It's pretty obvious what's going to happen on March 4. But what about March 5?
After some initial speculation that Russia's presidential election could go to a runoff, a series of polls now show Vladimir Putin winning outright in the first round.
Moreover, according to press reports and electoral commission whistle-blowers
, the order has apparently gone out to secure an outright victory for Putin on March 4 at all costs.
And the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi announced
on February 21 that 20,000 of its activists will patrol Moscow's streets on election day to ensure that the opposition does not "destabilize the situation" or -- and this is the real point -- "cast doubts on the election results."
The authorities clearly don't want a repeat of December 4, when viral videos of carousel voting and other shenanigans fed the dominant narrative that vote rigging was rampant.
So the fix is in. Putin will win a six-year term in the Kremlin, a mandate to rule at least until 2018.
But what happens next?
Will the momentum of the protest movement continue on March 5 and thereafter?
Or will the urban professional classes that provided much of its energy, creativity, and -- most importantly -- legitimacy, go back to making money and enjoying their comfortable lives?
And even if the spirit of Bolotnaya Square lives on, will it be able to exert enough pressure on the authorities to transform this Decembrist Uprising into a real Moscow Spring?
The answer to this question, of course, depends on Putin and what he wants to do with his second stint in the Kremlin.
In an article in the daily "Kommersant
" on February 20, political analyst Gleb Cherkasov wrote that Putin regained his footing by playing up the "Orange threat" of a Western-sponsored colored revolution in Russia carried out by a spoilt and privileged urban elite.
This seems to be enough -- together with the Kremlin's considerable administrative resources -- to (barely) secure an electoral majority.
But, as Cherkasov points out, it is far from sufficient to secure him a working mandate or governing strategy:
The system of power [Putin] designed and installed in Russia in the first half of the 2000s developed defects long before the [December 4] parliamentary election as such. The end of the presidential campaign therefore in no way indicates an end of problems with the power vertical...
Once the election is over, these convenient opponents will disappear and Putin will be left with a bulky state machinery of questionable adequacy and the population longing for changes.
Yury Korgunyuk of the INDEM Foundation made a similar point in Gazeta.ru
A victorious Putin will be the target of growing public pressure...If the intelligentsia, business, and the bureaucracy have already grown sick and tired of him -- some sooner, others later -- then the profound disillusionment of the broad masses still lies ahead. His rating will fall, his charisma will fade, his political influence will shrivel. In such conditions the room for maneuvering is extremely limited: A step to the left or a step to the right risks the loss of power.
Korgunyuk, however, also strikes an optimistic note that real change could be coming. With a Putin victory on March 4, the protestors will certainly feel like they lost a battle.
But "lost revolutions," he notes, often "produce more benefits than victorious ones":
Suffice it to compare the outcomes of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The first ended in the granting of at least some kind of political freedoms to citizens and the establishment of at least some kind of parliament, to say nothing of the subsequent economic growth.
The second ended in civil war, famine, and a population turned into slaves of the state...What we should be afraid of is that all that has happened will turn out not to be the "start of a long road" but a chance fluctuation, a temporary explosion of emotion that will rapidly be replaced by the customary despondency.
How will the situation evolve under Putin? In a recent post on his blog, "In Moscow's Shadows,
" New York University professor and longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti lays out something of a blueprint.
Putin clearly wants former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who resigned in September, back on his team. But Kudrin's price is reportedly that he -- and not Dmitry Medvedev -- becomes prime minister and that the government pursues real economic and political reform.
Here's Mark's optimistic scenario:
Kudrin is personally close to Putin, but a technocrat rather than a silovik, more interested in modernization than statism. Unlike Medvedev, Kudrin has the stature, personal leeway and character to go nose-to-nose with Putin and demand a degree of control over policy...
Kudrin will want to modernize by economic liberalization, which will have powerful socioeconomic and thus political implications. It will lead to a drift of power away from the modern chinovniki, the bureaucrats of the state and security apparatuses, and towards the middle class.
This, of course, would meet fierce resistance from the siloviki wing of the elite as the security service veterans would lose a great deal of power in the event of real reform.
But things may have progressed to the point where there is no alternative.
-- Brian Whitmore