Despite the hyperbole of detractors, Vladimir Putin is still popular and will win the 2012 election, Kirill Nourzhanov writes
There has been much commentary on Russian politics in the Western media since the parliamentary elections on December 4 and the anti-government demonstrations in Moscow and some other cities six days later. The general tenor of discussion has been that the dictatorial regime of Putin is in trouble. Memorable headlines read ''Fed up with Putin'', ''Putin's Ceausescu moment'', ''The beginning of the end for Putin''; some experts have even gone so far as to hint at the ''Russian Winter'', ala ''Arab Spring''.
All this hype and hyperbole, which may be inspired by genuine if misguided empathy towards the Russian people or more pragmatic concerns about weakening Vladimir Putin's legitimacy, rests on flimsy grounds. A revolution is not coming to Russia. The system of guided democracy which has coalesced over the past decade is nowhere near as authoritarian, stagnant and inflexible as its detractors say. Recent protests were not necessarily about the deficit of political and human rights, and are unlikely to be repeated. Putin remains the country's most popular politician and will win presidential elections in March 2012, enabling him to stay in power for six more years.
Street protests are nothing new in Putin's Russia. They constitute an important mechanism through which society engages with authorities and elicits change. Western journalists demonstrate a remarkably short memory when they refer to a December 10 rally in Moscow as an unprecedented event. Just a year previously, the Russian capital was rocked by nationalist riots sparked by the murder of a soccer fan by a representative of a North Caucasian ethnic minority. In 2009, tens of thousands of protestors in the Russian Far East chanted ''Putin, resign'' when a prohibitive tariff was slapped on second-hand vehicles imported from Japan. In 2005, a quarter of a million Russians demonstrated for weeks against social welfare reforms.
The Kremlin deals with these manifestations of popular discontent through a mixture of dialogue, policy change and repression - the last being used judiciously and as a last resort. More often than not the public obtained concessions from the Government. In 2010, the Russian President, Dmitrii Medvedev, sacked the governor of Kaliningrad region following street protests against the latter's economic mismanagement. Medvedev's said ''governors must enjoy unquestionable respect and confidence of citizens''. Elections are the only game in town in Russian politics, so retaining respect and confidence are of paramount significance to Russian leaders.
In this context, the demonstrations of December 10 hardly pose an extraordinary threat to the existing system. Undoubtedly, on that day, street protestors sent a signal to the authorities that they were not happy with the status quo. The signal was interpreted in the Western media as a push for Jeffersonian democracy by a society driven to the edge by Putin's tyranny, but this is wrong.
The bulk of the protesters espoused a somewhat inarticulate feeling of disappointment with the country's progress in recent years especially in terms of high levels of corruption and the growing gap between the rich and poor. If parallels are to be drawn with developments overseas, it ought to be the Occupy Wall Street movement rather than popular uprisings in the Middle East. On Putin's watch Russia had become well and truly integrated into the system of global capitalism with all its excesses and injustices such as mega-bonuses for corporate managers, the same income tax rate for billionaires and unskilled workers, and vulnerability to financial meltdowns in Europe and the United States. The challenge to Putin and Medvedev comes from the left, with a strong addition of nationalist elements distressed by what they see as the Kremlin's preferential treatment of the non-Russian ethnic periphery of the Russian Federation. When pro-Western liberal opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasianov tried to latch on to the protests they were treated with indifference and even hostility by the crowd. Their calls for the cancellation of ''fraudulent'' elections and acts of civil disobedience fell on deaf ears.
Yet it is precisely people like Nemtsov, Kasianov, Kasparov and a few other relics from the Yeltsin era, as well as a handful of ''limousine liberals'' from ''independent'' think tanks in Moscow with passable English, who are endlessly interviewed by Western journalists and whose opinion is then touted as representative of the mood in the street. I cannot recall the time when the leader of Russian communists, Gennadii Ziuganov, was given any airplay on the BBC or the CNN. In the meantime, according to the latest opinion polls, if presidential elections were held today, 11per cent of Russians would vote for Ziuganov, 1per cent would support Alexei Navalny - a nationalist blogger who inspired the recent protests - while Nemtsov would score a round zero. By comparison, the relevant figure for Putin is 42per cent, a nearly four-fold advantage over second-placed Ziuganov.
The contours of the Government's response to the current bout of discontent have been made clear in recent days. Putin put up a slick performance in a teleconference with voters broadcast live on December 15. He couldn't resist a dig at America after the US had admitted to funding liberal opposition groups in Russia, but otherwise was not particularly perturbed by the spectre of a democratic revolution. His main focus was on the economy, social justice and greater accountability of local officials. He indicated that regional governors may start to be elected again instead of being appointed and promised to clear up corruption. He committed his government to accelerated economic growth and a fairer taxation system. These themes were elaborated in his subsequent public appearances when he announced a program of new industrialisation in Russia, the creation of 25 million new jobs in the hi-tech sectors over 15 years, and heavier imposts on luxury consumption.
The question remains to what extent this populist program will be able to parry the challenge from the left. Putin still has time until March 4, 2012 to convince the Russian electorate that he no longer rests on the laurels of restoring peace and stability after the dreadful decade in the 1990s, and that he is in synch with the growing societal demands for justice and prosperity. Given his form and experience, he may be quite successful in this task.