The Return of Putin


Mar 8, 2012

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrive at a meeting on taxation issues at the Gorki presidential residence outside Moscow, March 6, 2012

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev arrive at the Gorki presidential residence outside Moscow, March 6, 2012

Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Reuters

Following are edited excerpts from Andrew Weiss's appearances Monday, March 5, 2012 on NPR affiliate WAMU's Diane Rehm Show and Tuesday, March 6, 2012 on C-SPAN's Washington Journal.

What was your view of the election and its results?

Few could have been surprised by Vladimir Putin's victory. This was a landslide victory, yet predetermined.

International observers have expressed concerns that there was no real question about the results and that this is not the way elections are supposed to be. They are supposed to be unpredictable until the voters go out and vote. In this case, the OSCE—the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—said this was a skewed playing field from the beginning. The opposition was not allowed to field a truly independent alternative to Putin in this election.

The authorities picked opponents, more akin to sparring partners, who were tame and part of the system. The reality is, under Putin, the playing field has been wiped clean of alternative faces.

That is the fundamental flaw in the Russian electoral system—predetermined elections—which then call into question their legitimacy. For a certain portion of the population, these results negate the electoral process, and these are the people who are protesting. This is not an outright Russian rebellion, but rather an effort by a group of urban dwellers to protest how the system works. They comprise a large portion of Russian society—25-30%—which feels that they do not have a voice. They don't want to be subjects; they want to be citizens.

If the result was a foregone conclusion, why have the election at all?

The topic of legitimacy is the big issue as we go forward in Russia. Elections, for better or worse, have been a key mechanism in the absence of other basic democratic institutions in Russia to confer legitimacy. So what is very paradoxical about Putin's victory is that you have a very split society—a rural versus an urban electorate—with different experiences of life in Russia under Putin.

The average voter saw large economic gains over the past decade, amounting to annual increases in real incomes of some 10% per year. The average person feels they have had an incredible run under Putin. That's a vote for stability, and a vote for Putin. So, in some ways, it didn't matter who the opposition was, because two-thirds of the electorate was largely in Putin's camp, and he could have found a way to win a free and fair election potentially in the first round.

How would you describe the climate in which Putin will now govern?

Vladimir Putin created a system over the last 10 years that is outgrowing some of its socioeconomic gains, as reflected in these urban protests. Yet Putin views the election as a referendum on his previous period in office.

The protests are the result of a significant portion of the population feeling alienated. So the Russian system is now in transition to something new. Putin will now have to govern with a degree of give and take, which he has not had to do before.

Andrew Weiss is director of the RAND Center for Russia and Eurasia at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.