Amid deafening chants and thunderous applause, United Russia this weekend formally -- and unanimously -- nominated Vladimir Putin for a third term as president. The once-and-future national leader was, of course, in rare form, taunting the opposition, warning the West against trying to influence the elections, and announcing some populist initiatives.
But as several commentators have pointed out, this time the bluster carried a whiff of desperation. The ruling party's numbers are clearly falling precipitously, as are the tandem's -- albeit less so. Civil society is waking up from its long slumber and the opposition is getting increasingly surly.
That said, the Kremlin has more than sufficient resources -- administrative and otherwise -- to assure a victory for United Russia in the December 4 State Duma elections and for Putin in the presidential vote in March. (For anybody interested, "Vedomosti" had a fascinating piece recently about the mechanics of fixing elections in Russia.)
But then what? True, the authorities will have secured the formal legal basis to keep Putin and the current elite in power at least through 2018 -- if not 2024. But will they truly have a mandate?
An recent editorial in Gazeta.ru says no:
Moreover, in the coming year, Russia's rulers will need to make some very unpopular moves -- most notably, reforming the country's social services, pension fund, and health-care system. Money will need to be found to upgrade Russia's creaking infrastructure. A way to diversify the economy away from its perilous dependence on commodities will need to be found.
Tough decisions will need to be made, but, as Gazeta.ru points out, there is thus far no indication that Putin or anybody else is ready to talk to the electorate about these things:
It is indicative that although the regional leaders and pro-power politicians evaluated Putin's speech at the congress as a program speech, not a single fresh idea was heard in it. General talk about justice, promises to raise taxes on the wealthy and ease the tax burden for small business (the regime has for 10 years done the exact opposite), and empty propaganda cliches as far as the traditional charge against some foreign states of attempts to influence the outcome of elections in the Russian Federation. The problem is that even these abstract promises are being made by a politician who has been ruling the country for more than 10 years now, has practically wiped out any opposition, and, in addition, spent his first two presidential terms under uniquely favorable conditions for Russia of the constant growth of the world prices of energy sources. Putin's speech not at the congress but shortly before it--at the final full sitting of the outgoing Duma--sounded particularly amusing in this respect. This speech contained two main propositions: first, United Russia handled the crisis splendidly, second, a new crisis, which none but the present regime can handle, is impending. The second proposition is directly refuted by the first.
The one person who was willing to talk about the difficult choices facing Russia's rulers, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, is now out of government.
So while the Kremlin tends to use elections as a legitimizing ritual, this time around elections -- regardless of the results -- are unlikely to provide the authorities with the legitimacy to govern effectively in the current economic and political climate.
In an insightful piece in Gazeta.ru last week, Grigory Golosov, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, asks a useful question. Where Russia's current rulers derive their legitimacy to govern?
So, if it's not elections, what then is the source of Putin's legitimacy?
The term 'unique effectiveness,' however, presupposes not only the ability to handle problems, but also the assumption that someone else would handle them less successfully than the current regime. That claim has not been refuted yet. The majority of our citizens believe there is no alternative because they do not see any alternatives.
And the only alternative people have to compare the current elite is the erratic presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the chaotic 1990s. And as Golosov points out, the regime has made the narrative that Putin and his team rescued Russia from this modern "time of troubles" -- when the Kremlin was the plaything of scheming oligarchs who pillaged Russia's wealth -- part of its legitimizing myth:
But what will happen to this veneer of "unique effectiveness" when the Kremlin is faced with the budget crunch Kudrin says will come next year and lacks the popular mandate to address it? Running against the bad old '90s, the oligarchs, and the chaos worked fine for the past decade. But for many Russians, particularly the younger generation, the wild Yeltsin years are a distant -- and fading -- memory.
-- Brian Whitmore