Any reports of Vladimir Putin’s demise are premature, but alarm bells have started ringing in the Kremlin. It’s only-in-Russia irony — the Russian prime minister’s governing party has just lost a parliamentary election that it rigged. This reinforces the feeling that it can’t even manage autocracy properly. But it also emboldens protesters who can rightly surmise what the result would have been if fraud hadn’t been so obviously massive. The conventional wisdom about the Putin regime has been that it was stable and, partly because of that, popular. The fact that it’s not that popular could soon make it less stable. It may be time for investors to take notice.
Protesters on the streets in Moscow have met the traditional fate of demonstrators in Russia: they have been outnumbered 25-to-1 by police, soldiers and a pro-Kremlin crowd. A few leaders have been imprisoned and most Russians remain passive. Putin may feel he can ride this one out as well. But the electoral setback has exposed the fundamental vulnerability of his regime.
Last Sunday’s vote for parliament comes only a few months before Russia’s presidential election, in which he will run as the only serious candidate. No opposition leader can hope for a good showing, if only because there’s no opposition to speak of, and the little there is has no leaders. But as Russia’s not-so-distant past has shown, leaders can emerge quickly when the country is ripe for rebellion.
If experience is any guide, Putin will try the carrot-and-stick approach once again. He has promised new faces in the government, and might raid once again the state’s still full coffers to ensure that his electoral base of provincial pensioners remains happy. But the Russian economy is stalling. Corrupt foundations have led to the squandering of the gains from higher oil prices. The split between Russian cities, with their prosperous and educated population, and the rest of the country has never been greater. More Russians know that there’s more to the rule of law than brutal order. They may feel that Putin has overstayed his welcome.