Vladimir Putin’s advisors have finally come to the conclusion that “Size does matter”. Their strategy to fight back against the opposition’s challenge can be summed up with the phrase, “The bigger the better”. The massive pro-Putin rally at the Luzhniki arena, Moscow’s main stadium, was ostensibly organized by trade unions and such organizations. It bore all the hallmarks of a state-sponsored event, including a 17-car special train, chartered to bring workers from the Urals to Russia’s capital. This would have been impossible if Russian Railways, a state owned company, said “no” to this. But it did not and could not. A 100,000 strong rally saw Mr. Putin imploring the audience, made up mostly of civil servants and employees of state-owned factories, to “love Russia”. Facebook and Twitter are bubbling with messages by the pro-Kremlin activists, declaring their support for the prime minister.
Paradoxically, this just shows how successful the disparate Russian opposition turned out to be. Probably for the first time since his coming to power in 1999-2000 Mr Putin has to prove to the population at large that he still commands its support. In his public appearances he is trying to be more nuanced and move away from his image of a benign if stern autocrat who always knows best. In his speech at Luzhniki he seemed to fluctuate between the usual besieged “Fortress Russia” rhetoric and inclusivity, inviting everyone to work for the good of the country. People that were gathered in the stadium looked and sounded mildly excited by the fact that they were witnessing Putin himself, however, there was no frenzy and the crowd was clearly amused more than excited.
While public opinion surveys have been showing the premier gaining ground and winning the presidency in the first round, quite a few questions remain. Firstly, how will the Russians really vote? Polls here are notoriously unreliable because people tend to hide their political preferences and give answers that they don't think will land them in trouble. The vote-rigging machine of the state apparatus in the regions seems to have switched into overdrive. Regional governors, who are appointed by the Kremlin, will be held personally responsible for the “correct" results of the vote.
At the same time, on March 4 the opposition is preparing to field many more election monitors than during the December 4 State Duma elections. This creates nearly infinite potential for scandals, especially in the two capitals. If the authorities let the voting proceed honestly in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Mr. Putin may well fail to get even half the votes there. If the electoral commission bureaucrats and municipal bosses decide to rig the vote massively they are bound to face a backlash, which will only draw attention to the fact that Putin is losing Russia’s capital cities. In both cases Mr Putin’s reputation is bound to suffer.
Another question is “What will the opposition do next?” The Kremlin is counting on emotions dying down in the wake of March 4 polling and the situation returning, if not to the blessed days of 2007-2008 “stability,” then at least to some form of calm which would let the Russian ruling class get on with the business as usual.
This is unlikely. The opposition is indeed not very strong yet, although its ability to persevere and keep up the pressure on the authorities should not be underestimated. Rather, the government’s ability to retain a firm grip on the country is in doubt. I have recently spoken to several mid-level civil servants and all agree: Russia’s bureaucracy is in a state of flux and is more and more uncertain of the future, especially when it comes to those civil servants who work in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Events in the small town of Lermontov where the police refused to evict hunger strikers protesting election rigging from the local administration building may be a small but powerful hint of what the future holds for Putin and his team if they pretend that in these four years Russia was only dreaming of their return.
The third and final question is “What new can Vladimir Putin offer the country?” “Stability”, his key slogan, seems not to find the same resonance with the Russians as it did in his first two terms as president. People in Russia are now much more used to stability than they were even three or four years ago, exactly because Putin’s policies provided for it and so they cherish stability less. More and more they have a vague feeling that it’s time to move on. Vladimir Putin seems not to be able to find a new theme for the future, the country’s and his own. Instead he sounds repetitive and, ultimately, uninspiring. This may prove to be his biggest challenge yet.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.