Vladimir Putin's announcement to run for a third presidential term in 2012 was met with considerable amounts of both fanfare and frustration among Russians. A stadium of eleven thousand supporters from his political party, United Russia, cheered on his decision on Saturday night, with many millions more at home applauding and an equal number gritting their teeth for the twelve years to come. Russians from both sides shared a common denominator, however--an absolute assurance as to who would be elected president come March.
Putin's decision to run for a third presidential term and, more importantly, the manner in which it was publicly accepted sets a dangerous precedent for Russian government and civil society. With Putin at the helm of Russian government, the next twelve years promise political indifference in place of political engagement. While Putin may appear a safer choice to many Russians, continued dependence upon a single authoritarian leader siphons power away from the people and creates a government with a dangerous lack of accountability.
One of the most important revelations that came with Saturday's announcement was the extent of Putin's influence. Dmitri Medvedev, the current president, was elected in 2008 with Putin's endorsement and served all four years in office amidst speculations of being a placeholder president designed to tide over the public until Putin's return. (While the Russian constitution prohibits more than two consecutive terms in office, it has no laws against intermittent terms.) On Saturday, Medvedev himself stated that the presidential candidate for 2012 was decided sometime in 2007--“back when we first formed a friendly alliance”-- proving cynics right in their assumptions.
At the present, it appears Putin will become president without any serious challengers. Even the most inoculate political parties and like-minded contenders are too great a challenge for Putin's United Russia to allow. The two parties that once showed potential in terms of opposition, A Just Russia and Right Cause, have weakened to the point of irrelevance. Mikhail Prokhorov, the former head of the Right Cause party and the only person outside of the United Russia system who was even half-seriously considered a contender for office, was recently ousted first from a presidential economiccommission and then from the leadership of Right Cause, which he himself later described as a “Kremlin puppet party”.
In contrast to Right Cause, A Just Russia, a socialist democrat party, has a showing in Duma and a longer history of frustrating the Kremlin, though just as little chance of making a serious dent in the election. In light of Putin's decision, A Just Russia party has once again vowed to “break the monopoly of a single party” and tackle problems like economic inequality and corruption. The party has undertaken similar goals in the past and met with sharp opposition and disappointing results. According to surveys by the Levada Center, popular support for the party currently rests at four percent, a figure unlikely to cause United Russia to lose sleep.
To be fair, if Putin reaches the four-term mark it will only partially be due to a lack of opposition. Putin remains popular in Russia, largely due to associations with the prospering economy and growing global power of Russia in the early 2000s and the sense of confidence he inspires. According to an independent poll conducted by the Levada Center in 2011, 55 percent of Russians believe that Putin can enact positive change in their lives and 70 percent trust him as a political leader. For a country now celebrating its 20th anniversary of living with uncertainty, the lure of stability--especially in the midst of an economic crisis-- is something few can afford to scorn.
The problem with Putin, however, is not the power he wields but the way in which he attains it. In that same poll conducted by the Levada Center, only 32 percent of Russians believed that the citizens would directly decide the results of the 2012 presidential election. Russia's failure to build an authentic democracy, complete with transparency and active political participation, continues the trend of clustering power in the hands of the governing elite. This imbalance of power leaves the Russian people without the means to hold their government accountable, worsening the already-existing problems of widespread corruption and limited press freedom.
In conclusion, though Putin as an individual enjoys the trust of the Russian people, there is no guarantee that the leader who follows his stead will be able to maintain the same level of trust and social stability. The leaders that contend for power in 2024 may promise to be more aggressive in their manipulations and lust for power. It is in that context that the Putin precedent becomes especially dangerous.
In the words of Vladimir Gelman, a professor at the European University of St. Petersburg, “what is good for the Kremlin is not equally good for Russia's future”. Without any experience in guiding their country's political direction, Russians cannot assure a future in their best interests or protect themselves from the ambitions of a tyrant. Should the Russians choose to use it, the learning opportunity that this election provides could be essential to ensuring the integration of democracy into their political system. For Russia, it would indeed be wiser to choose the temporary instability of a tempestuous 2012 election season than the permanent instability of a government disconnected from its citizens.
Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya '13, a Crimson editorial writer, is currently taking the year off to live and intern in Moscow. You can read more about her impressions of Russia on her blog,zapadnik.wordpress.com.