A great piece by Matthew Rojansky of Carnegie gets right down to the nub of the issue in Russia – if the protests force Putin to allow a more competitive political environment, does that necessarily mean the end of Putinism? Rojansky is sanguine about Putin’s ability to play on a level field, while I am not so sure he will have thick enough skin after such a long, easy ride.
Indeed, this is why many ordinary Russians who have come onto the streets in the past month are calling for more transparency and real competition. While some chant “Russia without Putin” and seek to bring down the system entirely, comments on Russian social networking sites suggest that the majority of protesters’ goals are more modest: free and fair elections, a chance for their voices to be heard, and an end to the endemic corruption that infects every stratum of Russian life and constrains the potential of its most dynamic citizens.
The present moment of political crisis for the Putinist system may therefore conceal a window of opportunity for Putin. If those who have been prepared in recent weeks to pour out their frustrations on the streets and online can be offered a real choice—an election without fraud or manipulation, and in which independent opposition candidates compete freely—many may nonetheless choose continuity of a reformed system over what is offered by the opposition. In that way, Putin could actually return to the Kremlin on a wave of greater legitimacy than Russia has seen since the early post-Soviet period.
And Putin can surely win a lot of swing voters by reminding them of his record, namely the reductions in crime and separatist violence, and the high economic growth rates for which he takes credit. With or without the so-called “administrative resource” tipping the scales in Putin’s favor, millions of Russians are likely to recognize in the privacy of the voting booth that they would rather have another six years like the last twelve than take a chance on any of the untested—and in some cases, downright dangerous—oppositionists who will stand against Putin. Putin’s promise of stability is not without costs, particularly in terms of widespread corruption, continued plundering by the ruling elites, and missed opportunities for the country as a whole. However, when evaluating the range of likely opposition candidates, Russians will see plenty to worry about as well.