Despite the flawed electoral process in the Russian election, Vladimir Putin's popularity remains high. Russia has Putin in its future as far as the eye can see but that does not bode well for the country's economy, or for peace in the region.
When Vladimir Putin first became Russian Prime Minister in 1999, Bill Clinton was still the president of the United States, the world was worked up into a frenzy over the so-called Y2K bug, and Russia had just launched its second war in Chechnya. Less than a year later, he would ascend to the presidency.
With his presidential election victory over the weekend guaranteeing him another six years as president his rule over Russia as either prime minister or president will be longer than Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, or Yuri Andropov.
Kremlin sources stated for months that the presidential administration wanted to see Putin win 70 percent of the vote. Putin did even better and won 77 percent of the vote. This compares to 64 percent of the vote in 2012.
Also, Putin barely had to try to win. He did not participate in a single presidential debate.
The leading opposition figure in Russia, Aleksei Navalny, was barred from participating in the elections. Putin’s runner up in last weekend’s election, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, scored only 12 percent of the vote. The so-called “Paris Hilton of Russia” (and reportedly Putin’s goddaughter) Ksenia Sobchak, took only 1.66 percent of the vote.
Expect more of the same
Putin’s victory will not bode well for the Russian economy. Reportedly, his inner circle is divided on Russia’s economic path for the next six years.
During his recent State of the Nation Speech, Putin stressed the usual platitudes for economic growth while arguing for a very expensive modernised nuclear force and a conventional military force. In the context of Russia’s current economic and geopolitical situation, these two things are contradictory objectives.
During Putin’s reign, much needed economic reforms have been subordinated to the imperatives of political stability and regime survival. The private sector has been marginalised by ever-growing government encroachment into the marketplace. Large state-owned institutions and an inefficient public sector dominate the economy. The judiciary is vulnerable to corruption.
The drop in the price of oil coupled with international economic sanctions has made the overall economic situation worse.
In the short-term, Russia’s foreign policy will remain unchanged with Putin’s re-election.
From election meddling to alleged assassination attempts on foreign soil using banned chemical weapons, Russia has shown it will do just about anything to maximise its influence abroad.
Since entering government in 1999, Putin has presided over a devastating war in Chechnya, the invasion of Georgia, and the annexation of Crimea and a war in eastern Ukraine.
Putin has stoked tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, conducted provocative military exercises which have stimulated a nuclear strike on Sweden, and has maximised Russian influence in Central Asia often at the detriment of the region’s sovereignty.
Most grievously, however, have been Putin’s actions in Syria. Russia enables Syrian president Bashar al Assad to remain in power and facilitates his killing machine. Making an already complicated situation worse, Moscow has also been known to support certain groups of the YPG — particularly those located around Afrin.
Sadly, for Russia’s neighbors, it is likely that the next six years of Russian foreign policy will be the natural continuation of the recent past.
A shrewd politician
Putin is a shrewd politician. Just about every decision he takes is made with the preservation of his power and status as the number one goal.
The Russian constitution limits the president to two consecutive six year-terms, but it does not place a limit on the number of times someone can serve as president as long as they do not serve more than two consecutive terms. This is why in 2008 Putin made way for Dmitry Medvedev as president, and took the role of prime minister for himself. This allowed Putin to abide by the constitution but still be in charge from behind the scenes.
Since Putin will be ending his second consecutive term in 2024, he will face three main choices heading into Russia’s next presidential elections. Being politically astute, there is no doubt that he is already thinking about his options.
Firstly, he could simply retire from national politics. This seems highly unlikely. Putin sees himself as the savior of Russia. He is very much an imperial style leader so we should expect imperial-length rule. While he has outlasted the term lengths of many of his Soviet predecessors, one should not forget that his imperial predecessors ruled for decades at a time. No doubt, he sees himself in this same role.
Secondly, he could change the constitution to remove the limits on the number of consecutive terms he can serve as president. This could require some sort of public referendum. Depending on his levels of popularity at the time, this could be risky.
Thirdly, and most likely, he will search for a caretaker to serve as president while he does another term as prime minister, like he did with Medvedev in 2008. Putin will look for someone who will obediently continue his political agenda while he pulls the strings from behind the scenes. It remains to be seen who this could be.
Putin’s modus operandi is to see seek legitimacy through managed elections, populist appeals, and a foreign policy focused on enhancing Russia’s geopolitical influence. With this, Putin has been very successful.
Even with all the hardships facing the Russian economy, Putin’s personal popularity remains steadily high. Combine his personal popularity with a dubious electoral process and one can easily see how he won an impressive 77 percent of the vote.
The economy is a mess and Russia’s foreign policy is proving to be very costly in both blood and treasure.
Putin might have won his election, but in the long-run, Russia is losing.
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