On March 18 Russia held presidential elections. Everybody (with a brain) fully expected Putin to win, but hardly anyone expected him to win this big, or with this high a turnout: 67.47% of the eligible voters turned up at the polls; of them,
Equally notable was the manner in which the elections were run: the process was public and transparent, using paper ballots counted by hand. Polling places were equipped with video cameras. Ballot-stuffing, which was a problem with previous elections, was detected in a couple of places, and the tainted results were disqualified. While during previous elections people could only vote where they were registered, now they could declare their location and vote wherever they found themselves, even at airports if they happened to be traveling. While the previous presidential elections in Russia were followed by a wave of protests, with numerous people complaining about fraud at the polls, this time these voices were scarcely heard. And while in previous elections opposition candidates got considerable traction among the Western-leaning educated elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg, this time the entire country was quite uniformly pro-Putin.
Clearly, the Russians are politically engaged, and clearly the vast majority of them trust and like Putin. It is easy to understand why. During the last decade of the last century Russia came close to being destroyed, but its fortunes turned around dramatically right at the turn of the century. Most Russians can see that their country has made a rapid recovery from its previous setbacks. It is indisputable that Russia is now a far more stable and prosperous country, and Putin can and does take credit for that. Under his watch Russia has withstood the collapse in oil and gas prices, fought off terrorist onslaughts, resisted Western provocations and sanctions, and has decisively won the arms race against the United States (and can now cut its defense spending). Russia has made progress toward regaining its stature as a major world power.
Given his wonderful record and the high level of trust and respect he has earned, Putin could simply rest on his laurels, but that’s not what he plans to do. Instead, he wants to dramatically improve the well-being of all Russians and to have them achieve true greatness. So far, he has managed to fashion Russia into a “normal country”; now he wants to lead it to outright triumph. This, I believe, is what is behind the record turnout and his equally record-setting landslide victory: for once, the Russian people are actually inspired and optimistic about their future. The one pocket of pessimism I have been able to detect is in Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet. In the televised images of its post-election meeting the ministers looked very somber and somewhat crestfallen. Those who have been complaining about fifth-columnists within the Kremlin can take heart: perhaps, after Putin’s reinauguration in May, he will ask for their resignations.
So far so good. But to what extent was this election about electoral choice, which is the essence of democracy? Sure, just the exercise of everyone showing up and demonstrating their approval and trust in their fearless leader is a good way to legitimize and bolster the leader’s authority and a great morale-booster. But aren’t the people supposed to decide something by voting—something more important than “I’ve decided to go and vote for Putin”?
And what does a vote for Putin actually mean, in terms of choice? Who picked him to begin with? Well, it turns out that Putin is a happy accident. Boris Yeltsin named him as his successor, and you could quite reasonably joke that Yeltsin was drunk at the time and didn’t remember why he did that. But you could also surmise that Putin was picked for his renowned savvy in money-laundering and offshoring the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs (his previous job back in St. Petersburg) and for his clever use of his KGB connections (from his job before that) to “settle questions.” Remember, this was a time when the endlessly clever people who get paid to sit around and drink coffee over at the Pentagon imagined that “Russian mafia” was an emerging global threat. The oligarchs must have liked Putin, and Yeltsin, in keeping with his “leave no oligarch behind” program, did whatever they wanted him to do.
What they got instead was a pig in a poke. The oligarchs thought that they had recruited another faithful servant who, just like Yeltsin, would keep the state weak and facilitate their shameless plunder. Instead they got a steel-willed technocrat and a true Russian patriot who quickly manifested an awesome power to conjure up creative new ideologies. Instead of subservience, the oligarchs got his “doctrine of equidistance,” according to which money≠power. (An oil baron by the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky ran afoul of it, thinking that he could parlay his wealth into political power, and ended up cooling his heels in prison.) Instead of somebody who would look the other way while they ran roughshod over Russian society, they got his “dictatorship of the law,” a significantly strengthened Russian state, and the once fearsome Russian mafia melted away like hoarfrost after sunrise. And the Russian oligarchy’s plan to seamlessly meld into Western elite society using their expropriated wealth, leaving Russia behind as a withered husk, ran headlong into Putin’s plan to reestablish “multipolarity” and to force other nations, even the United States, to treat Russia as an equal. This resulted in Western sanctions, which sent many oligarchs scurrying back to Russia and repatriating their funds under an amnesty program, lest they be frozen.
And so Putin, for Russia, is just a happy accident. Given that happy accidents are in general far less frequent than unhappy ones, a question arises: How can Russia reliably produce another Putin when the time comes? It is definitely a good thing that Russia has six years to answer this question, because this last presidential election, as well as all the previous ones, has conclusively demonstrated that Russian electoral politics are not the answer—at least not yet. Let’s look at Putin’s “competition” (in quotes because, judging from the results, it was more of an exhibition).
The one who garnered the most votes was Pavel Grudinin, nominated by the Communists (although he wasn’t a member) instead of their perennial presidential candidate and leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is getting rather long in the tooth. Grudinin failed to disclose his foreign bank accounts, or the fact that his son resides abroad, disqualifying him from holding the top secret clearance required of a Russian president. Nevertheless, he managed to get 15% or so of the vote.
Next in line was the nationalist perennial presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is quite formidable, very entertaining, but also rather frightening because he is forever threatening to rain fire and brimstone on Russia’s enemies both foreign and domestic. Nevertheless, he is definitely qualified to serve as president—or to serve on your firing squad, because he is also a good shot, and you can be sure that he won’t accidentally miss all of your vital organs and leave you writhing in pain while you bleed out slowly. You can regard him as Russia’s presidential insurance, giving Russia’s enemies an excellent reason to wish for Putin’s good health, because Zhirinovsky is standing by, ready to make them say “ouch!” a lot.
And then we have a sort of winner, but not of the presidential sort: Xenia Sobchak. She is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, who was the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg, co-author of Russia’s constitution, and Putin’s friend and mentor. She is a fully paid-up member of Russia’s “golden youth” and pretty much does whatever she wants—like run for president. Don’t laugh, she got over 1% of the vote! She has dabbled in reality television, the fashion industry, this and that, is married to an actor, has a year-and-a-half-old son and is rumored to be pregnant.
She made me laugh because she lost Crimea even before she got her name on the ballot by declaring that she does not approve of Crimea being part of Russia. Recall that Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783, was “gifted” to the Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in violation of the Soviet constitution, and then voted to rejoin Russia in 2014 after the Ukraine’s government was overthrown in violation of the Ukrainian constitution: a rare instance of two constitutional violations canceling each other out.
Her slogan was “against all”: she saw herself as a one-person alternative to the entire Russian political system. Neither she nor her supporters saw the obvious logical flaw with this platform: if she were truly “against all” then, to be consistent, she would have to campaign for people to vote against all—including her. What she meant, of course, was “against all except me.” Now that would have been a wonderful slogan, had she managed to explain what it was that made her so uniquely magic. Instead, she complained bitterly about everyone else. I believe that her presidential campaign was actually a clever merchandising operation. Maybe it had something to do with marketing eyeglass frames: she appeared to switch eyeglasses more often than most women change panties. There were some other kinds of “product placement” going on too.
Everybody else got less than 1%, but I will give them honorable mention anyway. There was the perennial liberal candidate Yavlinsky, who gave his rationale for running again this time (a hopeless cause given Russians’ overwhelmingly unfavorable view of liberalism) as “I just really wanted to talk to some voters.” Then, in no particular order (because I don’t care) came the über-capitalist Titov, the über-Soviet Suraikin and the über-Russian Baburin. Titov ran on a pathetically hilarious slogan of “So, what about Titov?”
All of the candidates save Putin (who intelligently stayed above the fray) participated in several interminable rounds of “debates” whose format precluded all intelligent discussion. All candidates were given a few minutes to spout their programmatic gibberish while others tried to shout them down. At one point they ganged up on poor Xenia so hard that they made her cry. The only time they got to talk to Putin was after the election, when they were all invited to a sort of “thank you for playing” meeting at the Kremlin, and where they all appeared dignified, conciliatory and grateful.
This was all good, clean fun (except for making Xenia cry; that was mean) but it doesn’t answer the essential question, which is: How can Russia find another Putin to elect president in six years? One of the most important reasons why the Soviet Union failed was the inability of its political elites to recruit and promote talent, causing it to degenerate into a dour, ossified, senile gerontocracy. This fact is currently very well understood in Russia, and a serious effort is underway to appoint young, promising governors and to put young people with leadership potential into positions of ministerial responsibility. Whether these efforts produce the intended result will become clear six years from now. A lot can happen in the intervening years—both good and bad—but at the moment the project to “make Russia great again” appears to be firing on all cylinders.