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Things the way they really are

After his victory, Putin is facing protests from the most active sector of civil society

In Russia, things have gone back to being the way they really are. Sunday’s presidential elections have exposed a political farce. Vladimir Putin, who has been calling the shots from behind the scenes all along, will once more become president of the Russian Federation in May, this time for six years; and his obedient lieutenant, Dmitri Medvedev, will foreseeably go back to his former post of prime minister. So far, there are no surprises in sight.

Yet not everything will return to being just as it was, for Russia has changed in recent years. The country’s emerging civil society, made up of fast-developing middle classes, young people and intellectuals — especially in Moscow and St Petersburg — began to protest after the all too obvious fixing of the elections to the Duma parliament last December. In spite of the regime’s capacity for repression, it cannot be ruled out that a sort of “Russian spring” may snowball in the near future, in a country that jettisoned its communist regime but has so far failed to arrive at a genuinely democratic one.

During the elections, fraud and a number of irregularities were detected by international observers, but Putin was unlikely to have needed these to win the presidential elections, even in the first round. Even his control of state television might not have been necessary, nor his veto against certain candidates, such as the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky.

Putin is still very popular in rural regions, as well as counting on huge support among the part of the population that benefits from gas and petroleum income.

The nearly 64 percent of the vote that brought him victory, however, conceals growing public dissatisfaction with politics in Russia.

Putin, who on election night was unwilling to pronounce the conventional pious formula in which a winner declares that he will be everyone’s president, will be fooling himself if he decides to ignore the widespread desire for change — in the machinery of politics, and in the economy — that exists in the more dynamic sectors of the population.

And he may be overreaching himself if he thinks that, with his admittedly multifaceted cultural background as a former KGB agent, he is going to govern Russia for another 12 years — which would bring him to a total of 26, more than the long period of stagnation under Brezhnev.

Russia, which many observers hesitate to call an emerging country in spite of its growth in recent years, must transform its economy, cease to depend almost exclusively on raw material exports, curb corruption, and build an authentically democratic state based on honest elections. However disappointing it may be to Putin (whose nationalist rhetoric is worrying), Russia will never again be the superpower that it was during the Cold War — though it will certainly be a country of great importance, which has to find its due place within Europe and the world.


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