Don’t Write off Putin Just Yet
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Western criticism of the results of the December 4 parliamentary elections in Russia is not surprising. The West’s fued with Russia’s democracy goes back to Putin’s ascendancy to power in 2000. It is Russia’s veering away under him from global standards of democracy set up by the West that has spawned acrimony between it and the US all these years.

For the US, Russia had to irresistably move towards a western style free market democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe the US felt that the truimph of the West in the Cold War had to be sealed by Russia becoming a clone of western style democracies. Only if that happened would Russia become truly European and cease to be once again in the future, when it recovered from the wounds of dismemberment, a threat to Europe.


Putin thwarted this calculus. He set about restoring the authority of the Russian state and wresting control over the country’s national assets from the grip of the oligarchs. The political and economic excesses of the Yeltsin years had to be undone. Putin was the man of the moment with the mental muscle and rigour that his KGB background gave him. Ever since, the West has looked at Putin with feelings ranging from reserve to distaste.

The US has had a problem wielding the whip of democracy against Putin because of the high rates of public approval that he has consistently enjoyed in his own country. How do you tarnish the image of a leader within his own country for his supposedly anti-democratic character when he appeals to the masses for his achievements?

Putin did two terms as President, after which, in order not to violate the Constitution, and unwilling to revise it to suit his personal ambitions, he stepped down but, surprisingly, became Prime Minister. He may have been prompted by a desire to maintain stability at the top, complete the process of rebuilding a traumatized country, oversee the consolidation of his legacy, or simply to preserve power in the hands of a closed coterie. The decision was technically admissible but it sat ill at ease with democratic norms.

Putin’s Prime Ministership has coincided largely with the global economic crisis that has affected Russia severely. From negative growth Russia has now moved into positive growth, but the declared agenda of eliminating corruption, reforming the justice system, galvanizing the bureaucracy, encouraging entrepreneurship, modernizing the industrial base of the country, promoting advanced technology and innovation has lagged.

Putin has tried to appeal to the young in particular with his sporty, outdoor, bare-chested, horse-riding, fishing, sea-diving, motor cycling and formula car driving image. No doubt many young Russians adulate Putin but many are left unaffected and their worry is the frustrating realities of corruption and the diffficulties in realizing their aspirations within the system. Beyond that there are the diehard opponents of Putin who resent his supposed suppression of dissent and media freedoms, the economic model of state control over the economy he favours and his disregard for the principles of the market economy. They are always in the forefront of demonstrations which then get extensive coverage by the foreign media, strenghtening negative perceptions about the state of freedoms in Russia.

Putin’s announcement of his candidature for the Presidential elections in March next year with the revelation of the compact he made with Medvedev four years ago that they would swap places in 2012 might have seemed reassuring to those who would want the same tandem of a conservative security oriented ex-KGB figure and a more modern minded lawyer with stronger reforming instincts to continue at the helm. To others it may have seemed closed door political arrangements made without informing the public and without allowing it to excercise a choice.


Which is why the elections to the Duma would have been seen by some as carrying the extra significance of reflecting the standing of Putin personally with the electorate at this juncture. One has to make a distinction, however, between the choices people make in parliamentary and presidential elections. We have seen in the US and France the electorate voting to the parliament/Congress one political party but electing to the Presidency a leader from an opposing one.

So, if in the Duma election the tally of votes of United Russia, the ruling party, has come down to just under 50% (238 seats in a house of 450) from 64%, does it accurately reflect the degree of erosion of Putin’s personal popularity? His popularity may indeed have dipped after almost 12 years in power, as some opinion polls indicate. In western and other democracies too leaders have fluctuating public rates of approval. If this is normal elsewhere it should be viewed as normal in Russia too, and not construed as some kind of a special moral censure of Putin’s leadership.

The robust showing of the Communist Party (19.6% of the vote with 92 seats), which now is the principal opposition party, would indicate a growing sense of alienation in sections of the society. In part this could be a protest vote to ventilate frustration with the system, the inequalities that exist and the brashness of the wealthy, though these social features have blotted the Russian society all these years without benefitting the Communists electorally. The party that calls itself “A Just Russia” (13.22% of the votes with 64 seats), whose political plank is the establishment of a welfare state was at its inception seen as a manoeuvre by the regime to create a new party to cover a particular political spectrum with a view to cutting into communist vote would presumably under its new Chairman Nikolai Levichev assert its own political personality. The Liberal Democratic Party (11.6% and 56 seats) with its nationalist and law and order focus has improved its tally over the previous election. All in all, the new Duma is more “democratic” in character, in the sense of representing a different balance of political forces within the parliament at the cost of the ruling party.

Accusations of electoral fraud and ballot rigging have been made by opposition parties, with public protest rallies in Moscow, St. Petersburg and some other cities. The government has reacted sensibly in allowing a relatively big protest meeting in Moscow on December 10 and has agreed to investigate the charges.


After the so-called Arab Spring phenomenon governments everywhere are afraid of suppressing street protests lest they burgeon out of control. Both Putin and Medvedev concede that the electoral results reflect accurately the public mood.

Hillary Clinton’s swipe at the Russian election supposedly tainted by rigging would seem needlessly provocative. When it comes to such internal matters of major international actors whose partnership is essential for the management of international relations, the US should resist the temptation to act as the world’s democratic conscience. It is not wise to pronounce on defective elections in one country and be silent on a total absence of elections or staged changes of leadership in other countries. Predictably Putin has reacted sharply to Clinton’s criticism.

The litmus test for a free election in Russia should not be the defeat of Putin or the ruling party!

Published in Mail Today, 13th December 2011

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
2 + 3 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us