- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s landslide re-election, many commentators and government officials offered scathing indictments of electoral irregularities, and some even pronounced Russian democracy dead. While no doubt well-deserved, these criticisms deflected our attention from the results of the election, which were entirely consistent with the tremendous public support for Mr. Putin reflected in numerous polls throughout the past two years. Mr. Putin’s sustained approval rating of 70 percent may not point to a mandate for every policy the Russian president has enacted, but we owe it to Russia’s voters to try and make sense of Mr. Putin’s landslide victory. What follows is not intended in any way as a defense of Mr. Putin or the tactics used by the Kremlin to ensure his landslide victory. It is, however, intended as a defense of the sentiments and voices of the most important actors in Russian politics: the Russian people.

For starters, it is worth noting that many of the irregularities that marred the elections were geared not toward ensuring Mr. Putin’s victory, but toward ensuring sufficient turnout to make the election results valid. This reflected a very real fear that voters may not bother to cast their ballots given that Mr. Putin held such a commanding lead in pre-election polls. This was hardly an unreasonable fear given that lower turnout tends to be the rule in established democracies where the likely victor is already known. In the 1996 U.S. presidential elections, with Bill Clinton poised to win a significant victory, voter turnout was the lowest it had been over the past two decades, with less than 50 percent of the voting-age population turning out to vote in as many as 25 states.

In the 2004 Russian elections, even as we criticize the Kremlin’s heavy-handed tactics and administrative bullying, we need to direct at least part of the blame at the requirement, stipulated by the Russian Constitution, of a 50 percent turnout for a valid election. (Ironically, the constitution itself was “ratified” in 1993 by just 58 percent of the voters in an election with just 55 percent turnout, that is, by a quite small minority of all eligible voters.)

What this suggests is that, alongside the necessary criticism of the inappropriate or unlawful measures taken by the Kremlin to ensure the outcome, we need to devote serious attention to deciphering Russian voting behavior within the context of broader trends in Russian politics and society. In this regard, one frequently overlooked fact in our coverage of the elections is that the second- and third-place finishers, accounting for nearly a fifth of the total vote, were not liberals but rather candidates from, or previously associated with, the Communist Party (KPRF).

Also worth noting is that these candidates, while criticizing Mr. Putin on specific points, based a good part of their own appeal on themes that Mr. Putin himself has been publicly embracing for quite some time: a strong, effective state capable of maintaining public order, further economic growth tempered by concern for social justice, checks on the political and economic influence of the oligarchs, and a more independent and assertive posture in the political arena. The Communist Party chief even said as much, complaining bitterly that the arrests of oligarchs linked to Yukos Oil last year were part of an effort by the Kremlin to steal his own party’s platform.

The point is this: Anyone presuming to lecture Russians on democracy should do so with the full awareness that a more open democracy would still have revealed tremendous support for the agenda embraced by Mr. Putin, and the most viable alternatives to him would have been candidates embracing a left-of-center agenda rather than a liberal one. Although liberal parties and politicians have never enjoyed significant support in post-Soviet Russia, we need to appreciate that the resilience of Mr. Putin’s popularity and the lingering support for leftists may be indicative of a profound disillusionment with the Western-style liberalism embraced by Boris Yeltsin and the first generation of post-Soviet reformers.

These leaders essentially attempted to carry out a revolutionary transformation from above, paying far more attention to foreign advisers and international financial institutions than to the needs or expectations of an anxious populace standing upon a ground that was rapidly shifting under it. In the process, a new political and economic elite, even smaller and more disconnected from the masses than the Soviet nomenklatura elite, effectively seized control of an ever-increasing share of national wealth, while leaving an ever-increasing number of people to struggle with uncertainty and poverty in a country that enjoyed little influence or respect in the international arena. In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that the “median Russian voter” is now less enthralled with the promise of liberal reforms and has gravitated toward Mr. Putin’s seductive message of public order, material security, social justice and a strong state capable of commanding international respect.

In the longer term, the appeal of such a message will depend on whether it is actually backed up by concrete measures. If it is not, no amount of media manipulation or administrative bullying will be enough to sustain Mr. Putin’s public appeal. One need only look at how Mr. Yeltsin’s popularity plummeted just three years after his landslide re-election in 1996 (which also was marked by an uneven playing field and numerous irregularities). In the meantime, if most Russians wish to embrace Mr. Putin as a symbol of deliverance from the clutches of ineffective institutions and corrupt oligarchs, our first priority should not be to offer sermons about democracy but to try and understand why most Russians have come to feel the way they do.

Rudra Sil is an associate professor, who teaches Russian and comparative politics, at the University of Pennsylvania.

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