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International Affairs Editor

Putin confronts a changed Russia

Le 01-03-2012

Less than two weeks to go now to Russia’s presidential election and no prizes for guessing who is going to win. But things are changing in Russia and Vladimir Putin is not having everything his way. Some opinion polls suggest he may have trouble winning in the first round – and he’s clearly struggling to cope with a growing tide of unaccustomed public criticism.

Has the mounting criticism come as a shock to Putin?

Certainly, I would say he’s shocked and confused. He doesn’t know quite how to cope with it – should he hit back or should he ignore it? If he hits back, how should he hit back?

Putin’s problem is that he started out treating the election more like a coronation than a contest. He has discovered that Russia is changing. The middle class is coming of age. These are educated, intelligent, modestly wealthy people who are used to taking decisions and being listened to.

Putin is still locked in what he calls the “vertical of power” – top-down governance with only the appearance of democracy. Elections, yes, but managed elections.

The way he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have tried to arrange the handover of power has enraged a large part of the population. The genie is out of the bottle and Putin can’t put it back.

But is he still going to win the election?

For sure, but he may struggle to do so in the first round. When he announced his decision to run for president this is not a possibility he considered. Yet, this week, an independent polling institute said he would get 48% in the first round. Ok, that will still give him a healthy platform for victory but it’s still a humiliation for him.

You also have to bear in mind the quality of the candidates standing against him. Two of them are the same losers who have stood and failed in every election since the mid-90s – Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Neither of the other two is likely to get more than five or six per cent of the vote.

So part of the opposition’s problem is that it has no real leaders?

That’s partly true. There are outstanding figures in the opposition but they are often divisive, like the anti-corruption figure, Alexey Navalny. The opposition hasn’t united because it represents too broad a swathe of interests and ideologies. Where they are united is in their opposition to the graft, arrogance and corruption of the present government.

But the Putin/Medvedev tandem has also done its utmost to exclude potentially popular figures from the race.

What if Putin does win in the first round? What sort of reaction can we expect?

This is a bit of a dilemma for the Putin team. They don’t want the humiliation of a second round but know that it would give the ballot more credibility. Putin’s probable opponent in a second round would be the communist party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, a dull, Soviet-era apparatchik who couldn’t even beat Boris Yeltsin when he was in deep alcoholic decline. Putin would wipe the floor with him. And if he does win in the first round, many will accuse him of fixing the result.

So has Putin been hard on the campaign trail?

Not really. He wants to be seen to be above the fray, so he has refused to debate with his political opponents but he has published a series of policy papers, which suggest that Putin’s recipe for future success is ‘more of the same’. He is emphasising how much more stable Russia is today after more than a decade of Putin-power. He is shown on television touring the country, visiting factories and polishing his action-man image on the Olympic bobsleigh runs of Sochi.

This week, he burnished his military credentials by vowing to nearly double defence spending by 2020. This is all familiar territory for Putin, who revels in opportunities to indulge in Cold War-style drum-beating. Russia, he says, needs a stronger military to protect it from foreign attempts to stoke up conflict around its borders.

But for the first time serious questions are being asked about his ability to deliver. The doubts are growing. How can Russia deliver on these defence promises when the military-industrial complex is in such poor shape? Where is the money going to come from when he is also promising to raise social spending and modernise Russia’s rapidly crumbling infrastructure? In his previous presidential terms, Putin was never really answerable to the Russian people. This time round, he may find that has changed.