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Friday, Dec. 9, 2011
A test for Mr. Putin
Real men in Russia never get nervous. Or if they do, they do not show it. And if there is anything that he wants his public to believe, it is that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a real man. Still, the results of Sunday's parliamentary election must worry him.
His United Russia party was mauled in the polls. The strong man has been challenged and it is not clear how he will respond.
A measured response that tries to reconquer an angry and disaffected public could confirm his legacy as Russia's real post-Cold War leader. If he retreats to muscle-flexing and intimidation, he will likely be remembered as just another in the long history of Russian autocrats.
United Russia — a party in name, but in fact a political machine to consolidate support for Mr. Putin — went into the Sunday ballot holding 315 of the 450 seats in the lower house of the parliament, or Duma. Controlling more than two-thirds of the seats had given United Russia the power to change the constitution as it chose, allowing President Dmitry Medvedev and Mr. Putin to govern without challenge.
By many measures, they did well in governing Russia. The Russian economy expanded an average of 7 percent annually from 2000 to 2008 — a period when Mr. Putin was president. During that time, real wages rose 15 percent a year on average. Per capita GDP rose from $2,400 in 2000 to $12,000 in 2011.
That trajectory stopped when the global economy imploded; the Russian economy contracted 7.8 percent in 2009, but it resumed growth last year, expanding 4 percent. Mr. Putin wants to return to those earlier days, making annual growth of 6 to 7 percent and lifting per capita GDP to $35,000 — making Russia one of the biggest economies in the world — and creating 25 million "quality" jobs within 15 years.
Economists question whether that is possible. Russia is dependent on energy exports — it is the world's leading energy exporter — and the global economy's problems mean that consumption — and therefore prices — will remain low. Russia needs oil to earn $120 a barrel to balance the budget; it is currently $109 a barrel and prices are falling. Observers also worry that critical infrastructure is being slighted and production cannot be sustained even if there is demand. Among the explanations is capital flight, estimated to reach $80 billion this year.
The biggest problem is the atmosphere of lawlessness that pervades Russia. There is a sense that the rules are not applied equally and the critical determinant is a person's relationship with Mr. Putin. The man who took office determined to break the grip of the oligarchs is now tightly linked to a coterie of political favorites who control significant segments of the economy. The names have changed, but the impact is much the same.
Not surprisingly, the mood in Russia is dark. Voters increasingly believe the government is indifferent to them and their interests. One poll notes that 85 percent of Russians say that they have no control over politics. Forty-one percent say that their country is moving in the wrong direction and 54 percent think the elections will not change their lives for the better.
Mr. Putin deserves much of the blame. He identified Mr. Medvedev as his successor when he was constitutionally barred from running for president for a third time in 2008.
Then, there was speculation that Mr. Medvedev was a mere placeholder for Mr Putin until 2012 when he could run again. Sure enough, the two men announced weeks ago that they would switch offices — and had always intended to do so. Cynicism and a sense of helplessness seem fitting.
In this atmosphere, Sunday's results are no surprise. United Russia has won 238 seats, and that total is disputed. Tabulation took longer than anticipated, with opposition politicians claiming that the government manipulated the results to win a majority. Observers report ballot stuffing, abnormally high returns for United Russia in some districts, and one or two centers with more votes for the party than voters. Given the virtual suppression of media coverage of opposition parties in the runup to the ballot, the attempts to intimidate election monitors, and the effort to get state employees to support United Russia, this is anything but a "victory."
For all his shortcomings, Mr. Putin remains the most popular man in Russia and the favorite to win the presidential ballot in March. Many Russians — and many of them are in the security forces — believe that he is the only person strong enough to lead the country. But his image has been stained.
The writing was on the wall a few weeks ago, when he was booed by fans at a martial arts competition, the sort of event that should have been full of his supporters.
How will Mr. Putin react to the electoral rebuke? If he doubles down on tough talk and tries to govern by muscle alone, he will end up as the latest in a long line of Russian autocrats.
If, however, he tries to work with other parties, using his undeniable charm, and lives up to the promise — even if only rhetorical when first uttered — of building a better Russia, then he could go down in history as the man who genuinely consolidated democracy and put the country on the path to stability and revitalization.
Sadly, Mr. Putin seems to prefer the former course. He will have to fight his instincts, but Russia will be better for it.