Putin's Reaganesque Victory

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Vladimir Putin

There was little surprise in the results of Russia's parliamentary election Sunday, with Vladimir Putin's party appearing to have won two-thirds of the vote. Given the extensive use of state resources to tilt the political playing field entirely in the favor of the ruling party, the outcome was all but predetermined. But the more telling fact may be that Putin's managed election victory has caused so little public discontent outside of small liberal enclaves of the middle class and die-hard supporters of the Communist Party. That lack of an outcry is just further proof that, despite what opposition figures liken to the authoritarian traditions of the communist era, Putin remains the overwhelmingly popular leader in Russia today.

There was nothing subtle about official attempts to shape the election result. Opposition parties and leaders were harassed, the electronic media relentlessly flattered Putin's achievements, and state employees were pressured to turn out and vote for his United Russia party. In Chechnya, the breakaway province bombed and bludgeoned into quiescence by Putin since taking office in 2000, some 99.4% of the vote went to his party.

But while the margin of its victory might have been a lot narrower, few doubt that United Russia would easily have won even if the election had been free and fair. And it's not simply because of the party's policies — indeed, the centerpiece of the party's election platform, as much of its campaign media made clear, was Putin himself.

If he were a U.S. President, Putin would be a lame duck at this stage. His second term of office expires four months from now, and the constitution prohibits him from seeking a third consecutive term. Still, nobody doubts that Russia's immediate political future will be decided primarily by the former KGB man now in the Kremlin. Some supporters have urged him to find a legal loophole to allow himself another term; others hope that, as the leading candidate of United Russia in Sunday's poll, he simply moves into the legislature in the job of Prime Minister, and inverts the constitutional relationship between the two positions by installing a supplicant in the presidency. Whatever mechanism he chooses to continue his political role, a majority of voters appear ready to give their President a blank check.

The explanation for Putin's popularity may be found in certain similarities to the man often credited with helping to bring down the Soviet Union. It's not that the former KGB man has any policy preferences or even a political style in common with Ronald Reagan, the great icon of contemporary American conservatism. But in the sense that he has made Russians feel good once again about their country, his appeal is Reaganesque.

Reagan's own popularity — even among many Democrats — owed less to his specific policies (tax cuts, arms buildup) than to his overall success in restoring Americans' national pride and optimism. If the Carter era had been associated with domestic economic woes and a string of geopolitical defeats that culminated in the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan managed, almost as soon as he took office, to convince the public that a new "morning in America" had broken, by getting tough with U.S. adversaries on the global stage.

Putin's success, similarly, is based on reversing the national sense of gloom and doom that accompanied the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. While lionized in the West for his anti-communist stance, Yeltsin is remembered at home for ushering in an era of economic and social catastrophe, rampant kleptocracy and a series of geopolitical humiliations at the hands of the West. Rising oil prices have allowed Putin to oversee a dramatic turnabout in Russia's economic position, fueling an increasingly assertive, and domestically popular, economic and political nationalism. Whether challenging the U.S. and its allies on Kosovo, opting out of previous arms agreements with Washington to protest U.S. missile defense plans, or using energy exports as a pressure-point against former Soviet territories inclining towards NATO, Putin has had few reservations about standing up to the West. And if the creeping authoritarianism of the Putin era is presented as the price of their renewed national pride and economic prospects, many Russians appear willing to accept the deal.

Still, having secured his political blank check, it remains unclear how President Putin will proceed — although he may provide some hint of an answer sooner than next Spring. On December 17, All Russia is due to hold its party congress, where it is expected to name its presidential candidate for the March 2008 election. But whoever the party puts forward in the presidential race, the likelihood remains that his or her election effort will be run, like the party's parliamentary campaign, "For Putin!"