Rarely has the meaning of an election been so contrary to its official result. Vladimir Putin was elected to a third term as the Russian president on March 4, with around 65 per cent of the recorded votes. But, this apparent crowning is also the beginning of the end. The strong man of the Kremlin now appears so out of touch with his country that he is unlikely to serve his full six-year term.
Investors, both foreign and Russian, cheered Putin’s election. They’re betting that stability will prevail and reform pledges made by Putin will be implemented. They may take comfort in the fact that Putin-protégé Dmitry Medvedev will move from the president back to his former prime ministerial job.
They’re wrong on both reform and stability. Reforms are likely to be too slow and insignificant to placate the thousands of protesters who had been on the streets last year since the obvious rigging of the parliamentary election three months ago. Opponents claim that thousands of violations tarred Sunday’s vote as well. But, Putin didn’t even have to rig it to win it. Cheating simply out of habit is in itself a testimony to the entrenched absurdity of the system. The new president clearly doesn’t get it.
The contradiction of Putin-ism is that the new and former president cannot deliver the major reform the country needs – the establishment of a true rule of law, protective of property rights and other individual rights – because that would require eradicating the ingrained corruption of the system his friends and he have built in the last 12 years. He can keep making noises. But, without results, he will be seen as, at best, impotent. At worst, like an accomplice in the corrupt system.
Putin could also keep making noises about reform but move in the opposite direction – a more severe crackdown on the opponents and fiscal largesse for his electoral base. But, Russia needs more, economically and politically. Its current account surplus is eroding. And, Putin’s highly educated countrymen, in growing number, have decided they want normal civic rights. If he doesn’t deliver (and, he probably won’t), they’re ready to write him off and move on.