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.

After independence, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov could not manage to stop the criminal activities of the warlords and the spread of global Islamist movements into Chechnya. 1999 witnessed multiple Islamist incursions from Chechnya into the neighboring Russian province of Dagestan—with the Chechen warlords declaring their desire for an Islamic state—and bomb attacks on residential buildings in Moscow attributed to the Chechens. In response, the ailing Yeltsin launched a second war on Chechnya.

The failures of the 1990s—whether with Chechnya, the economy, or political "civil wars"—have had a lasting impact on the contemporary situation. They contribute even today to the discrediting of so-called democratic or liberal parties. As a result, Putin's opposition has little if any popular support. Former liberal parties such as Yabloko or The Union of Right Forces are for the most part discredited because they have not performed a mea culpa to apologize for their role in the problems of the 1990s. In public opinion, these groups embody the brutality of the changes made in the Yeltsin years, the negative social impact of 1990s privatizations, the monopolizing of national assets by oligarchs, and the disasters of Chechnya. References to the West as a model are often badly received by the majority of the population, which is above all concerned that the country to get back on its feet and stabilize.

The new opposition, which is embodied by the Other Russia party and Garry Kasparov, has little popular legitimacy. It has no social base except in politically active milieus (NGO's and defenders of Human Rights), which are scarcely representative of public opinion. Opposition figures are often suspected of only wanting to have themselves noticed by the western media. They are criticized for lacking any real ideas for the future of the country.

It is in this traumatizing context of the first decade after the Soviet Union—too often forgotten in the West—that Putin's success has occurred.

Reconciliation through Patriotism

If the 1990s comprise the years of ideological polarization and the birth of a trend towards "patriotic centrism," the years since 2000 should be viewed as a period of political consensus and re-centralization around what is politically possible, with the presidential party as the core and Russian national triumph as the rhetoric.

The Putin government has aimed over the past few years to make Russia into one of the 21st century's world leaders, one which embraces the game of globalization and knows how to take advantage of it. It has championed technological modernity, the necessity of being efficient and competitive in a fast-moving, international market economy, and the effective utilization of the country's human potential and natural resources. For the Putin group, economic success brings not only riches to the political and business elites, but also political power and international authority. As such, they see an important role for the state in ensuring economic performance.

To achieve this end, the political power elites around Putin have worked to mobilize the population behind the state enterprise, at the same time that they have restricted the people's political freedoms. On one hand, they have successfully improved the living standards of the Russian people, making it plain to the citizenry that the Putin path will lead to material advantages. Positive changes to the everyday lives of Russians have produced growing grass roots support and enthusiasm for Russia's current trajectory.

On the other hand, Putin and most politicians have turned increasingly to a patriotic rhetoric that attempts to enlist the population to rebuild a Great Russia. Here, the group around Putin has offered an implicit trade-off. In return for generally opting out of politics and leaving such matters in the hands the current power-brokers, the Russian people will receive material well-being and renewed pride in their country.

Nationalist issues, expressed under the label "patriotism", have become defining components of Russia's political language in the sense that all parties speak it. No public figure, regardless of his or her function, is able to acquire political legitimacy without mentioning his or her attachment to the Russian motherland and without justifying his or her policy choices in terms of the nation's supreme interests. Although this sort of patriotic rhetoric is common in many democratic countries, it took on new meaning and form for Russia over the last decade. The legitimacy or illegitimacy of policy proposals is now decided primarily in the context of this patriotic refrain.

The focus on "patriotism" is a sign of de-politicization. Political life is no longer structured by the competition between different visions of the world, between different ideologies or approaches to politics (such as the ideological differences between Yeltsin's liberals and the Communists in the 1990s). Instead, Russian politics has become divided between different factions of like-minded thinkers, all connected to the Kremlin, whose struggles are often turf wars internal to the bureaucracies. In the absence of meaningful public debate on what political, social, and economic direction Russian society should take, patriotism has become theideological posture shared by all parties.

Words and terms that were confined in the 1990s to the most radical and unappealing nationalist movements (like that of Zhirinovsky, the butt of many jokes by American television's late night talk show hosts in the 1990s) are today fully part of Russian public life and can no longer be seen as extreme. Public speeches are filled with references to Russia as a "Great Power" (derzhavnost' or velikoderzhavnost'), to "statehood" (gosudarstvennost'), to the preservation of the nation (sberezhenie natsii), to empire (imperiia), and to the Motherland (rodina) or Fatherland (otechestvo).

This new patriotism is not as rigid an ideology as Marxism-Leninism was in the Soviet days and it is partly empty of content. Those who refuse to present themselves as "patriots" are de-legitimated and ushered off the public stage. But as soon as a politician displays his or her patriotism, they are free to speak from and for a variety of political viewpoints (monarchy or republic, tsarist or Soviet nostalgia, orthodoxy or secularity, ethnic or imperial definition of Russianness, etc.).

However, the political patriotism of Putin's government has of late been taking on more concrete forms and agendas. We can see this process, for example, in the education sector with the implementation of so-called "patriotic" education programs for youth, debates on the introduction of courses on orthodox culture in schools, the publication of new history textbooks rehabilitating Stalin, the Kremlin's forming of pro-presidential youth movements, etc. The cult of the Second World War, which has continued on from the Soviet period, is omnipresent in the new patriotic politics as an example of a winning Russia in which more wins are to come (so different from Yeltsin's weak Russia).

Perhaps most importantly, the newly prominent and politically charged rhetoric about the greatness of the Motherland is well-received in society. Even in the many non-Russian regions of Russia (for example, in the Muslim and Turkic-speaking regions of the Volga-Urals), this "Russian" patriotism is looked on favorably. To be sure, the latter express concerns that the ideas of the new "patriotism" will become overly "Russifying." They work hard to emphasize a "trans-ethnic," political patriotism that recognizes the country's religious, linguistic, and national diversity. Yet, the call for a Great Russia catches the ear of most people in Russia.

An Omnipresent, but Weak State?

For all its aspirations at controlling political power and motivating Russian society to economic progress, just how real is the power of the Russian presidential state? The answer to this question—that the Kremlin is often a lot weaker than it would like to be and less powerful than it is often portrayed in the Western press—is especially important to understanding Russian politics after the Putin era.

Putin still cannot always choreograph the political process in the ways that he and his associates might like, despite the omnipresence of the President and his associates in public life, the media black-out of other parties, the accusations of fraud and of ballot fixing in certain regions of Russia (for example, the 99% of votes for United Russia in Chechnya), and the arrests of opponents.

For instance, the results of United Russia in the December parliamentary elections were not a complete success. The party expected to get over 70%—not the 60% that it did receive—and the hardly joyous demeanor of party leaders the night of the elections confirmed their disappointment. Despite the Kremlin's immediate self-congratulations about this "referendum" for the outgoing President, the much-awaited plebiscite did not fulfill expectations. The party's poor scores in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (approximately 50% of the votes) confirmed that part of the Russian middle classes is not convinced that the Putin elites have the ability to get the country back on its feet.

Moreover, the President's hold on central power is in some respects contingent, requiring a delicate balancing act of different power groups and interests. If political and economic power is very largely concentrated in the Kremlin's hands, it must be remembered that this "Kremlin" is complex. Similar to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Presidential Administration is not a monolithic and uniform entity. It is populated by multiple "clans" and representatives of diverse economic and political interests that are in more or less overt conflict. The liberals, who have no past in the secret services and military, battle the siloviki, who do. The networks of Gazprom struggle for resources with those of Rosneft. The "Petersbourgeois" who grew up at Putin's side wrestle with the former high functionaries who joined the Presidential Administration well before them in the 1990s.

The idea that Putin alone carries the country's political torch is therefore illusory: he is as much the organizer as the hostage of these clans, who themselves defend interests of a scope that largely exceeds the figure of the President. The balancing game Putin has to play is therefore particularly complex and could turn against him once he becomes Prime Minister.

In addition, Russia's economic successes must be put in context: the Russian economy is still largely extractive (oil, gas, precious metals), which engenders a huge corruption, massive social inequalities (if poverty is declining, it remains endemic and inequalities are widening), and inflation levels difficult to control. Despite the massive "rainy day fund" that Putin's government has stashed away, the economy remains susceptible to price swings on the world market. At the moment, the price of a barrel of crude oil does not encourage the state and large companies to redirect their priorities. The result is that productivity growth and economic diversification are too weak to guarantee long-term economic development.

Lastly, political power has yet to accept Russia's main challenge: the country's demographic collapse. Male life expectancy is no more than 60 years and Russia will lose some 17 million inhabitants between now and 2025, which, unless an open immigration policy is not rapidly implemented, will slow economic growth. The Kremlin seems aware of its weaknesses: were there to be an economic crisis, the social contract with the population, which accepts the regime's authoritarianism in exchange for a guarantee of increasing living standards, would be very rapidly revoked.

After Putin

To understand the sustainability of Putin's success and the Kremlin's capacity to manipulate the country's political life and civil society, one must recognize the fundamental humiliations that were inflicted on Russia in the 1990s. Broad sectors of Russian society support the powers that be in their declarations of nationalism and national pride. Putin's focus on a positive self-image for Russia (and a dogged refusal to engage in the self-disparagement that characterized the 1990s) is intended to smooth the economic upturn and society's "recovery." To this end, the Kremlin urges families to do their military service, have children, stop drinking, and participate in charity works to compensate for the state's weaknesses, and so on.

The stakes of patriotic recovery can thus be likened to a feeling of "revenge" for the upheavals of the 1990s, but equally to a desire of Russian citizens for "normality." They want to live in a politically and economically functioning state, in which they can imagine a future. This situation has for now meant a narrowing of political life and a hardening of Moscow's relations with western countries.

However, certain gains of the 1990s have not been questioned: freedom of movement, private property, the right to entrepreneurship, and the resolute commitment of large Russian companies to the market economy and globalization, for example.


UPDATE (June 30 2008)

As observers had anticipated, the Kremlin orchestrated perfectly its victory in the Presidential elections of March 2, 2008. Russia elected Vladimir Putin's official heir, Dmitry Medvedev, to the presidency of the republic with over 70% of the votes. The new President was installed on May 7, and the following day the Duma (Russia's parliament) nominated Putin to become Prime Minister, receiving 392 votes for and 56 (mostly the Communists) against.

However, beneath this controlled exterior, the Russian political system remains in certain respects unstable. For the first time Russia will have two centers of political power: the President and his officials in the Kremlin, on one hand, and the formerly weak Prime Minister and the Duma, on the other hand. There is no recent tradition of such diarchy, and while many analysts have assumed that Putin would ensure a shift of certain (if not most) powers from the Presidency to the Prime Minister's office, such a transfer is by no means guaranteed.

This two-headed system could prove to be a dangerous instrument in the hands of Kremlin elites, who are not inclined to consensus-building. The power relationship between the country's two strongmen remains to be negotiated, and while Medvedev continues to show deference to Putin, it remains unclear when and whether he will attempt to wrest the reins of power from his predecessor.

On domestic and foreign policy, Putin continues to position himself as the country's undisputed leader. He has persuaded many of his close associates to leave the Presidential Administration and has installed them in United Russia (Putin's political party) or the Duma. The Presidential Party, for its part, continues to make guarded, not to mention critical, comments of the new president.

So, at present Dmitry Medvedev seems to have little room for manoeuvre. And notwithstanding his repeated assertions that he alone will decide the course of the country, he has no loyal team surrounding him and in fact seems rather isolated. The figure of Medvedev may well end up polarizing the competition between liberal circles and those of the more hawkish siloviki (men of the army, militia, and special and secret services). Putin, by contrast, managed to balance their power relations with relative success.

This new diarchic system is also going to have to handle an international situation ripe for major tensions, most especially in Georgia, where Kosovo's independence has reopened the question of the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In this context, both this year's great May 9 military parade—to show off Russia's new missiles and tanks in the Red Square and mark its return as a military power—and the present discussions on whether to have Mischa—the bear that was the emblem of the 1980 Moscow Olympic games—as the official mascot of the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics, confirm today that references to Soviet-era grandeur can still act as key elements of consensus among Russian political elites. The tone of Medvedev's recent speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum also underscored Russia's continued frustration with U.S. claims to global hegemony and further pushed Russia's agenda to become a world economic power.