Vladimir Putin’s participation in a mass rally of his political supporters this week marked a significant change of tack for a leader who has in the past worked to keep politics off the streets, made necessary by pressure from his critics, analysts said.
Whether this departure from political rules of the game established and cemented by the 59-year-old Russian leader over the past 12 years will translate into the kind of lasting and meaningful political reform that many critics – and even some Putin supporters – say are needed however remains to be seen, they said.
“If mass demonstrations have become the ‘fashionable’ political trend, then the leader cannot lag behind if he wants to win the race,” said Yevgeny Minchenko, head of the Institute for Political Expertise, a Moscow think tank.
That race is the Russian presidential election on March 4 in which Putin and a handful of others are candidates. Polls indicate Putin, who was forced to exit the Kremlin in 2008 after two consecutive terms as president as stipulated by the Constitution, will be elected handily without a runoff vote.
While the rally Thursday at a Moscow sports stadium may have seemed a run-of-the-mill campaign event in some countries, it was in many ways unprecedented for post-Soviet Russia, notably in terms of the size of the crowd and the fact that it was not disguised as anything but a political rally for one man.
“Different people came here, of various ages, ethnic groups and religious beliefs,” Putin, standing alone at the center of a giant, square platform on the field of the stadium, said in his address to the crowd.
In an energetic campaign speech as brief as it was simple and likely to appeal widely to Russian voters far from Moscow and St. Petersburg, Putin said: “We came here to say that we love Russia!” He was cheered as he stepped down from the platform to shake hands with dozens of rally participants.
While the rally itself and Putin’s participation in it were unusual by Russian political standards of the past dozen years, Minchenko said the event followed the standard playbook of political one-upmanship: Copying effective moves by opponents, but investing more in them for stronger effect.
Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst and Putin campaign aide, acknowledged that Putin’s appearance at the mass rally in his own support was a change of tactics for the veteran Russian leader but said this should come as a surprise to no one.
“We see a rapid rise in political activity of the masses,” Markov said. “They want to participate in politics and want to be heard. Putin’s attempt to address this demand by recognizing the importance of public politics is a rational policy shift.”
Putin has of course attended political rallies in the past. By contrast with Thursday’s rally, however, those events – the 2007 United Russia Party conference, for example – were attended by carefully-selected participants and were generally billed as rallies in favor of a party, or organization.
And since first being elected president in 2000, Putin has established a record of trying to minimize spontaneous public participation in politics, often using uncompromising crackdowns by law enforcement on opposition groups trying to advance their agendas through street actions.
Political analysts have in the past characterized Putin’s dominance of Russian politics as a kind of tacit “social contract” under which the public agrees to stay on the margins of political activity in exchange for the authorities delivering wealth and higher standards of living.
Cracks in that social deal however appeared suddenly last December when tens of thousands of largely middle-class citizens took to the streets to protest against what they charged were fraudulent parliamentary elections in which Putin’s United Russia party retained the majority in the lower chamber.
That wave of protest “for fair elections” quickly morphed into a generalized – if not well-focused – movement in opposition to Putin himself or at least the political status-quo that has grown up in Russia on his watch, analysts said.
Markov said the new political landscape in Russia, and Putin’s response to it, could in fact spur the Russian leader to push faster for political reforms that his critics are demanding.
“If Putin does not start reform fast enough, this energy will turn into a drive directed against him,” Markov stated.
Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, was however less inclined to speculate on deep and wide political reform emerging from the current shifts in the Russian political landscape.
Few leaders pursue reforms late in their time in power, Petrov said, and with Putin and his 12 years of leading the country already under his belt, no one should expect him to be any exception.
“Putin’s participation at the rally on Thursday is not the sign of a reformed leader, despite all the pledges of the reforms he made recently,” Petrov said.
He noted that Putin’s opponents in the presidential election had been carefully selected and said that despite this plurality of candidates it was still ultimately the Kremlin that decides the rules of the game for campaigns and elections.
“The authorities, perhaps, feel that the old blunt methods to achieve political results are becoming increasingly ineffective,” Petrov said. “But they can’t resist using the vast administrative advantages they have over any rivals to pursue their own interests.”