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Putin's Pyrrhic victory

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8 March 2012 10:39

John Besemeres is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for European Studies, ANU. This is the first of a three-part series.

While he presented himself throughout his campaign as the 'stability' candidate who could not only snorkel down to priceless ancient artefacts but also save the country from the disintegration plotted by sinister Western agencies, Putin's return actually seems to add an extra layer of instability to a situation already piled high with new uncertainties. Until recently, his popularity had been sinking in the opinion polls, not as rapidly as that of his ruling United Russia party, but quite steeply nonetheless. 

His win in last weekend's presidential election is being rejected as illegitimate by the opposition. So the attacks on him in cyberspace can be expected to become even denser and more sardonic in his third presidential term, as internet use in Russia climbs further (having already overtaken Germany in absolute numbers in September 2011). This is a key reason why many pundits, even within the Russian establishment, are starting to hint at the likelihood of his not seeing out his new six-year term in the top job.

His 64% first-round victory looks convincing enough on paper, but it must be remembered that this was a contest against a carefully restricted line-up of compliant losers and Kremlin projects. Genuine opponents were kept out of the race by various expedients. None of the leaders of the new opposition even bothered to seek approval to stand, knowing it would be refused by Putin's loyal allies in the Central Electoral Commission. 

State television, from which the majority of Russians continue to derive their news and views of the world, has been heavily, often fawningly, skewed in Putin's favour for over a decade.

And while the installation of nearly half a billion dollars' worth of webcams in the 90,000 polling stations across the country and the deployment of a large number of new opposition recruits as election observers made vote-rigging harder, the regime apparently rose to the occasion. Teams of 'vote early and vote often' supporters, equipped with large supplies of absentee voting forms, were bussed around from polling station to polling station to build up the numbers ('carousel voting' in current Russian jargon). Many instances of electoral fraud were reported and the official OSCE observer group criticised the conduct of the elections.

Nonetheless, even Golos, the leading independent election monitors (helpfully ejected from their headquarters a few weeks before the poll) acknowledged that Putin probably scored just over 50% of the vote. So a win is a win is a win. Or is it?

In budgetary terms, this has been a Pyrrhic victory for the regime. Even before the election campaign, Putin had secured a budget full of goodies for almost all sectors of the electorate: big pay rises for doctors, academics, teachers, security organs, armed forces, and enhanced payments for pensioners, mothers (especially the more fecund), students, etc. He also arranged for unpopular but necessary price hikes for basic utilities to be postponed till later this year. Then he added to the burden by making extravagant promises during the campaign.

He will be able to appoint a prime minister to take the blame for this profligacy. On the eve of the election he reaffirmed his earlier promise that Medvedev is to be his nominee for the position, a man abundantly qualified for this subordinate role. 

Apart from that, Russia's fiscal position is very sound by European standards, thanks to high prices for its energy exports and the legacy of tough fiscal orthodoxy left by his longtime ally, the former finance minister and now semi-dissident Aleksei Kudrin. But particularly if European economies slump further and/or there is a dip in the price of oil and gas, Putin is going to have to severely disappoint some of his core electorate.

 

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