Before the presidential elections in Russia, many Western television channels and newspapers were playing with a standard forecast. Disappointed with the lack of genuine rivals and "the growth of authoritarian trends in the Kremlin," the grey Russian masses will stay at home, preferring domestic pleasures than the polling stations. As a result, Putin will win, but only just, with the turnout only slightly more than the critical 50%. The poor Russians, who have become reconciled to their fate, do not care who rules the country - provided their situation does not deteriorate.
But these forecasts did not come true. Russians came to the polling stations in numbers that dwarfed the turnout for the December 2003 elections to the State Duma - 64% as against 53%. And Putin got the long predicted but nevertheless striking majority of votes - over 71%.
At the same time, about 30% of the electorate opted for the other five candidates or voted "for none of the above," thus proclaiming their desire for left- or right-wing changes. This is a reasonable counterbalance pointing to the solid and properly representative nature of the elections.
In short, no matter how much the West may criticise Putin, describing him as a new "tsar" or "dictator," and no matter how hard the West may be weeping about the sad (in its view) situation of Russian democracy, the Russian people thought differently. And they decided that Putin is the president the country needs now. One is impressed not so much by figures, as by the accompanying popular trust in this average-looking man who does not like to put on any airs. Indeed, this trust sometimes borders on fanaticism.
I was shocked by what a good acquaintance of mine told me in the polling station in my block in downtown Moscow. Usually very calm, this lady looked agitated. "Know what I am thinking?" she asked leading me away. "Don't think I'm crazy. If something threatened Putin - a disease, a shot, or anything else - I would sacrifice my life to save him."
This feeling of loyalty and nearly religious respect, which the Russian president inspires in the broad masses of the people, has no rational explanation.
One can say that recent economic achievements are the key. Indeed, Putin carried on liberal reforms, slashed income tax and ensured political stability during his first term, thus allowing Russian and foreign business to make long-term development and investment plans.
High oil prices are a good thing, but without Putin's commitment to reforms, Russia would have hardly attained 7% economic growth, reduced its foreign debts to a level that is lower than in France, outpaced the USA and China in its gold and currency reserves, and become the world's leader in the daily production of oil, leaving Saudi Arabia behind.
For ordinary Russians, these macroeconomic considerations are too complicated. But they have a simple embodiment: wages and salaries are growing and the saturation of the market with consumer goods, including in the provinces, is better than the dreams they used to entertain in Soviet times. Moreover, such hitherto unheard of things as medical insurance and mortgages are becoming facts of everyday life.
This is the material side, which would not have impressed Russians so much without the idealised public view of Putin, a president so unlike his aged and ailing predecessors, who drowned the dignity of Russia's representatives in drink. Putin works day and night, and does not misappropriate funds, and so the people are not ashamed to face foreign countries, whose leaders talk with him as equal partners.
But the main thing is that Putin is reviving in the people the feeling of national unity, which withered in the 1990s. The president is becoming the embodiment of the unity of the country, which once seemed to have been irrevocably torn apart.
The 48 million voters who cast their ballots for him understand or feel this. And it appears that after March 14 this understanding is dawning on the most serious Western analysts, including those who suddenly decided in the past few months that Putin is bad for the West and hence for Russia.
Meanwhile, this equation is completely wrong. Russians understand their president better than foreign observers. The thing is that Russians compare the modern, relatively stable Russia with the chaos, anarchy and impoverishment of a decade ago. But foreign observers compare the situation in Putin's Russia with the standards of democracy in western Europe, disregarding the fact that Russia is making a unique and historically nearly instantaneous turn from a centralised economy to a market, a turn which no other country in the world has made before.
Much of what outrages Western observers is seen by the Russians who voted for Putin as a forced but temporary and partly even normal thing. It is true that Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in prison, but the bosses of America's Enron, Italy's Parmalat and other pillars of Western business are also sitting behind bars on suspicion of economic crimes. The courts will determine the origin of the $5 bln of personal capital found in the Swiss accounts of Khodorkovsky and his partners.
It is true that the independent NTV channel now has new masters and the TV6 channel was closed down, but what state would tolerate the information racket to which the authorities were subjected by the owners of those channels, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, the two oligarchs who fled abroad? Besides, Western experts say that the standards of the freedom of speech in the programmes of the new NTV are the same and sometimes even higher than the said standards in western Europe and the USA.
An impressive majority of Russian people voted for this assessment on Sunday. Many Western analysts admit that it would be a gross mistake to describe these Russians as a crowd deceived by "Kremlin propaganda" or overwhelmed by the notorious "administrative resource." Wouldn't it be more reasonable to assume that on March 14 Russians decided to listen to their hearts rather than the West?
Not all Western thinkers are prepared to concede to this. On Sunday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to give Russians a lesson in democracy that the international community would recognise. At his victorious press conference after midnight, Putin explained Powell's phrase by citing "the political line-up" in the USA but promised to "listen to all the criticism."
"We will not stop now but will work to strengthen the multiparty system," said the re-elected president. "We will strengthen civil society and do everything possible to ensure the media's freedom."
The signs of the new, Putin's Russia are also discernible in the work of foreign observers at the elections. Their number fell from 1200, who monitored the Duma elections in December 2003, to merely 800 on March 14. This can hardly be interpreted as a loss of interest. Rather, it means a drop in scandalous expectations. The West no longer views Russia as a crisis-spawning country. Russia is now regarded as a country with more or less normal standards of democracy.
The 800 foreign observers represented more than 25 national and international organisations from 50 countries. The largest delegation (about 340) came from the OSCE, while PACE sent a group of only 13 observers, who did not register any major violations.
It is interesting that PACE appointed Rudolf Bindig, its rapporteur on Chechnya, to lead the delegation. Known for his fierce criticism of the human rights situation in Chechnya, Bindig nevertheless rejected an offer from the State Duma international affairs committee to monitor the presidential elections in Grozny or some other settlement of the republic.
It appears that PACE lost a considerable share of its interest in Chechnya when Putin turned the war there into an internal conflict, changed the tactic of major mop-up operations into addressee inspection of documents by spetsnaz troops, eliminated or neutralised over 30 prominent field commanders (in particular Raduyev, Khattab, Barayev and Gelayev), and held the successful constitutional referendum and elections of the republic's president.
Chechnya is no longer interesting for Bindig, which is good. The normalisation of the situation in the North Caucasus was one of the factors that encouraged the people's support for the president. Putin won over 92% of the vote in Chechnya. In short, on March 14 Russia voted proceeding from its interests and experience, rather than foreign ideas of what kind of president it should have.