Before the scandalous presidential election of 1996, the situation was clear-cut and critical. A victory by Gennady Zyuganov over Boris Yeltsin would have meant an old-style Communists’ revenge for their defeat in the August 1991 putsch as well as a strong drive toward renationalization of the economy and eventual attempts to “bring back” under Moscow’s control at least some of the former Soviet republics.

Nowadays, the situation is different. Paradoxically, though Russia’s Communists stay basically unreformed, Comrade Zyuganov’s more-than-minor success in the forthcoming elections — his participation in the second round and decent voting results in it — may be a welcome outcome in comparison with Vladimir Putin’s triumph in the first round.

Here is why: just like his Communist rival, Vladimir Putin does not look like a person who can be easily “reformed” and “adapted” to new conditions in the country. Upon a probable victory with flying colors, he — most likely — will come back as we know him, with his authoritarian ways, with an aim to stay for long. Not a “new Putin” for sure, maybe even a worse variety than we know.

There will be a dozen more years of the same — of euphonic economic and political slogans (modernization, modification, expanding the space of freedom and the like), while things will stay as they are for intellectual workers and “common people.” The “fight against corruption” will go on with insignificant consequences but with some loud selective trials in order to intimidate big business; as will Putin’s — inborn or acquired during the KGB career — dislike for liberasts (a derogative nickname for liberals and democrats).

This dislike obviously applies also to the democratic West (by implication, expansionist and Russo-fob). It is derogatively nicknamed “mirovaya zakulissa” (behind-the-scene plotters from abroad) by Kremlin ideologists who are in frenzied search for sources of alleged foreign impact on Russia’s political life. A “Fifth column,” an “orange revolution” (by implication, something evil and destructive) — that is what “Putinists” tend to see behind any unsanctioned public move in Russia aimed at democracy and freedom. Just look at Putin’s confrontational article printed last Monday.

To make the future president agree to real political reforms, especially those aimed at expanding the rights of the normally elected legislature and restricting his own excessive powers, is a great challenge for our not-quite-mature civil society. Normally, social stability is built on pluralism and democratic checks and balances and typically appears as a byproduct of the people’s satisfaction with its way of life, i.e., with the situation in the country and around it.

Instead, the new-old “national leader” will surely offer the society his self-made political gadgets, of which we already know such novelties as “ruling tandem,” as vague but ambitious All-Russian national front, as nontransparent and whimsical United Russia party (both may be substituted by some other contraptions specially invented to take their place).

In “tandem” or not, the pinnacle of power will stay rigid and stubborn. The whole work of bringing the society into motion and aiming it at constitutional reform and productive national consensus might have to be restarted from scratch.

Now let us look from another angle on the variant in which Comrade Zyuganov achieves relatively good election results. I fully realize that it is not a very ingenious idea — to trust Communists and their promises. Yet, let us look at the joint document which the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and youthful Left Front have issued in the course of the election campaign.

Uncharacteristically, it contains a firm promise to secure some basic changes originally demanded by parties of the “nonsystem” opposition — something quite new in the behavior of the Communists.

Among such changes figure: immediate release of political prisoners; radical revision of laws regulating elections and formation of parties; changes in the constitution that restricts the powers of the president and expands the powers of the parliament; free elections — in accordance with the new laws — of the Duma (not later than December 2012) and of the Federation Council of Russia (not later than 2013); shorter terms for the presidency and carrying out of presidential elections according to the new legislation; re-establishment of the people’s rights to call for a referendum.

As for Putin, he is stubbornly keeping silent concerning vital issues that form the focal point of public discussions, and this silence is rather eloquent.

According to logic, in this — really embarrassing — situation a considerable part of the electorate might decide to vote for any other candidate but Putin. This would effectively place Zyuganov, devoid of charisma but with his “anticapitalist’ slogans appealing to many in the elder generations, into the second round.

Should it really happen, there will be a two-week period between rounds for the opposition to try and make Putin at last take a stance concerning basic issues of political and social reform, as well as prevent or at least minimize the distortive influence of the infamous “administrative resource” on the final outcome of the elections.

Now, let us turn to extras in the big performance called the presidential elections. On the right side of the political spectrum we find my favorite in this race — billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a youngish super-tall businessman with a sportive bearing and a certain charisma. He is a deserving and, maybe, much promising candidate but a “lone wolf,” i.e., without a party of his own. Every week his ranking adds a new percent point of popular votes, but there is simply not enough time for him to gain proper backing.

The social democratic leader Sergey Mironov from the newfangled A Just Russia Party is well-known as a personal pal of Putin, and — as such — hardly has any reputation of his own yet. The party’s slogans are reasonable enough, and there is a niche in our political life for such a socially oriented movement. However, many people regard A Just Russia as one more “gadget” of the Kremlin aimed at stealing votes from Zyuganov. Such suspicions plus a lack of personal charisma leave Mironov with practically no chances to end up high in the polls.

As for Liberal-Democrat leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, he obviously likes the good life too much to undertake anything against Putin. To risk his position as a buffoonlike maverick at Russia’s political court seems for him too high a price to pay. In the course of debates he visibly got ever more aggressive, calling for an “iron hand” and tough repressions against political opponents. Cannot this be preparation of the crowd for the coming of a “bad Putin” — a variant that may be even worse than that of a “good Zyuganov.”

However, not a single one in this number — including the future president — inspire in the populace throughout the giant country such respect, love, even veneration as to naturally claim his place in the truly patriotic motto — “For our Faith, Czar and Fatherland!” Nowadays, I believe that it is exactly this centuries-old maxim that our people — starving for a consolidating and mobilizing idea — really needs.

To find such a living national symbol we had better look in a different direction — back to our glorious long-suffering dynasty. It is exactly this puzzling but attractive idea that I have been repeatedly trying to advocate in these pages.

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka from 1994 to 2007.

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