The forecasts have come true: Russian President Vladimir Putin has been re-elected, as numerous analysts, political experts and millions of ordinary people all over Russia had predicted.
What will his second term be like? This is where forecasting becomes more difficult. Although Putin has been at the focus of attention in Russia and the world for more than four years now, has had thousands of articles and dozens of books written about him, and his every step carefully recorded by cameramen and reporters, he remains an enigma to many people.
A conservative or a reformer? An etatist or a liberal? A believer in strong-hand politics or an advocate of consensus in international relations? In the past four years, journalists and political scientists have said all they could think up about Putin, and, strange as it may be, have seldom, if ever, sinned against the truth. A conservative reformer, a liberal etatist, a peacemaker with a sense of his own strength - these descriptions all fit him, and all are true.
However, Putin himself has provided the best and most precise description, especially where it concerns his future intentions. His programme for his second presidential term was clear enough. Economic growth orientated towards doubling GDP in the next ten years and the eradication of poverty were the main planks of this programme, which was short on politics but long on economics. Indeed, for Russia this came as a refreshing change and, as we can see, was stunningly popular with the voters.
It is unlikely, however, that enough attention will be paid to the fact that Putin won more votes yesterday than four years ago. One could interpret this result in the following way: voters not only endorsed the president's intentions for his second term, but trust his ability to carry these plans through.
Putin first announced his programme during his address to the Federal Assembly last year. A start has not yet been made to the programme's large-scale implementation, which may seem surprising, but is a fact. There is a simple explanation for this. The legacy Putin inherited in 2000 was devastating and disastrous: a shattered economy, a weakly and irrationally run state, a corrupt bureaucracy, and separatist tendencies on the part of regional elites. Any attempts to address economic reforms without repairing the state machinery first would have been pointless. But now, four years later, the reconstruction work is nearly over. Separatism is a thing of the past; the rebellious North Caucasus republic of Chechnya adopted a constitution in 2003 describing itself as an inseparable part of the Russian Federation. A government reform has been launched to make the executive branch in Russia a transparent and effectively functioning instrument understandable to society and accountable to it. And last but not least, society itself, which swung in the 1990s between liberal and communist values, has agreed to and adopted a liberal programme of economic reform. The programme put forward by Vladimir Putin.
Now the Russian president is in a position to carry his undertaking to the end. The huge percentage of votes cast for him on March 14 indicates that Russians are pinning great hopes on Putin.
Surprisingly, over the past twenty years, the Russian state has had no time to deal with the country's economy. The first obstacle was the Soviet-era restructuring or perestroika, which opened the way for freedom of speech and made everyone aware of human rights, but at the same time diverted the state's energies away from economic problems. Then a new and independent Russia rose from the ruins of the USSR, but refused to forget its past, and paid undue attention to politics, often to the detriment of the economy. The fight between the communists and democrats, the war in Chechnya, regular wrangles with the West concerning Nato's enlargement, all absorbed the state's main efforts. Virtually nothing was left for economic reforms. And what economic reforms could there be when until only very recently Russia's chief economic woe was its foreign debt. Before Putin came to the Kremlin it stood at 160 billion dollars, a small sum by global standards, but still four times the revenue of the Russian federal budget in those days.
Today all these problems are in the past, as is Putin's first presidential term. What is going to happen next? What form will the president's conceived economic reforms take and how will they be implemented? Perhaps Putin himself does not know for sure yet. However, no one should doubt that these reforms will be implemented.