By Andrew Wood

Despite his recent setbacks, Vladimir Putin is likely to be returned to the Kremlin by the presidential election in March. The West will have to live with this result. But what sort of Russia will the world be dealing with?

Putin and his colleagues needed and expected two outcomes to the elections to the Russian parliament, the Duma, in December last year: a tolerable working majority for the government party, United Russia; and public acceptance of such a result. They got the first, even though United Russia did markedly worse than in 2007, but they got it by massive and publicly detected fraud, even coercion, and so failed to get the second.

The first demonstrations were comparatively small scale, and as such looked familiar to the authorities. But arrests, truncheons, and compliant judges sentencing selected victims were not enough. Tens of thousands came out to protest on December 10 - and even more on December 24 - and not just in Moscow. More demonstrations are planned.

Putin's system has its own institutionalised pathology. Concentrating power at the centre must be a continuing and self-reinforcing process. As Putin has become accountable only to himself, so the rest of his "vertical of power" has been liberated from responsibility. The abuse of authority has become the norm for all levels of the Russian state, and the state machinery's ability to manage the country has declined in parallel.

The presidency of Dmitry Medvedev did nothing serious to change this dynamic beyond fomenting the idea - unintentionally - that Russia was somehow heading in the wrong direction, a fear heightened by the damage done to the country by the global economic crisis beginning in 2008, and Russia's comparatively slow recovery from it.

Medvedev's abrupt announcement in September that Putin should be United Russia's preferred candidate for the presidency, plus Putin's proposal that his junior partner should take over the prime minister slot which he was vacating, highlighted the regime's preoccupation with itself, its arrogance, and its lack of strategic purpose beyond survival, so far as possible with its core group unchanged.

Both men have insisted that the Duma elections were properly managed, and that if there were violations, that they were minor, and that the perpetrators will be punished. They can hardly do otherwise, still less concede a re-run. They can take comfort from the fact that the tame non-government parties that have got seats in the new Duma are also reluctant to face the voters again. But that is not the end of it. The Duma which a re-elected President Putin must work with has little legitimacy, particularly if the votes returning him on March 4, or in the second round, look Botoxed. A suspect Duma and a compromised president would compound Russia's lack of autonomous institutions to channel demands for change.

Putin and his supporters are right to say that those taking part in the demonstrations have no agreed programme beyond calling for a re-run of the December election, and no common leadership. But that is no reason to treat them with contempt, or to claim them as hired agents of a malevolent US. The regime ought instead to fear them, in the knowledge that they represent a considerable part of Russian society, whose alienation from the country's present rulers has increased over recent years, and will very likely continue to grow. These people and their sympathisers reject Putin - and despise Medvedev as a weakling. They are not calling for revolutionary change, but for their rulers to be accountable to Russian law.

Putin and his associates have made some pro forma response to their critics, but nothing to suggest that the next presidency will be any different from the past three. The structural changes that would allow Russia to build a secure economic and political future would threaten not just the small ruling group but also the wider set of people exploiting their powers under the present set-up, and others, from pensioners to those working in obsolescent enterprises. It is no wonder that neither the pro-Kremlin party nor Putin has set out a strategic vision for the future beyond promising that more of the same will bring prosperity. This flies in the face of reality. Probably sooner rather than later during the next six years, Russia will have to rein in excessive budgetary spending, adjust to possible oil price falls, and tackle the plague of corruption.

The next Putin presidency is more likely to prove reactionary at home and anti-Western abroad than reformist. Western policy-makers will have the consolation that that trajectory will be disputed in Russia, and that its prescriptions will not meet Russia's longer-term needs. The bitter truth is that Putin can no longer offer stability, either by liberally tinged change or by tighter discipline. The world must be prepared to adjust to what will, in due course, follow that failure.


Copyright © Tribune Media Services

World - Russia: Cracks in the Kremlin | Global Viewpoint