Putin and the yearning for a new Russian empire
In his search for absolute power and legitimacy, Putin and his allies in the Kremlin set a target for him to receive at least 70 percent of the vote from a 70 percent turnout. As it happens, he was re-elected by a landslide with more than 76 percent of the vote, although “only” 67.5 percent of the voters turned out on election day. Has a third of the Russian population lost faith in Putin and the political system he has foisted on them, and was this their way of protesting? Or was it that they just couldn’t be bothered to participate in a charade of an election, the results of which were known even before the first ballot was cast? The landslide was guaranteed months ago, when Putin’s main political rival, Alexei Navalny, was disqualified. This left any challenge by the opposition as mere lip service to democracy. It also shows that, just like other authoritarian leaders at the height of their power who can win elections without needing to fix them, Putin still set himself an artificial target that he believed granted him legitimacy at home and abroad. This might point more to insecurity than to confidence in his position. But what is truly frightening is that this renewed mandate enables Putin to rule Russia quite ruthlessly, and with almost no checks or balances.
Putin’s popularity, which would have assured him of election victory even against genuine opposition, is not the consequence of any improvement in his people’s standard of living. In 2017, real disposable income continued to fall, despite the increase in oil prices which Russia has enjoyed as a major producer. The poverty rate increased marginally in the first half of 2017 to 15 percent, while the proportion of the vulnerable population continued to grow. Russia is ranked 135 in the index of corruption, which is one of the worst on this table of corrupt countries. A combination of poor economic performance and widespread corruption was hardly a reason to vote for Putin.
What, then, is the secret of his election victory? It’s rather simple: Russian nationalist revivalism and rule by fear. His victory represents the longing for a Russian empire — not the Soviet Union, as there is not a communist bone in the Russian president’s body. But there are plenty of nationalist ones. It is his Russian nationalism and conservatism that guide his belligerent foreign policy and his unwavering determination to resurrect Russia’s leading position in world affairs. He has managed thus far to do so in Syria; by preventing the expansion of NATO and the European Union from pushing too close to his country’s borders; by invading Georgia; and by annexing Crimea. In the early days of his presidency, he managed also to stabilize and unite the country in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet era. For some he restored pride and they repay him with their support; in others he has instilled a fear of opposing him when they see what happens to those who have done so, at home and abroad.
What, then, is the secret of his election victory? It’s rather simple: Russian nationalist revivalism and rule by fear. His victory represents the longing for a Russian empire — not the Soviet Union, as there is not a communist bone in the Russian president’s body. But there are plenty of nationalist ones.
Putin’s inner circle, in their audacity and cynicism while a father and daughter are still fighting for their lives after an assassination attempt using military-grade nerve toxin, are exploiting the situation to their own political ends. According to the British government, the perpetrator of this callous attack is the Russian government or those close to it. Still, Putin’s cronies were grateful to his accusers for supplying him with more votes: “Thanks to Britain, they’ve ensured a level of turnout we weren’t hoping to achieve by ourselves.” This is an alarming state of mind, which could easily lead to the conclusion that Putin had an interest in the assassination plan, in sheer defiance of international law and in utter disregard of innocent people’s lives and well-being.
All things considered, one cannot but envision more of the same from the re-elected and rejuvenated Putin. However, he does it at the risk of irking the international community and suffering further sanctions on his country. As for many ordinary Russians, they must feel the same as another character in “1984,” who dreamt that that one day “we shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” But that may take six years, if not longer, since relinquishing power does not appear to be in Putin’s DNA.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.