The Russian Presidential elections on March 2, 2008 are unlikely to bring any surprises. Vladimir Putin, the widely popular President since 2000 and Time magazine's "Man of the Year" for 2007, has come to the end of his legal term limit and must step down. He has anointed his successor in Dmitry Medvedev, currently the Vice-Prime Minister in charge of implementing so-called "projects of national priority" (such as housing and health) and the President of the Administrative Council of natural gas giant Gazprom. For good measure, Putin has announced that he is willing to stand as Prime Minister after his term ends, a position from which he will undoubtedly continue to wield substantial power.

The results of the recent parliamentary elections indicate the control that the Kremlin—Putin and his allies—has over Russian politics. On December 2, 2007, 64.3% of Russian voters endorsed Putin's party United Russia, and the overwhelming margin of victory surprised few. The Communist Party came a distant second with only 11% of votes, followed by two parties who side with the Kremlin on all policy matters: the Liberal-Democratic Party (led by nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and Fair Russia (led by Sergey Mironov, who is President of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Parliament), both of which only just scraped over the 7% threshold. Meaningful opposition to the Presidency is as non-existent in the Parliament as it is in society at large.

For all their predictability, however, the March Presidential elections are extremely important for Russia and for the world. If we are to make sense of what will happen in this once-and-future superpower after the polls, it pays to delve deeply into the historical and social context in which they are taking place.

Common explanations of Russian politics that rely on the idea of unchanging Russian traits—that Russians by nature favor authoritarian regimes or that Western-style democracy does not work in the Russian context—do little to explain the events that we are watching unfold. Rather, to understand what will happen March 2 and after, one needs to look at what occurred in the 1990s in the wake of the Soviet collapse and to recall the fact that the past seldom returns. The current Russian political regime cannot be understood as a "return to the USSR." Instead, it reveals a type of westernization and modernization that, paradoxically, is being pursued through authoritarianism and nationalism.

Even a "weakened" Russia remains one of the world's great powers. It plays a more and more active geopolitical role in Asia and the Middle-East, has considerable reserves of oil, gas, and precious minerals putting it among the leading providers of primary resources in the world, and has given rise to a young capitalism that is increasingly expansionist and capable of investing abroad, whether in formerly Soviet space, the European Union, the U.S., or developing countries. The Presidential elections, then, are about Russia positioning itself for the future, not some return to the past.

The Reasons for Vladimir Putin's Success

After eight years at the head of the Russian state, Vladimir Putin is still very popular in Russia: between 60% and 80% of persons polled claim to be satisfied with his performance. This popularity may be explained, in part, by the Kremlin's stranglehold over the media (television and press), which have nearly all been purchased by press groups directly linked to the largest national companies or to oligarchs close to the President.

The whole of the political field is also in the Kremlin's hands: opposition parties have virtually no access to the media, and recalcitrant oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky have either lost their companies or been imprisoned. Political opponents, like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov or chess champion Garry Kasparov, have found their political efforts hindered or derailed at every step. (Kasyanov's name, for example, was taken off the presidential ballot in late January 2008 for dubious procedural reasons.)

The Parliament and the government bureaucracy also carry little power: the former has become a so-called "house of registration"—a rubber stamp—of decisions taken by the President. The second is enfeebled by a parallel Presidential Administration made up of people close to the President and who constitute the real center of decision-making.

However, Vladimir Putin's popularity cannot be explained solely by the restrictive and undemocratic conditions of contemporary Russian political life. Rather, the President's wide support also springs from his success in personalizing a series of recent changes in Russia—especially economic and political stabilization—for which a great majority of the population had long been waiting. Putin in effect embodies Russia's "recovery": he has succeeded in putting an end to the country's domestic disintegration, to the state's total inability to enforce the law, and to the country's degraded image on the international stage. In this way, he remains a genuinely popular President.

Even if he is not solely responsible for the amelioration of the country's economic situation, which is in large part based on increases in oil and gas prices, he has been able to turn this situation to his advantage in the political realm. At the beginning of 2007, Russia's gross domestic product (GDP) returned to its 1990 level, the penultimate year of Communist power. The country has had six straight years of growth—averaging 6% per year. In addition to the oil manna, there has been success in other domains (metallurgy, aluminum, arms, and food-processing), a strong increase in domestic household consumption, the remarkable complete repayment of public foreign debt, a doubling of spending on education, and a tripling of spending on health care over five years.

Under Putin's leadership, Russia has also brought a provisional end to the terribly unpopular Chechen conflict. Today, Moscow states that Chechnya is "pacified." Power has been partially given back to political forces submissive to Russia led by Ramzan Kadyrov, although groups of armed separatist combatants still continue to carry out sporadic acts of resistance.

Sociological surveys show that the President's support base is a reflection of Russian society: among his partisans there are as many women as men, as many young as old people. They come from diverse social milieus and socio-economic levels, have varied levels of education, and have as negative as positive a vision of the Soviet regime. As recently deceased sociologist Yuri Levada subtly noted, Vladimir Putin "is a mirror in which everyone, whether communist or democrat, sees what he wants to see and hope."

Because of his previous career in the secret services, Putin can indeed be perceived as a man who has remained true to the management style of the Soviet regime. This Soviet continuity is shown in the growing role played by the siloviki – the men of the special services (secret services, army, militia, etc.) – in the administration. They currently occupy at least a third of high positions, especially economic decision-making positions.

But Putin can also be viewed as a western-style modernizer. The first post-Soviet Russian President Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) designated him as his heir; he worked in the liberal administration of the mayor of Saint-Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak (1937-2000); and in the 2000s he pursued a course of modernizing the country.

The Legacy of the Traumas of the 1990s

Putin certainly benefited politically from the violence, disruptions, and poverty of Yeltsin's political and economic reforms and the collapse of state institutions in the 1990s. As Russia attempted to restructure itself in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, Russian citizens witnessed their standard of living crumble and poverty levels skyrocket (while a select few made themselves billionaires many times over). Corruption and crime increased dramatically, life expectancy dropped frighteningly, large numbers of young men lost life and limb fighting an unpopular war in the restive Russian republic of Chechnya, and Russia's international power and reputation disappeared. Life became unpredictable through wild inflation, and the future seemed to hold little promise. Over time, the majority of Russians lost faith in Yeltsin. His government's policies are now characterized generally as failures.

The difference between the struggling 1990s and the more stable 2000s is often personified in the distinct personalities of Yeltsin and Putin. The former is portrayed as sick, old, and too often drunk, courageous but unpredictable, and mired in corruption; the latter as a virtual teetotaler, young and vibrant (and a judo champion), and a man of control, decision, and authority.

Yet, these contrasts ought not to mask a certain political continuity. Presidentialism in Russia—a political structure that allots almost unlimited power to the President—was consolidated early on in the 1993 Constitution, and the Parliament has never had an important role to play in the development of state policies.

Boris Yeltsin was elected by direct universal suffrage for the first time as President of the Federal Republic of Russia in April 1991, during the waning days of the Communist era. After the disappearance of the Soviet Union in December of the same year, he found himself in an ongoing confrontation over Russia's future direction with the Parliament, which was then dominated by Communists who were intent on slowing down the implementation of liberal reforms. Yeltsin's close aides, as well as anxious leaders of western countries who feared a return to the Cold War, thought that a very strong Presidency would be the best means to prevent the Communists from taking power again. In this way, the fear of resurgent communism ultimately led to the formation of a political structure that gave the President vast and often unchecked power.

In 1993, Yeltsin won a referendum (58% of votes, with only 53% of the electorate taking part) in favor of pursuing his plans for rapid economic change. The President then introduced a new constitution project to increase his powers only to have it (not unexpectedly) rejected by the Parliament. Yeltsin reacted aggressively: he dissolved Parliament on September 21 which, in response, voted the President's impeachment. A state of emergency was proclaimed on September 24 and military troops loyal to the President launched an armed attack on the Parliament on 4 October, officially causing more than 150 deaths. This bloody event plays an important role in the memory of post-Soviet Russia, many citizens considering that the country was on the verge of civil war. There has been a strong tendency ever since to avoid any political tensions that might lead again to such conflicts and shifting most power to the President appealed to the country as a means to ensure political peace.

The Birth of Political Patriotism

After the tragic crushing of Parliament in autumn 1993, the competing power groups in Russia began to fear too great a political polarization in the country more than anything else. In an effort to bring the country together, leaders from a wide spectrum of political parties fashioned a new political idea that might be called "patriotic centrism." It aimed to eliminate ideological oppositions and to encourage political reconciliation of different factions through patriotic rhetoric. Putin has benefited greatly from this political consensus and has manipulated it to his advantage.

During the 1996 presidential campaign, Yeltsin's proponents drafted the media into the service of presidential power—a precursor to Putin's current media control. This practice enabled Yeltsin to saturate the news with messages designed to scare voters away from his popular communist opponent Gennady Ziuganov precisely with the threat that Russia might "return to the past."

At the same time, as early as 1994-1995, Yeltsin's Kremlin tried to revive the patriotic rallying cry of "the motherland" as a way of promoting national unification. Later, in 1996, a first attempt was made to institutionalize such political patriotism, with Yeltsin instigating a search of a new unifying "national ideology." Then, around 1997-1999, this ideological push entered the political stage, championed by such leading political figures as General Alexander Lebed (1950-2002), former Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yevgeni Primakov, and the Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov (who is famed for architecturally rebuilding Moscow along nationalist Russian lines).

The 1999 legislative elections revealed for the first time the large consensus that had come to exist across the political spectrum (including liberals) around the idea that Russia's development should take a particular, national path that focused not only on reform but especially on order and stability.

By the end of the 1990s, most people in Russia saw the country's situation at the end of Boris Yeltsin's second term in similar terms. On the domestic front, central power was in decline. As President, Yeltsin officially held great power, but he was too sick and incapable to wield it in any meaningful way. Other power blocs worked to take advantage of the vacuum in command. The state's authority was practically non-existent; respect for the law overtly scorned; and the feeling of having sold national wealth cheaply to oligarchs extremely widespread. Regional governors instituted veritable feudal fiefdoms that endangered the very unity of the Federation. Certain national republics regularly threatened Moscow's authority and talked regularly of secession.

At the international level, the Russian state appeared to shrivel, and its geopolitical interests were not clearly defined. Russians looked on in concern as NATO expanded its membership in 1997 to include such former Soviet-Bloc countries as Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In addition, the West's handling of the Yugoslav crisis during the 1990s and NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1991 were perceived as a humiliation for Russia. Even Russian liberals put out calls for Panslav or Panorthodox solidarity with Serbia.

The Chechen Wars and Russian Politics

The Kremlin's inability to deal with the Chechen question during the 1990s further exacerbated the feeling among Russians, and the world at large, that the Russian state was weak, unable to control its own people, and incapable of financing a competent army. For Russia's political elites, Chechnya reinforced the push for political consensus in which a strong state authority and stability were championed. The groups at either end of the political spectrum, whether liberal or communist, were marginalized.

With the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chechen Republic, which formed part of the Russian Federation, formally declared its independence. Russia and most other states globally did not recognize their sovereignty. Yet, Chechnya existed in a quasi-autonomous manner and its economy became criminalized while bomb attacks and abductions multiplied. In 1994, the Russian army decided to invade Chechnya to resolve the tensions of this limbo status. This was the largest military operation organized by Moscow since the intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.

The war was a military and humanitarian failure for Russia. In 1996, with the war going poorly and popular opinion strongly against the invasion, the Yeltsin campaign feared that the staggering military failures in Chechnya would be enough to lose Yeltsin the presidential election to Ziuganov and the Communists. Yeltsin hurriedly signed a peace accord that admitted Russia's loss and gave away the store. The Khassaviurt peace accords permitted Chechnya, re-baptized the Islamic Republic of Ichkeria, to have de facto governmental autonomy. Most Russians, both at the time and now, felt that the peace was an appalling humiliation for Russia.