Russia's 2011/2012 electoral cycle has been a stage in a process, not the resolution of the country's future course. The principal actors will have to adapt to new realities.
The Duma opposition parties are headed by politicians whose time is up. Neither Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Gennady Zyuganov would be remotely credible in a future presidential contest. Both their parties will have to reconsider what they are for, and who should lead them, if they are not to decline further.
United Russia has taken a hit. Vladimir Putin has deserted them. So have the voters, except where coerced. The next government will need them as voting fodder, and for their regional dominance, but the steam has gone out of them, even as a career weapon for the ambitious. Reinventing them or replacing them will be a tough ask for the Kremlin.
The 'non-systemic' opposition have had a splendid three months. Putin's hold over crucial parts of the Russian electorate, particularly in Moscow, has been broken. In the longer run, it may be as well that the protest movement, while covering most tendencies, has yet to generate a party structure or structures. The movement is too disparate to submit to disciplined leadership and Russia has, in any case, suffered too long from 'strong men'. Time is needed for the various elements opposing Putin to form longer term purposes and instruments. The problem for these groups is what to do now? Protesting about falsification and demanding Putin’s ouster will have a limited shelf life.
Putin's tasks are to make himself fully legitimate, and to decide how to deal with Russia’s social and economic problems. Both the Duma and the presidential elections were seen as fraudulent. The scale of the protests went beyond what Russia's rulers expected. Putin avoided campaigning as far as he could, preferring to rely on promises of future largesse and warnings that there would be chaos without him.
Russian political life will in principle become more public now, and – again in principle – more changeable. That will not suit the ruling elite. Putin's instinctive preference for the media to be subject to strict control has been confirmed over the past several months. Pressures on the more independent minded radio stations and print media will probably increase. The internet is less easy to control, and more liable to spread exaggerated ideas.
Putin's tolerance level will be closely monitored, along of course with his attitude towards independent political movements. He held no dialogue with the protestors before his re-election to the Presidency. Nor did he engage in debate with other candidates, preferring a series of gnomic essays on where he thought Russia should head. His pronouncements on international relations were similarly declaratory, with hostility towards the West in general and the United States in particular featuring quite strongly – and going well beyond what might be put down simply to pre-electoral posturing.
What to Expect
The proposition that a Putin.2 will emerge rests therefore more on the logic of hope than the evidence to date. The latter signals Putin.4, meaning more of the same in what will in effect be Putin's fourth term. Greater openness and accountability would be essential if Putin were to pursue a significant attempt to modernise the Russian economy. The risks of such an effort would be considerable, and there is no present compulsion for the next government in Moscow to do more than work around the issue. Nothing in what Putin said or wrote during the pre-electoral period suggested that he had major ambitions for structural reform. His promises of extra expenditure from an already committed budget were a hostage to fortune. And the Russian public has not been prepared for the stresses of structural change.
The next step will be for Putin to nominate a Prime Minister, and for a new government to be formed. It is unlikely that the 10 March opposition demonstration will do much to influence that. If it is large, it is likely to incline Putin more towards the bunker than towards conciliation. He may in any case be too late for weight to be given to any promises he shall give, for instance to attack corruption. What he says is no longer credited by a goodly slice of his domestic audience.
Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West
Chatham House Report
Philip Hanson, James Nixey, Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood, February 2012