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Although the victory of the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin in the 4 March presidential election is a foregone conclusion, the newly reinvigorated Russian opposition is determined to dent the strongman politician's invincible image by forcing him to enter a run-off election.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is by far the strongest candidate for the 4 March presidential election. However, he is facing his lowest approval ratings since he first came to power and must fight hard to win his third term in office.
There has been an unprecedented and surprise surge in the opposition to Putin, and this has already managed to rattle the prime minister's plans to return to the Kremlin for two consecutive terms. The vote on 7 March is a first step along the long road towards change.
Putin's election is a foregone conclusion, but it is unclear how he will react to ensuing opposition protests, and deal with problems of general social discontent at the pervasive corruption and polarisation of wealth in the country. Cosmetic or more significant, there will be some changes in Russian politics after the election. The depth of the reforms will depend on Putin and his allies' choices, as well the quality of opposition and their ability to maintain concerted and sustained pressure on Putin for the next six years.
Soured Taste of Victory
A Russian woman tries to remove an election poster from the wall of an apartment house in downtown Moscow, 2 March 2012.
When on 24 September 2011 the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev told delegates at the Congress of the ruling United Russia (ER) party of his plans to step aside and support Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the upcoming presidential election on 4 March, he effectively determined the outcome of the vote. Any lingering hopes among some Russian voters that Medvedev would spearhead a reform-minded political and business elite to stand against Putin were dashed. Since then there has been little doubt that Putin will return to the Kremlin for a third term. He has held the post between 2000–04 and 2004–08, and once back in office will stay for at least another six years thanks to changes made to the constitution during Medvedev's presidency.
Putin's past career as a member of the KGB, serving in East Berlin until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, often overshadows the fact that since 1994 he has held various government positions, first in his native city Saint Petersburg, often regarded as the cultural capital of Russia and with a more liberal-minded population, as well as top jobs under the reformist first president of independent Russia, Boris Yeltsin. In 1997, Putin also defended his doctoral dissertation in economics, called "Strategic Planning of Regional Resources under the Formation of Market Relations". He rose up the ranks of the Russian government under Yeltsin, first taking the post of deputy-chief of the presidential staff, then becoming the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB)—one of the successor agencies to the KGB—before he landed the post of prime minister in 1999. From there, his fate took another turn when on 31 December 1999 then-president Yeltsin decided to resign and appointed Putin as an interim president. In March 2000, he was elected for his first term to become one of the longest standing leaders in modern Russian history. In 2008, he decided not to tinker with the constitution—which forbids more than two consecutive terms in the presidency—and took the prime minister's post, installing Medvedev in his post in expectation of bidding for a third term when constitutionally permitted. But time was not wasted during his premiership: the constitution was changed to extend the presidential term from four to six years, and Putin effectively remained leader of the country during Medvedev's brief presidency, with no significant break in the continuity of his policies since 2000.
In September 2011, after Putin ended the protracted speculation surrounding his plans regarding the presidency, the question was whether or not he would stay in power for two terms—or 12 years—until 2024, when he will be 72. Putin's statements suggested that he would. He was confident that his popularity would mean that this would be welcomed by the majority of Russians. He and the ruling ER party were so confident that they did paid little attention to launching a pre-election campaign for the 4 December 2011 legislative election. This was because the true, or the so-called "non-systemic", opposition has been weak and marginalised, while those that are part of the system—Communists, Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia—appeared to be easily controlled under the "managed democracy" framework that Putin has been perfecting for the past decade.
However, ER secured only 49% of votes cast, despite the huge administrative resources at their disposal. This was a serious blow to Putin's credibility, who hastily tried to distance himself from the party. But the situation worsened with the outbreak of anti-government protests that were of the most dangerous type—popular and spontaneous, with no particular political affiliation, but united in terms of resentment towards Putin. The Russian leader had underestimated the impact of the job swap on the Russian electorate, many of whom were offended by the crude nature of the arrangement, while those who believed in Medvedev felt misled and part of a larger scheme by Putin to hold on to power.
But despite the impressive opposition protests and emergence of new political leaders, Putin remains firmly on course to win the election—the key question is whether it will be in the first or second round. For a politician who has been in the driving seat for the last 11 years, whether an election is won in the first or second round should not be of great significance. For Putin, however, the issue is not one simply of pride, but more of legitimacy; a second-round victory would not be good enough.
This question of legitimacy is crucial for Putin. Since coming to power in 2000 he has seen his popularity rise each year, projecting his image as a defender of common Russians, a good nationalist bringing law and order and reining in the unpopular oligarchs—business tycoons who made their money after the breakup of the Soviet Union. As luck would have it, without the need for any major reforms Putin could claim credit for improving Russians' living standards thanks to record-high energy prices, a great boon for Russia as the world's largest energy exporter. His assertive foreign policy, too, has appealed to Russians displeased with what they see as the West's condescending attitude towards their country. Maintaining this overwhelming popularity has been essential for Putin to rein in those oligarchs that could pose a political challenge to him, as typified by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well as business tycoons like Boris Berezovsky and others. But his popular mandate also gave him a free hand to centralise political power in his own hands, scrapping direct elections of regional governors.
After December 2011, the Russian political landscape has been changing. Putin has already indicated that he is not sure if he will bid for a second presidential term in 2018 in an apparent recognition of the changing tide. The Russia that he is returning to rule is changing, perhaps far too slowly for the liking of many demonstrators impatient for change, but it is clear that any victory in March 2012 will not be as glorious for Putin as in 2008 at the height of his popularity.
Vladimir Putin's Opposition
The opposition facing Putin in the March race is weak, increasing his chances of victory. Lack of credible choice as well as fears shared by many Russians of trading known, if flawed, stability for untested change are also helping Putin. He is keen to convince voters that, despite all his faults, he is the best choice they have for now.
The 67-year-old leader of Russia's Communist Party (KPRF), founded by Vladimir Lenin almost 100 years ago, will try for the last time to challenge a stronger presidential candidate. His party came second in the parliamentary election in December 2011 by securing 19.9% of the total votes. According to the opinion polls Zhuganov could take up to 15%. His pre-election platform advocating fair distribution of energy-generated wealth and a tough law-and-order stance remains appealing, mainly to those from the older generation who are disappointed with Putin. He can also attract the "no-Putin" vote among those who are ready to give their ballot to anyone but Putin.
Much like Zhuganov, Zhirinovsky is also having his last attempt at the presidency. The 65-year-old former military man is the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) which, despite its name, is a right-wing nationalist party. According to a Levada opinion survey, he could garner up to 8% of the total vote. Zhirinovsky has capitalised on the rising nationalist vote, which is slowly turning away from Putin. His party won 11.6% of votes in the December parliamentary election, a significant improvement on previous elections. Zhirinovsky's political platform is patchy and populist, ranging from prosecution of oligarchs to ousting the US from the UN.
A late-comer to the political scene, the 46-year-old independent candidate, who is also the third wealthiest man in Russia, is only starting to exercise his muscle in politics. He has a fresh approach to Russia's problems, and this approach appears to be more Western than Russian in style. His pledge to build a business environment more conducive to boosting the economy is appealing to many young professional voters in urban areas. But his wealth is also a liability for his campaign, as many Russian voters consider him to be part of a system that gave rise to oligarchs at the expense of ordinary Russian citizens in the 1990s. Hence, they also doubt the credibility of his claim to be a genuinely independent politician who is ready to challenge Putin, given the potential for his business interests to be lost as occurred with other oligarchs with political ambitions. That said, Prokhorov appears to be less concerned with the results in this election and is aiming for a long-term political career based more on finding a mutually acceptable deal with all stakeholders rather than more radical revolutionary tactics. The opinion polls give him only 6% of the total vote.
The leader of A Just Russia party is likely to win around 5% of the votes, if not less, as many Russian voters do not see him as a leader of an independent party, but a prime example of a quasi-opposition force created and controlled by Putin under the "managed democracy". Should there be a second round he is likely to support Putin, as his party has done in parliament previously.
No representative of the liberal opposition managed to register their candidacy, as the authorities feared that this could sway votes and complicate Putin's hoped for first-round victory. Nevertheless, had the liberal Yabloko party's Grigory Yavlinsky been allowed to run he would be unlikely to gain as many votes as the Communists. This is because the liberals in many parts of Russia are still associated with the chaos of the 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and voters remain largely sceptical of their reform plans. The liberals have shunned all important regions for many years, instead centering their efforts on the capital Moscow and second largest city of St. Petersburg.
Outlook and Implications
While opinion polls following December's mass protests showed Putin's popularity sinking to as low as 37%, the main contender has now rebounded. Russia's most influential independent polling agency, the Levada Center, conducted a survey over 17–20 February that found 66% of those who will take part in the election will vote for Putin.
Putin's campaign has been better managed, with a more conciliatory tone adopted instead the customary denial and dismissal of opposition criticisms. Coming close to co-opting the opposition's campaign themes, Putin has encapsulated his vision for Russia in a series of tracts published in national newspapers, where he admits the shortfalls under his regime and pledges change. They cover a wide range of issues, including economic modernisation and social justice, foreign policy and military issues, nationalism and democratic reforms.
These pledges to reform can be divided into those that are likely to take place, and those that will not. Most significant are the pledge for more social and military spending. Pensions and salaries need to be increased to support families with many children, as well as those immigrants lured to the country to reverse the dangerous trend of demographic decline. The social spending plans will cost about USD30 billion over the next six years. The military is due to receive 23 trillion roubles (USD790 billion) until 2020 to complete the overhaul of the army, and particularly to boost the strategic defence capabilities of Russia in the light of a potentially protracted standoff with the US over the latter's missile-defence shield being built in Eastern Europe and Turkey. Unlike many economists, Putin believes that the Russian economy can afford to pay this price. Although he claims that taxes will not increase, it is highly unlikely that the government will be able to resist this temptation, especially given the importance of public spending for Putin's popularity. Less likely to come to fruition are Putin's other pledges: to improve transparency, build strong democratic institutions, boost social mobility, and to create a 10-million strong professional elite and an independent judiciary. These are problems at the heart of the Russian state. Unpicking them may lead to greater instability for Putin, while the opposition appears to have no clear action plan as to how to effect change and ensure that reforms last.
Securing a first-round victory would provide Putin with the political currency he needs to avoid a serious overhaul of the system—he will try to get away with only cosmetic changes for as long as he can. Should the vote go to a second round, Putin will be forced to be more responsive to the calls for change. In either case, Russia is entering a phase of change.