ about it, but it lacked the structure to allow a normal society to develop. It led Putin to power, but a legal-legislative-framework did not exist.” – Gilles Chenesseau, Vice-President of the France-Russia Chamber of Commerce
Despite the evidence of Putin’s fame and glory in Russia, a new age of modernization may soon be challenge to the Soviet era ideals of the former KGB officer. Putin’s stance on the Western powers is depicted by his prior indoctrination in Soviet ideology, which has impressed upon him, until this day, a fundamental mistrust of the West. The tension and Russia-US opposition has been most evident in the Arab Spring, in which Russia has failed to support the UN and the international coalition known as “Friends of Syria” in disposing of Bashar al-Assad, the last remaining ally of Russia. Bashard al-Assad has been supported by the Russian regime since before the collapse of the USSR, demonstrating the correlation between the current Russian state and its ill-fated “evil empire”. Putin still retains from the Soviet period a great suspicion of the West. The democratic demonstrations currently on-going in Russia, coupled with the protests against the fraudulent elections in December, is seen by Putin as part of a Western plot to harm Russia. Putin views much of the recent protests as a continuation of the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in 2005. In both cases, these former Soviet states decided to choose pro-Western leaders in 2000 and 2004, consequently leading to Putin firmly believing that the West was behind those protest movements, a so-called Western plot, which in the end would come to revert Russia.
“First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy.” – Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia
Putin’s neurotic view of world affairs stems from the underlining insecurity of the Kremlin that was acknowledged by George Kennan in his Long Telegram. Russia’s fears emanated from its contact with the economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. This latter type of insecurity was more eminent in Russian rulers; as the rule of these Russian leaders was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, and unable to stand comparison or contact with the advanced political system of Western countries. Much of this has not changed with Putin’s perspectives; as Putin fears Western influence in Russia after his efforts to restore Russian grandeur through brutish policies, mimicking Bismarck’s “Blood and Iron”, that accomplished restoring territorial and political integrity to the new Russian state. After the collapse of the USSR, Boris Yeltsin offered hopes to the world of a democratized Russia by introducing capitalism and the free market. All of this was done too quickly and too chaotically, leaving a country in the midst of social anarchy and economic disparity, all of which Putin sought to put in order. Instead of extending democracy however, Putin cracked down on media freedoms and made things much more oppressive in Russia. Putin oversaw a rollback on post-Soviet freedoms during his tenure as president, scrapping gubernatorial elections and introducing tough laws on political parties.
“It can go one of two ways. It can go the way of gradual reform, in a way that opens up a political system, takes account of different points of views, allows this active generation of people who have grown to use choice in every aspect of their life, and now want choice in their political system. Or it can go another way: it can go back to repression, after the election. I think repression will be very difficult; people have lost the fear now and they are ready to stand up for their rights.” – Tony Halpin, Bureau Chief of British Newspaper “The Times”
Putin’s stance as a relic of a Soviet regime, decades now dissolved, will usher in tension between his post-Soviet mentality and the growing vocal majority of democratized youth. The thaw, of “destalinization” of the USSR under Khrushchev was the first introduction of western liberalism in Russia, but was reverted to an oppressive regime under Brezhnev. So saying, Putin’s first presidential term was marked by the return of oppressive policies and post-Soviet political repression. The order and stability brought into the country did instill large level of support and popularity for the Putin regime, but the perpetuation of media and political oppression has transcended the patience of the people. According to a Levada Poll, the support ratings for Putin has dropped 20%. Putin will not be able to consolidate his seat of presidential power through the implementation of like-minded policies as previously. Since his departure as President, the new generations of Russia have been witness to the power of popular protests, the success in neighboring countries, the success in the Arab Spring, as well as the freedom of Western people under the liberal policies they desire. No longer will Putin be able to repress them with his post-Soviet ideals and if he tries, the repercussion will not be far different from the violent protests in the Middle East and North Africa. Putin reign of power, and terror if he attempts repression, will be very short-lived if he does not modernize his stance on foreign and domestic affairs.