Two signs that appeared at last week's mass rally in support of Vladimir Putin tell the story of the once-and-future president's strength going into the March 4 election -- and his likely weakness after it.
"We stand with Putin. We stand for stability," read one sign.
"We stand for Putin. We stand for change," read another.
Putin certainly appears to have regained his mojo of late -- just in time to secure a first-round victory this weekend, avoiding an embarrassing and potentially unpredictable runoff. A poll released last week by the independent Levada Center, which mirrors recent polls by state-run agencies, shows him taking 66 percent of the vote.
But as political analyst Nikolai Zlobin (whose keen eye flagged those conflicting signs at the Luzhniki Stadium rally) writes in today's edition of the daily "Vedomosti
," by presenting himself as a "nonideological candidate," Putin has been able "to recruit voters from various social groups and strata, people with often different political views."
Some see him as the lesser evil of the five candidates running. Some see him as the only figure strong enough to reform and modernize Russia without it descending into chaos. And some hope he will revive the tough autocratic system that marked his first stint in the Kremlin:
Putin's image these days is such that people see in him exactly what they want to see. Putin does traditionally symbolize stability for some. Others regard him as a guarantor of the forthcoming changes...
Some supporters regard Putin as a Russian nationalist of the European type; others perceive him as a protector against Russian chauvinism; and so on. In other words, Putin's voters pin absolutely different, sometimes conflicting hopes on his forthcoming reign. This is his asset at this point, which might turn into a liability overnight.
Zlobin adds that it would be incorrect to even call those who plan to vote for Putin on March 4 his followers or supporters. "These people are his fans," Zlobin writes.
And fans, as any washed-up rock star will tell you, can be mighty demanding and fickle. When everybody thinks they have their own personal Putin who represents their hopes, values, and aspirations, many are going to be deeply disappointed.
In a blog post on Snob.ru
on February 13, Zlobin speculated on the consequences:
Upon achieving victory at the election, Putin will be faced with an inevitable split of his electorate, some part of which will be highly disappointed with his actions. Eighteen to 24 months into his term, President Putin will have to face the fact that a large chunk of his former supporters might take the side of his current and/or future opponents, while simultaneously his current opponents could start turning into his supporters.
The question remains: Which part of his electorate will turn against him? The "conservatives" or the "reformers"? And who from the ranks of his adversaries -- communists, democrats, liberals, nationalists, etc. -- will join his camp? All of this depends solely on Putin's actions and decisions within the first two years of his term. However, even he doesn't yet know which path to choose. Hence, he can address his phrase -- "I am your guarantor" -- at any of the numerous political and social groups with equal sincerity.
We are witnessing the death throes of what Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's former uber-spinmeister, used to call the "Putin majority" -- that once-sturdy coalition of middle-class and working-class voters who had little in common other than that they craved stability after the chaos of the 1990s.
That majority was bound to fracture once Russia became stable and prosperous and its electorate became more differentiated, sophisticated, and demanding.
"Putin's social basis is weak," Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in "Vedomosti
" on February 22. "Once he lost the middle class, initially the foundation of his might, Putin stopped being the national leader. The middle class's departure left Putin with an electorate of questionable quality, with 'mercenaries' whose support has to be bought -- literally."
He appears to have cobbled together an electoral coalition that should get him through this weekend's vote. But will he be able to build a new Putin majority afterward? What kind of majority will it be? And what are the implications if he fails?
This story is clearly not ending on March 4. In fact, it will just be beginning.
-- Brian Whitmore