Despite his recent setbacks, Vladimir Putin is likely to be returned to the Kremlin by the presidential election in March. The West will have to live with this result. But what sort of
Putin and his colleagues needed and expected two outcomes to the elections to the Russian parliament, the Duma, in December last year: a tolerable working majority for the government party, United Russia; and public acceptance of such a result. They got the first, even though United Russia did markedly worse than in 2007, but they got it by massive and publicly detected fraud, even coercion, and so failed to get the second.
The first demonstrations were comparatively small scale, and as such looked familiar to the authorities. But arrests, truncheons, and compliant judges sentencing selected victims were not enough. Tens of thousands came out to protest on
Putin's system has its own institutionalised pathology. Concentrating power at the centre must be a continuing and self-reinforcing process. As Putin has become accountable only to himself, so the rest of his "vertical of power" has been liberated from responsibility. The abuse of authority has become the norm for all levels of the Russian state, and the state machinery's ability to manage the country has declined in parallel.
The presidency of
Medvedev's abrupt announcement in September that Putin should be United Russia's preferred candidate for the presidency, plus Putin's proposal that his junior partner should take over the prime minister slot which he was vacating, highlighted the regime's preoccupation with itself, its arrogance, and its lack of strategic purpose beyond survival, so far as possible with its core group unchanged.
Both men have insisted that the Duma elections were properly managed, and that if there were violations, that they were minor, and that the perpetrators will be punished. They can hardly do otherwise, still less concede a re-run. They can take comfort from the fact that the tame non-government parties that have got seats in the new Duma are also reluctant to face the voters again. But that is not the end of it. The Duma which a re-elected President Putin must work with has little legitimacy, particularly if the votes returning him on
Putin and his supporters are right to say that those taking part in the demonstrations have no agreed programme beyond calling for a re-run of the December election, and no common leadership. But that is no reason to treat them with contempt, or to claim them as hired agents of a malevolent US. The regime ought instead to fear them, in the knowledge that they represent a considerable part of Russian society, whose alienation from the country's present rulers has increased over recent years, and will very likely continue to grow. These people and their sympathisers reject Putin - and despise Medvedev as a weakling. They are not calling for revolutionary change, but for their rulers to be accountable to Russian law.
Putin and his associates have made some pro forma response to their critics, but nothing to suggest that the next presidency will be any different from the past three. The structural changes that would allow
The next Putin presidency is more likely to prove reactionary at home and anti-Western abroad than reformist. Western policy-makers will have the consolation that that trajectory will be disputed in
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