Russians have not discovered that there are better things than turnips
By all accounts the Russian presidential elections, scheduled for March 18 to April 1, will be a one-horse race. The winner will be the incumbent, President Vladimir Putin, who apparently enjoys an 80% approval rating and is running against a batch of no-hopers who have been allowed by the Kremlin to participate to make a phony election appear "democratic".
Though Putin might get up to 90% of the vote, the playing field is anything but level. Most opposition and critical media have been neutralised by Kremlin fiat, and public street protest has been criminalised.
His strongest rival, Alexei Navalny, is prevented from running, having been found guilty of trumped-up criminal charges.
Even so, everything may not go Putin’s way. The Kremlin fears that the election turnout could be the lowest yet. Navalny is pushing for an election boycott, in effect an opposition protest vote. As a Moscow paper put it: "Putin’s real opposition is a collective shrug." Surveys by the independent Levada Centre have predicted a turnout of 52%-54%, and the St Petersburg Politics Foundation estimates the turnout in Moscow and St Petersburg will be well below 40%.
A low percentage would be a disaster for Putin and all stops are out in the Kremlin to avoid an embarrassment.
For democratic observers the logic behind Putin’s paranoia about the opposition is difficult to understand, given his popularity. Knowing that Russia is a country prone to dramatic change — as the tsars and the Bolsheviks experienced before him — he leaves nothing to chance. He might also be wary about the sustainability of the artificial political "greenhouse" environment he has created in Russia.
Navalny mockingly described him not as a despot or tyrant but as a turnip. "Putin’s notorious rating of 86% exists in a political vacuum. If the only thing you have been fed all your life is a turnip, you are likely to rate it as highly edible. We have come to this vacuum with an obvious message: there are better things than turnips."
Trying to understand Russian politics through the prism of western political thinking is never easy. Winston Churchill remarked that trying to assess power struggles in the Kremlin is like "watching bulldogs fighting under a carpet"! The outcome of this misapprehension is that after about two decades of failure to dictate Russian politics, the West still underestimates Putin’s acumen as a politician and diplomat, as well as Russia’s growing importance as a world player.
Much of Putin’s success is because he rules like a Russian ruler is expected to rule. His role perception is attuned to the Russian ethos and political culture, with zero-sum (authoritarian) politics simply part of his Russian/Slavonic DNA. He gives Russians what they are used to and what they want: "a strong hand" and national pride. Western criticism and sanctions only serve to alienate Russia further from the West, adding grist to Putin’s mill as his popularity is mainly a derivative of "the threat from the West".
Putinism is, to a large extent, a result of inept western diplomacy towards Russia since 1991. It kept a pro-West Russia (at the time of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency) at arm’s length, ignored its vital national interests and failed to assist the struggling new country to find its feet in its hour of need. Finding the "enemy" in the West, Putin had his role cut out. The perennially insecure Russian nation saw in him a defender of the Rodina (motherland) and the leader who would restore "Russian pride and greatness".
They saw the West as obstructing Russian security, wanting to keep the country weak and compliant, and isolating it by the expansion of Nato (in spite of promises to the contrary) and the EU, and applying punitive sanctions when Russia asserted itself in its "near abroad". The West seems to refuse to come to terms with the fact that Putin is a successful and admired leader in the eyes of most Russians, enjoying sycophantic adoration from some of them.
Measured against his political, economic and diplomatic achievements, Putin’s successes are undisputable
Ultra right-wing Alexander Dugin, a professor at Moscow State University, swooned: "There are no more opponents to the Putin course, and if there are any, they are ill and in need of psychiatric treatment. Putin is everywhere, Putin is everything, Putin is absolute and Putin is irreplaceable."
Orthodox Patriarch Kyril called Putin a "miracle of God for Russia". For the siloviki (Russian military-security establishment), according to The Economist, it boils down to: "No Putin — no Russia. His former colleagues — the Committee of State Security — are his guardians, servants and priests, and entitled to its riches. Theirs is not a job, but an elite and hereditary calling."
On the other hand, former president Mikhail Gorbachev has also weighed in, stating: "Putin thinks himself as second only to God." But as former US president Ronald Reagan once remarked, "One cannot argue against success."
Measured against his political, economic and diplomatic achievements, Putin’s successes are undisputable. His foreign policy achievements in Georgia, Crimea and Syria, in the eyes of most Russians and even further afield, afford him the status of the unassailable statesman and diplomat. On the domestic front, Putin has seen off daunting challenges.
In 2014, when the oil price crashed and western economic sanctions on Russian banks, energy firms and the defence sector were imposed, many in the West believed (and hoped) that Putin’s hold on power would dissipate. It did not happen. Macroeconomic stability was achieved as the Russian economy stabilised, low inflation was achieved, the budget is now nearly balanced, and popular discontent prevented by low unemployment and steady pensions.
However, all the good things seldom happen together. As Putin enters his final six years at the helm his leadership will come under greater stress, especially from new-generation Russians. With no obvious foreign policy adventures to buoy his domestic popularity in the offing, Kremlin hopefuls starting an inevitable succession battle, and popular street resistance getting more traction, his hold on absolute power may wither. What is important though is that a resurgent Russia will endure, even after Putin, and the West must take note of this reality. Whatever the difficulties, it is important to mend fences. Russia should be dealt with as an important and normal country and its legitimate national interests should be respected.
US relations with Russia are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. Rapprochement seems impossible, with Russia subjected to sanctions and facing charges about interfering in the US presidential elections. Predictable US/western questioning of the legitimacy of the upcoming elections, though fully justified, would drive the two sides even further apart. Even so, pragmatic realism is called for.
Obviously, it is in the interests of both Russia and the West to avoid a new Cold War-style confrontation escalating. Difficult as it may be, both sides must change their diplomacy from confrontation to accommodation. As things stand, the West must be prepared to walk the extra mile. Russia simply will not come to the negotiating table. Walking the extra mile is what Gorbachev and Reagan did to end the Cold War. They changed the world.
Unfortunately, leaders of that ilk are no longer around. The best the world can hope for is that some sort of a holding pattern will be maintained, preventing the situation from getting worse — probably until the US gets a new president.
• Olivier is a former SA ambassador to Russia and Kazakhstan and professor extraordinaire in the University of Pretoria’s department of political sciences. His book, Assignment Russia, will appear later this year.