The initial results of Russia’s presidential election are in, and appear to have brought Vladimir Putin back to the presidency with an estimated 64% of the vote, according to exit polls. Opposition activists and election monitors have claimed that the elections have been marred by rampant fraud, including reports of ‘carousel voting’ and even alleged attacks upon independent election monitors from Golos. A mass protest is scheduled to take place in Moscow’s Pushkin Square today.
This outcome is hardly surprising. Pre-election polls indicated that Putin would be returned to power regardless of his declining popularity, thanks to a combination of restricted political competition and anticipated fraud and intimidation. The election results have not repaired the damage to Putin wrought by the anti-government protests of the past three months: in fact, if the opposition movement continues to build momentum, Putin may be forced to leave office earlier than 2018, when his presidential term will end.
The opposition movement represents the greatest challenge to Putin’s legitimacy since he came to power in 2000. Putin faces a broad-based, non-ideological protest movement which has gained strength in successive protests to become the most significant anti-government movement since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian public no longer enjoy the levels of economic growth which once made the bargain of the Kremlin’s so-called ‘sovereign democracy’-restricted political liberties exchanged for economic prosperity-tolerable. (GDP growth is expected to diminish to 3.5% in 2012).
Moreover, years of imprudent budgetary planning and mismanagement have produced a budgetary time bomb for the next president, with annual revenue streams unable to meet the demands of the country’s badly outdated health, military and transport infrastructure. This will require austerity measures and restructuring which will likely prove unpopular. With public disapproval of the Kremlin high-a February Levada Centre poll indicates 55% disapproval of government activities-and a relatively high proportion of public support for the protests, this could incite a second wave of social and economic protests, which would engage a larger constituency than the on-going political demonstrations.
If the fractious and multifarious opposition movement can remain united, continue to organise large-scale street protests or escalate demonstrations to permanent protests, along the lines of Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution,’ the government will be forced to make substantial concessions-at the very least, agree to liberalise political competition by permitting the registration of unofficial political parties such as Vladimir Ryzhkov’s Republican Party of Russia, or may even be compelled to court a figure such as failed presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov to join the cabinet.
The success of today’s rally will be decisive in setting the tone for what follows. While Alexey Navalny’s hopes of a ‘tent city’ protest may be scuppered by the cold weather and the population’s distrust of anything veering into ‘revolutionary’ territory, Putin’s attempts to reassert his legitimacy through today’s questionable election results could be successfully challenged and eroded by a united and articulate protest movement.
In addition, if the opposition succeeds in staging large-scale peaceful protests this week, the government may choose to stage the type of violent crackdown it has thus far avoided. This is a dangerous tactic—one which may prove effective if it manages to remove the leadership of key components of the opposition, but which could also galvanise and radicalise public opinion against the Kremlin. On the other hand, if the government chooses a strategy of engagement and limited concessions, they may successfully co-opt enough elites to remain in power and placate the protestors; yet they may also initiate the ineluctable erosion of their monopoly on power.