Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 62

While the official final tallies for Sunday’s presidential election are not yet in, the unofficial results are revealing some interesting patterns. One is the fact that Putin, who appears to have won with around 52 percent of the vote, made great inroads into regions traditionally controlled by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), whose leader, Gennady Zyuganov, came in a distant second with some 29 percent of the vote. According to preliminary data, President-elect Vladimir Putin beat Zyuganov in twenty-five of the thirty regions in Russia’s “Red Belt,” the arc of regions which throughout the last decade was the backbone of the KPRF. Putin, for example, defeated Zyuganov by 51 percent to 37 percent in the KPRF stronghold of Krasnodar (whose governor, Nikolai Kondratenko, has in the past made overtly anti-Semitic appeals). Putin even won–albeit barely, by 45 percent to 44–in Zyuganov’s native region of Orel (Russian agencies, Moscow Times, March 28). Overall, Zyuganov’s totals were down more than 10 percent from 1996, when, in the presidential run-off election against Boris Yeltsin, he lost but still garnered 40 percent of the vote.

The question concerning Putin’s inroads in the Red Belt, however, is what they might signify. Put another way, what did the traditional KPRF voters who defected to Putin in those regions see in the acting head of state? It would be comforting to assume, as some Russian observers have, that this might reflect a disillusionment with the remaining socialist elements in the KPRF ideology. However it is more likely to assume, as have other Russian observers, including Segodnya columnist Leonid Radzikhovsky, that these KPRF voters switched to Putin on the basis of his prosecution of the war against Chechen separatists and his promises to “blow away” terrorists “even in the toilet.” In other words, what worked for Putin in these regions was his image as a tough veteran KGB officer who is ready to impose order, not his pledges to respect democratic niceties.

Against this backdrop, it is worth noting that the only candidates who clearly and strongly backed liberal and democratic ideals and norms–Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and Samara Governor Konstantin Titov–received a mere 5.84 percent and 1-2 percent of the vote, respectively. This looks like further evidence that Russia’s political center of gravity has shifted further away from such values as limited government and market economics, and toward state interventionism and paternalism–even, perhaps, authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, Putin, while poaching in the KPRF’s waters, acknowledged yesterday that “a large part of the population” still votes for the Communists, and said that the government’s policies should, accordingly, “be more balanced,” “reflect Russian realities” and be aimed at “raising living standards.” Putin also thanked Zyuganov and two other former Kremlin opponents, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, for not attacking the government over the Chechen war (Moscow Times, March 28). At the same time, Putin made no mention of erstwhile “young reformers” like former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais, who strongly backed Putin’s presidential bid. This suggests either that Putin’s reflexes are more statist-nationalist than liberal, or that he is simply a cynical pragmatist who goes where the votes go. Neither alternative, of course, would be a big surprise, given Putin’s background as a state security officer.