Russian President Vladimir Putin has won a record fourth term in the elections held on March 18, 2018 with 74 percent of the vote. This is the preliminary official exit poll and the final figure could be higher. Predictably, the opposition has alleged incidents of ballot stuffing and fraud, but these have not found traction with the election authorities or the public. Apart from Putin, there were seven other candidates in the running, with his most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny, barred on legal grounds. The Kremlin had hoped for a high turnout to provide greater legitimacy to Putin’s victory as Russia is currently under attack from the west over allegations of responsibility for the poisoning by a nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain. This has coincided with fresh US sanctions over alleged Russian interference in the election of President Donald Trump.
Counting from 1999 when he became prime minister under then president Boris Yeltsin, Putin has been in power for two decades. During this period he has oscillated between the two top positions of prime minister and president, since the Russian Constitution does not allow more than two terms to a president. The current victory therefore will see Putin serve out his fourth term as president, punctuated by a middle stint as prime minister. Presidential terms were increased from four to six years in 2012. While the final outcome of the election was never in doubt given Putin’s 80 percent approval rating, the turnout amongst 107 million voters of 60 percent lends weight and legitimacy to his mandate till 2024. Putin will be 71 by then, and it is not beyond the imagination that thoughts of the transition and a successor is likely to exercise his mind and that of his colleagues to ensure the stability and restored sense of national pride he has presided over after the disastrous Yeltsin years prevails.
The west paints Putin as an autocrat presiding over a corrupt system dominated by his cronies. But the west’s own role in bringing about a brutal, unfettered loot sale of assets and wealth to the old communist party nomenklatura and a new breed of predatory emerging oligarchs under Yeltsin is glossed over, if it is mentioned at all. In fact, over the last two decades, it cannot be a coincidence that Putin’s actions against such oligarchs have aroused their hatred, political opposition, and open seeking of western support against him.
Russia is not a country that has evolved a democratic system a la the history of the west. It would be politic to remind ourselves of Russia’s modern history. The Czarist Empire extended over more contiguous territory than any other contemporary rival or country. Even after the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 into 15 countries, the remaining Russia is still the largest country by area in the world. The huge Czarist Empire expanded from Moscow from the sixteenth century to enfold through conquest not only its European part, but the huge expanse to the east running through Siberia all the way to the Pacific. It also succeeded in subjugating Central Asia and tying it firmly to its apron strings. This gave the Czarist Empire a unique character, not only in physical size but in the diversity of the peoples and nations in its fold. Virtually all religions could be found in its territories. Peoples and nations with diverse histories and stages of development lived there, all the way from pastoral nomads to aspiring capitalists and everything in between.
Capitalism developed late in the Czarist Empire, compared to western Europe and even the US (the latter could be considered an extension of the European system to the New World through settler colonialism). In fact feudalism thrived and lingered under the Czars, so much so that serfdom was not abolished until 1861. The reform effort of the nineteenth century, as often happens in hidebound, ossified systems (cf. the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century), began to feel the strains of the new forces being born in its womb colliding with the antediluvian hangovers of the past. One of the latter was the continuation of Czarist absolutism, supported on the pillars of the court nobility and feudal landowning class. However, within the womb of this medieval system were growing the seeds of the modern world, underpinned, albeit relatively weakly, by the green shoots of capitalism. Many attempts at overthrowing the Czarist system from within by rivals at the court, from without by a panoply of populists, anarchists, peasant revolutionaries and others produced great turmoil during the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. This culminated finally in first the February 1917 Revolution in the midst of WWI that overthrew the monarchy and declared a republic, later the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that ushered in communism.
Long after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) proclaimed by the Bolsheviks was established, went through the twists, turns, bloodshed of the civil war (1918-22), the revolution’s architect and leader Lenin’s passing away (1924), the penchant of all revolutions to consume their own children being played out under Stalin (1924-38), the initial defeat turned into triumphant victory over Hitler (1941-45), the devastating losses and privations of WWII rooted the desire for peace above all else in the hearts of the people of the USSR. That this desire gave rise to Khrushchev’s détente policies has to be located in that context, whatever one’s views about that thrust. Khrushchev did not survive the contradiction between détente and the aggressive Cold War anti-communism of the west led by the US. His successors, while clinging to the idea of a socialist world (largely the USSR and the Eastern European communist bloc), and not always consistent support to third world national liberation and revolutionary movements, imploded largely because the adventure in Afghanistan finally took its toll of the by now creaky system, which Gorbachev was trying to reform.
Communist old guard hardliners’ attempted coup against Gorbachev, who much later confessed to have been swayed towards social democracy, proved the last nail in the coffin of the USSR in 1991 and arguably the 20th century edifice of worldwide communist revolution. While the capitalist west exulted in its victory in the Cold War and dismantling of the original home of the communist revolution, they saw in Gorbachev’s successor Yeltsin the perfect buffoon allowing them to penetrate the Russian economy for capitalism’s benefit (as part of the horizontal expansion of capitalism worldwide, later dubbed globalisation). While the dismantling of the old system overnight produced hunger and even starvation, the new breed of oligarchs aligned with the west became Yeltsin’s abiding legacy.
Putin took over from Yeltsin when the west’s machinations and the legacy of the post-Soviet past had reduced Russia to its knees. He was soon to face the betrayal of then US President Ronald Reagan’s assurances to Gorbachev while asking the latter to dismantle the Berlin Wall that the west (NATO) would not expand eastwards into the former (now independent) territories of the USSR or Eastern Europe. Today, NATO’s expansion eastwards is a fact. Threatened in its ‘near abroad’ by a west ruthlessly committed to weakening and keeping Russia on its knees, Putin pushed back. Hence the best laid plans of the west vis-à-vis Georgia and Ukraine were blunted. During the engineered Ukraine crisis, Putin took back Crimea, gifted to Ukraine during Khrushchev’s period, much to the teeth gnashing of the west. Abroad, after the debacles in Iraq and Libya, Russia drew a line in the sand in Syria and helped beat back the western effort to remove one of the last anti-Israel bastions in the region.
Putin’s push back to the US-led west’s desire to consolidate a unipolar world under their hegemony is what has produced the vilification campaign, personal against Putin, general against a recovered Russia. With all the flaws that could be pointed to in Russia’s system today, the people love and have rallied to Putin for recovering for them their just place in the sun and in today’s increasingly complex and conflict-ridden world.