Russian Presidential Election of 2012: People's Protests for the Democracy Train

Is there a big margin between Russian political elites and the public? Why do people criticize the recent Duma elections in a way that has not been seen since the beginning of Putin’s administration? Is there a threat to Russian democracy which could lead to chaos and a breakdown of normal political life? How popular is Mr. Putin notwithstanding these protests and how long can he enjoy such popularity in the years ahead?


Russia built the Trans-Siberian Railway during its industrial revolution. Nowadays the Sapsan (the Peregrine Falcon) express train connects Moscow and St. Petersburg, a distance of 700 kilometers, in just 225 minutes. Today, Mr. Putin is promising 145 million Russian passengers a safe, comfortable and pleasant journey toward democracy on his train. The 2012 Russian presidential election is scheduled to take place on March 4, 2012. When Vladimir Putin announced in September that he would be running as presidential candidate, no one had any doubts that he would return to the position he held between 2000 and 2008. Putin won his first presidential election with 54 percent of the vote and his second in 2004 with 71 percent. Under the Russian Constitution, presidents can serve two consecutive terms of office. The length of the presidential term of office has been extended from four years to six from the 2012 elections. In 2008, Putin stepped aside to let fellow party member Dmitry Medvedev take the reins while Putin served as his prime minister. As a central figure in Russian politics for more than a decade, he has enjoyed high approval ratings as both president and prime minister. Apart from United Russia, there are six other nationally registered political parties, but no outstanding presidential candidates among any of them. While covering a wide range of political viewpoints, from nationalist to liberal, none of them enjoys widespread appeal among the voters.

In this article, we will focus on the forthcoming Russian presidential election and argue that it will result in a third term in office for Mr. Putin. We will also try to find an answer to the crucial question of whether political development in Russia is moving toward greater democracy. Furthermore, we will be emphasizing the link between development and democracy in Russia.


Is there a big margin between Russian political elites and the public? Why do people criticize the recent Duma elections in a way that has not been seen since the beginning of Putin’s administration? Is there a threat to Russian democracy which could lead to chaos and a breakdown of normal political life? How popular is Mr. Putin notwithstanding these protests and how long can he enjoy such popularity in the years ahead?

In a doctrinal framework, among a number of analysts there is an ongoing argument on the aspects of the consolidation of post-communist democracies and party systems. As Gary Cox points out, party systems are subject to market-clearing expectations that in the long term produce equilibrium between the demand and supply of candidates.

With a membership of more than 180,000, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is the strongest opposition party. Its candidate has been second in every presidential election since the demise of the Soviet Union. Gennady Zyuganov, the party leader, lost the first-round vote to then-President Boris Yeltsin in 1996 by a margin of just 3 percent.
Although the KPRF has attracted prestigious candidates opposed to the ruling regime, they have generally lacked ideological credentials. Mr. Zyuganov, aged 67, has ruled the party since 1993, but now relies largely on protest votes for his popularity. After he announced his intention to run for president, he said: “A gang of people who cannot do anything in life apart from make dollars and profits and mumble has humiliated the country.”

A Just Russia also appeals to a left-leaning electorate with promises of a new socialism for the 21st century. The party is commonly rumored to have been set up by the Kremlin in 2006 to take votes away from the Communists. Its leader Sergei Mironov was speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament from 2001 to 2011. Formerly a faithful Putin supporter, he announced his intention to run for president last December.

Another long-standing political actor is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) since its foundation in 1991. While claiming to be anti-government, boasting several nationalist slogans, the party has voted in favor of almost all major government initiatives. The remaining parties – the liberal-leaning Yabloko, Right Cause and Patriots of Russia – only have single-figure approval ratings, so do not pose a credible opposition. Yabloko put forward the economist and intellectual Grigory Yavlinsky as its candidate in the election. Russian billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov also announced his candidacy to run for the country’s top office. For most of the past decade, big money has stayed out of Russian politics. But this year Mr. Prokhorov joined the Right Cause party – designed to appeal to a liberal-leaning, urban electorate – and announced his intention to take Mr. Putin’s job as prime minister. Mr. Prokhorov’s announcement that he would be running as an independent caused a stir in the media – especially after he promised to release the jailed oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky if he was elected.

Current Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin will win the presidential election on March 4 with 58.6 percent of the vote in the first round, according to a survey conducted by the state-run polling institution VTsIOM. The poll surveyed 1,600 people across Russia on February 11 and 12, 2012. “On February 11, we conducted a survey and forecast the following: Vladimir Putin will win 58.6 percent of the vote, KPRF candidate Gennady Zyuganov will take second place with 14.8 percent, and Liberal Democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky will come in third with 9.4 percent. Billionaire presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov will get 8.7 percent of the vote and A Just Russia's Sergei Mironov will get 7.7 percent,” VTsIOM Head Valery Fyodorov said on Monday.

Stability, the lack of a viable alternative and patriotism were the main reasons behind another likely victory for Putin. Many people say that they cannot see any other candidate capable of leading Russia right now. The most repeated slogan in his campaign is “Vote for stability – vote for Putin!”. Many Russians view Putin as the strong, decisive figure that is needed by a sprawling country plagued by corruption, an Islamist insurgency and massive economic inequality.

“Under Putin we have stability and food on the table. What more can you ask for?” asks a Russian man who joined in one of the meetings held in Moscow in support of Mr. Putin. “I want stability to continue – and that is what we have now. Of course, Russia has lots of problems, but Putin has built a foundation for the future. I don’t want a return to the 1990s, and the economic default of 1998,” said engineer Sergei Andreyev in the same meeting. “If Putin fails to win in the first round of elections and has to face a run-off, this will be a major signal from society that things need to change,” says Dmitry Babich, a political analyst at RIA Novosti. “But I’m sure he’ll win in the second round. There’s not a single figure to unite the opposition like there was in 1991; there isn't even a group of individuals who could agree among themselves.”


How do the Russian people feel about liberal democracy and transparency mechanisms in their country? Through waves of modernization Russian society is becoming more transparent. The well-educated younger generation is becoming more actively involved in the important issues of the country, and the number of multinational companies doing business in Russia and the number of Russian companies doing business in various regions of the world are increasing rapidly. In particular, the young middle class is very different from “the New Soviet Man” – they no longer accept the role of silent and passive onlookers as was the case in Soviet times. They now have political awareness and understand the concept of continuity and change in ideology and political behavior. Making use of the opportunities created by the freedom of the press, they are demanding a more transparent and competitive political life and a better standard of living. Their aim is to establish increasingly advanced modern political institutions. They want pluralism and free elections and are raising their voice through the media to express these desires. In other words, these protestors, on the whole, support a multi-party political system and competitive free elections. They are becoming more interested in both the domestic and foreign policies of the government and they no longer trust governmental bureaucracy. They are also asking for economic stability and want to live in a more prosperous country.

Thus, people from different social strata were involved in the protests and demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities. The crowds that gathered in these protests demanded a re-run of the Duma elections that took place on December 4, 2011 since, it was alleged, United Russia, the winner of the elections, had engaged in massive fraud and the elections were not fair.

Recently, most experts in international relations have agreed that there is a remarkable and fast-moving transformation happening in Russian society and the economy, which is very different from the revolutions that took place in both Tsarist and Bolshevik Russian life in the early 20th century. In order to maintain this transformation, of course, Russian society needs to possess the same democratic mechanisms that exist in the developed countries. The majority of Russian citizens feel that they are ready to devote their attention, time and efforts to participating in these transformations.

When looked at closely, it is clear that the Russian people are tired of the widespread corruption, crime and abuse of authority in their country. They are also dissatisfied with the poor infrastructure and standard of living in the country and claim that the government’s performance in addressing these issues is not good enough. In these circumstances, the opposition parties argue that the government is running a familiar campaign of “no change”, but many elites and some intellectuals are unhappy with the status quo. How can we assess these developments? Is it possible to interpret all these things simply as good intentions and wishes of the people or do they carry any important signals of change for the political decision makers?

Putin’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, stated that “the system needs revising. New organizers are needed with different views on the political system.” On another occasion, Kasparov addressed the crowd saying “Putin will meet with us, with the people of Russia. We have the power to send him where he belongs. Putin’s third term will be a prison term.” Another opposition leader, Zhirinovsky, said: “It will be difficult for him to answer. He has been in charge for 13 years, since August 1999. Maybe he is not guilty of anything by himself, (but) there are a lot of negatives in everything that happened during these 13 years.”

The recent awakening of the Russian people can be interpreted as a sign that people want to close the door on the old regime and its heritage and open a new, transparent window on to a modern democratic state model. The Russian middle class, which played a big role in the protests and demonstrations, is fragmented in its thinking. There is no common ideology to unite them. However, it is possible to classify these people into three categories: entrepreneurs, businessmen, and bureaucrats who are all demanding real transition in the democratic framework. The protestors used fierce anti-government slogans during the demonstrations such as “Russia for Russians!”, “Putin ukhodi! (Putin Go!)”, and “Rossiya bez Putina (Russia without Putin)”. These slogans, which reflect rather nationalist reactions to the problems, may have an effect on the new Russian political behavior and foreign policy strategies.


In order to fully grasp the recent situation and Russia's transition to democracy, we have to remember the crucial events of 1999. In that year the Kremlin declared that Putin had been nominated as prime minister. When Putin became acting president, the international community still did not know exactly who he was. Since December 1993, Russia and its political institutions have achieved a degree of stability, but after Putin came to power this stability was consolidated by his government’s policies. The presidential election of 2003-2004 was criticized because of claims that although the election was free, it was still a long way off being fair. Putin won because people thought that he believed in European ideals and was oriented toward European models of culture, politics and democracy. With this election the stabilization of the political system and economic order that the president had achieved since 2000 was confirmed.

The Russian elite is split between “liberals” and “statists,” but it is more complicated than that. Within the elite, there are conflicting business interests, but also many intermingling and overlapping ones – between private oligarchs and top siloviki officials, for example. Both the “liberal” and “statist” elite ultimately agree on the need to preserve the broad status quo in society, where a handful of well-connected insiders keep their hands firmly on the levers of wealth and power. “People are demanding more respect from the authorities,” says Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

How did the government react to the criticisms about the recent Duma elections? It did not accept the allegations, yet promised to carry out reforms in the Russian Constitution and political system. Indeed, just before the election, the secretary of United Russia, Sergei Neverov, said that both the non-systemic and systemic opposition were looking for ways of justifying their disastrous performance ahead of time, because they knew that none of their candidates could win in any kind of competition with Putin.

The Russian people have heard sensitive responses from Putin about the criticisms. It seems that Putin has understood this historical and critical message and has drawn attention to the level which civil society has reached in Russia by saying that civil society in Russia had acted in a mature, active and responsible way during the recent events and the government had to keep up with the pace of this growing public activity. Putin has outlined three key points to eliminate the risk of importing a kind of Arab Spring uprising or the color revolutions that took place in the former socialist countries a few years ago. In order to avoid such a negative outcome and to trigger further developments in democracy:

*Russia must develop its democratic institutions;
*People should participate more in political processes and understand that the formation of power and main directions in economic and social policies depend on them;
*Russia should prevent any foreign involvement in the country’s domestic affairs and in those of its neighbors as well.

Putin has promised Russian society that, with his economic reform agenda, he is going to enhance the country’s role as a producer of constantly advancing high-end technologies in sectors as diverse as space, pharmaceuticals, information technology and nanotechnology.

Taking all these factors into account, it can be concluded that the protests and demonstrations in Russia are very different from the events known as the Arab Spring which has emerged in the Middle Eastern and North African Arab countries. There are several reasons for this. First of all, there is no strong candidate to start and lead the revolt. In domestic politics, there is no working consensus mechanism among opposition actors in either the Communist Party or among the Liberal Democrats. In fact, industrial workers in the Ural region have supported and are in favor of Putin’s policies. Thus, when we compare the conditions during the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and those of today, it is clear that the Russian people are not keen on another revolution in their country.

Secondly, the Russian protestors are asking for more democratic participation, but they still support the economic system and are generally content with improvements in that area. There is no bloody domestic conflict to replace or arrest the country's leaders as happened to Mubarak and Gaddafi. Nor has there been any excessive use of force by the police or military against the Russian protestors, thankfully resulting in an absence of deaths from snipers or artillery bombardment. In Moscow, for example, the December protests were authorized by the city government, and there were no reports of police violence or arrests. The crowd in Moscow, which consisted in the main of middle class youths, is essentially different from the ones in Tripoli, Tahrir Square or on the streets of Homs.

Thirdly, and more importantly, in spite of some criticism from the international community, no foreign power is capable of interfering in Russian domestic affairs as happened in some Arab countries. In fact, the EU and NATO are aiming to eliminate or cripple the Russia-China partnership by further strengthening relations with Russia and they would like to see Russia as a part of the West in terms of economy, diplomacy and military power. The OSCE is also putting forward logical recommendations acceptable to Russia to improve Russian democracy, because they are aware that Moscow is one of the most important partners of this organization. However, some of the recent developments regarding NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, NATO’s missile shield project, and the color revolutions taking place in Russia's neighboring countries have been perceived as a re-containment strategy of the country by the U.S. Thus, Russian politicians think that Washington is seeking to eliminate Russia's nuclear deterrence capacity. Furthermore, there is a possibility that the Arab Spring could spread into Syria and Iran in the near future. This will definitely threaten Russia's neighbors, in which Russia feels it has both responsibilities and interests. Therefore, Moscow might face new challenges on its southern borders. Its recent veto of the UN resolution condemning the al-Assad regime in Syria can be seen as a response to that threat. On the other hand, by supporting al-Assad, Russia risks worsening its relations with other Arab counties unhappy with the al-Assad regime and its policies in Syria. To confront these threats, Putin has announced new security policies and modernization reforms in the Russian army.


In line with Russian expectations on the 2012 presidential election process, international observers agree that Putin will receive enough of an endorsement from the electorate (most probably in the first round), to be elected president once again. Will Putin’s victory bring about new waves of protests? Many analysts believe it will, yet I believe that even though we might witness some new protests, they will not change the political atmosphere in Russia. However, it is true that more democratic mechanisms should be set up and participation in political affairs should be encouraged. What difference will the presidential election on March 4 make? Firstly, the new president will determine the shape and direction of the course of modernization in Russia and its economy in a fiercely competitive world. The country’s economy has to compete with the EU, the U.S., Japan and China, so the government has to make the best use of the country’s natural sources, mainly oil and gas. Secondly, Russia is facing the most serious challenge in terms of security and foreign policies that the country has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new leader will have to generate efficient policies to confront these challenges. In this respect, I believe Putin is the best choice due to the experience he gained during his terms both as president and as prime minister. We must keep in mind that, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power, Russia will remain a key player in world politics. Once elected, Putin will have a historic responsibility to better understand his citizens’ demands for greater democracy. It will be up to Putin to determine whether the Russian train will be moving toward greater democracy, wealth and leadership in the world or whether it will steer a different course.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.