Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 7

Vladimir Putin’s first-round victory in the March 26 presidential election did not come as a big surprise. Indeed, the biggest surprise may have been the fact that he managed to win only 52 percent of the vote, given that, as acting head of state, he enjoyed a monopoly over the state’s administrative resources and its media, including the two all-important state television channels. And while Putin’s closest rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, came in a distant second, with some 29 percent of the vote, this was no cause for celebration. Zyuganov’s second-place showing was, on the one hand, a reminder that his Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), while gradually losing influence, remained the single most popular party on Russia’s fractured political landscape. Putin himself admitted as much, conceding during a briefing late election night that he had enjoyed clear advantages over Zyuganov in the campaign and saying that the concerns of the KPRF’s electorate had to be heeded, including their demands for the state’s “social protection.”

On the other hand, Putin defeated Zyuganov in an overwhelming majority of the regions making up the “Red Belt,” the arc of pro-KPRF regions stretching across southern Russia. Putin won in the Communist stronghold of Krasnodar, and even squeaked by Zyuganov in the KPRF’s leader native region of Orel. These inroads were obviously not due to Putin’s promises to continue economic reforms and maintain a Western-oriented foreign policy. Rather, Putin won over the Red Belt with his unapologetic prosecution of the Chechen war, his image as a no-nonsense KGB veteran ready to “blow away” terrorists anywhere, even in their bathrooms, and with his promises to strengthen the state while disempowering the oligarchs who had emerged under Yeltsin.

Another indication of the degree to which the Russian political psyche had drifted away from its infatuation with Western-style political and economic liberalism of a decade ago was the disastrous performance of the only two candidates who ran on unabashedly liberal platforms. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky stuck to his now-traditional message, denouncing corruption and the “war hysteria” surrounding Chechnya. Just days before the election, he said he saw little difference between Putin and Zyuganov. Samara Governor Konstantin Titov also pushed the merits of economic liberalism while criticizing the Chechen war. Yavlinsky received a little more than 5 percent of the vote, while Titov received around 1 percent.

During his election-night briefing, Putin made it clear that he had received that message. He thanked Zyuganov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov for having refrained from criticizing the government’s policy in Chechnya. But Putin’s disdain for the liberals clearly went beyond their criticism of the Chechen war. He did not bother to thank United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais and former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, two one-time “liberals” who had ostentatiously backed Putin’s war. (Chubais last year called Yavlinsky, who had called for a ceasefire in Chechnya, a “traitor.”) All signs suggested that in Putin’s eyes, the Yeltsin-era “energetic young reformers had, as one of Putin’s team said of Chubais earlier this year, “fulfilled his historic mission.”

Given that Putin had provided almost no clues during the campaign of what specific policies he might pursue, the rumor mill had something for everyone. The domestic stock market and some foreign investors were encouraged just by the fact that the president-elect was young and ambulatory; others were encouraged by hints that he would push key reforms, including of Russia’s Byzantine tax system. Some in the business community did not seem to mind the hints that politics could become more authoritarian. In fact, some analysts suggested–enthusiastically–that Russia might be moving closer to something like the Chinese model.

Others, however–particularly in Russia’s journalistic community–were less than thrilled. In what some members of that community saw as a chilling sign of things to come, Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned channel thought to be controlled by the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, relentlessly smeared some of Putin’s rivals during the final week of the campaign. ORT accused Yavlinsky of receiving foreign funding. On two consecutive nights, moreover, ORT stressed that one of his supporters, Vladimir Gusinsky, the tycoon and founder of the Media-Most group, held an Israeli passport. ORT showed footage of Gusinsky, who heads the Russian Jewish Congress, meeting with rabbis. The channel stressed that both Yavlinsky and Gusinsky had criticized the Chechen war. Appearing election night on Media-Most’s NTV television channel, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov openly stated that he feared NTV might be closed.