He did it again. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won another presidential election. While the outcome was no surprise, neither was the controversy that greeted his victory. Despite Mr. Putin’s claim that he won “an open and honest fight,” the opposition has charged that the outcome reflects vote tampering and outright fraud. The growing antagonism of forces opposed to Mr. Putin will make the challenge of governing Russia — already quite formidable — even more difficult.
The outcome of Sunday’s presidential ballot was never in doubt. Even after the mass protests that followed last December’s parliamentary vote — triggered by charges of ballot stuffing and fraud — the only real question surrounding this vote was whether Mr. Putin would win in the first round or would be forced into a runoff. According to the official Central Election Commission, Mr. Putin won 63.60 percent of the vote, well above the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright win. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov came in second with 17.18 percent. Percentages for billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky did not break double figures. (Final returns showed Mr. Prokhorov with 7.98 percent and Mr. Zhirinovsky with 6.22 percent.)
Still, the margin of victory for Mr. Putin was an embarrassment for the man who won 71.9 percent of the vote in his 2004 victory.
Mr. Putin’s campaign manager called the election the cleanest in the “entire history of Russia”; that interpretation was belied by the over 5,000 complaints about the election filed nationwide. The Interior Ministry has concluded that whatever violations may have occurred would not have influenced the outcome of the vote.
Even more insidious than the ballot stuffing was the government’s ability to keep real challengers off the ballot. Parties have to be approved by the Kremlin and the government has ensured that the opposition is weak and insubstantial. That opposition is also divided, but the government’s actions to rig the ballots are helping to strengthen and unite it.
Mr. Putin might have prevailed in a fair election. He reportedly commands support from 40 percent of the population. Those backers agree that Russia should be a strong country; they like Mr. Putin’s muscular foreign policy and reflexively concur when he seeks to recapture their nation’s history. Like him, they see threats and challenges to Russia’s sovereignty and security around every corner. And they are suspicious of democracy, the divisions it threatens to sow and the vulnerabilities it could create.
Some of that 40 percent backs Mr. Putin because his tenure in office has been good for them in material terms, as well as good for the nation’s “spirit.” The economy has stabilized after the wild gyrations of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. Lives are better. But the instrument of Mr. Putin’s rule has been a state capitalism that blends the mechanisms of state power with the control of crucial resources. For some this is efficiency; for others it is mere corruption.
Increasing numbers of the Russian population are no longer bought off with assurances that their country is doing better, even if they are not. The announcement last September by President Dmitry Medvedev, who ran in the March 2008 presidential campaign because the constitution barred Mr. Putin from a third consecutive term, that he would step down to let Mr. Putin run again — as planned all along — was a final contemptuous slap in the face of the Russian public.
Mr. Putin is cognizant of his problems. His election campaign was larded with promises to ease the growing hardships felt by ordinary Russians. He pledged to increase wages for health care professionals, schoolteachers and college professors, as well as to raise child support, student stipends and funding for war veteran housing. That comes on top of renewed spending on the military.
The result, warned the Russian Central Bank, is spending increases that could exceed $170 billion, or 5 percent of gross domestic product. The only way the government can balance the budget with those outlays is with abundant oil revenues. If the world economy avoids another dip, then oil prices will remain high and Russia can avoid a crunch.
It will take more than high oil prices to put Russia back on the right track. Even those who are getting ahead in this new Russia have little faith in their future: Russian wealth is fleeing the country as soon as it is made. That flow must be reversed and investments made in the country’s future. To do that, Mr. Putin must create the rule of law and break the iron triangle of security forces, business interests and politicians that holds Russia in its grip.
There is little indication, however, that Mr. Putin will take that path. He believes that Russia needs strong men to keep it on track, and that only he is strong enough to do that job. He has no faith in a system, but merely the people who control it. In this world, he needs to remain president, to guide his country and remove the obstacles that keep Russia from resuming its rightful place.
The burning question is what he will do with the growing numbers of Russians whose vision of their country’s future differs from his own. The answer may become clear quite soon.