FAES Analysis Putin, the undisputed Tsar

21/03/2018

"The expected victory of Vladimir Putin in the Russian presidential elections held on 18 March, with almost 77% of the vote and a turnout of 67.5% of the 110 million Russians called to the polls, is the outcome of several reasons: the Kremlin's control - from television channels to law enforcement - the absence of any real political competitiveness, the inability of the opposition movement to transform street protests into a political movement, the Kremlin's confrontation with the West and Putin's genuine popularity for having improved the standard of living of the Russians since his arrival in power in 2000. Putin has won the elections without competing with anyone and has fulfilled his main objective: to succeed himself in power.

Vladimir Putin, as President (2000-2008, 2012-2018) and Prime Minister (2008-2012) successively, has preserved an economic boom - not due to his efficient economic policies, but to high oil prices - the modernization of the Armed Forces and the re-establishment of Russia as a major power. During his tenure, the living standards of most Russians improved in comparison with the Soviet era and the 1990s and his chaotic transition to democracy that led to rampant corruption, and a renewed sense of stability and national pride has re-emerged.

Russia currently has a high percentage of people living on poverty line, 13.4%, but compared to 33% in 1992 or 2000, when 28% of the Russian population was on the verge of survival, the improvement is noticeable. During Putin's first two terms (2000-2008), wages grew steadily by about 10% a year. However, during the last six years of his term as Prime Minister (in 2012, the Russian Federation changed the Constitution to extend the presidential term from four to six years), economic growth has been sluggish due to the economic crisis, the fall in oil prices and the economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States as a result of the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin's military and economic support for the pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas War. Nevertheless, the annual rate of growth in consumption has always been around 11%. For example, in 2000, only 27 out of every 100 Russians had their own vehicle, while in 2016 the number of private vehicles increased to 58 out of every 100.

Vladimir Putin's victory does not imply radical changes in foreign policy, although relations between Russia and the West could be marked by an escalation in any of the current disputes (Ukraine, Syria, Western accusations of Russian interference in electoral processes, cyber-attacks or the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom).

Putin is not expected to lead his country towards democratisation during his new presidential term, notwithstanding the promises made in his last state of the Nation address on 1 March, which was part of the election campaign. The keys to the survival of the autocratic regime will lie in the ‘flexible control' of political opposition (preventing or limiting the political competitiveness of individuals or organisations that could jeopardise the Kremlin's monopoly) and also in structural reforms that would guarantee economic growth.

The political opposition in Russia is deeply divided and, as recent elections have shown, the call for a boycott by opposition leader, activist and blogger Alexey Navalny (who was vetoed by the Electoral Commission on charges of embezzlement) has failed. Navalny, mistakenly mythologised by analysts as "the only one who could overshadow Putin", is creating horizontal networking over the Internet and accusing the regime of corruption, but without offering a political programme capable of bringing his followers together in social networks in an alternative political movement to Putin. Thus, his rejection of the offer by Ksenia Sobchak (a television broadcaster close to Putin because of family ties) to join his opposition forces reflects his lack of confidence in her (accusing her of being a Kremlin impersonator in the opposition ranks) and his hope that social networks will turn him into a political figurehead.

Since 2011, most Russian politicians and analysts have argued that structural reforms of the economy and modernisation are crucial. Putin promised them (again) in the state's address to the Nation, but for the time being they are very vague. Tocqueville wrote that the worst time for an unpopular administration is when it decides to reform, because it opens up hope. The Russian president is facing the 'Gorbachev's dilemma', which he introduced glasnost and perestroika not to end communism, but that was the final outcome. With this lesson learned, Putin will not risk that any real liberalisation and modernisation could lead to the disappearance of his own regime. Moreover, he knows that all the State apparatuses - army, police, and secret service - will support only one undisputed leader. And for the time being, Putin is the best for the Russians, as the election results have shown".

Translation: David Alonso Galera

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