MOSCOW BLOG: Who let the cats out?

By bne IntelliNews March 6, 2012

bne -

The results are in and the circus has started. The West is screaming "carrousel". The opposition is revving up for a long campaign (six years to be precise). And the bankers are breathing a sign of relief; now the politics are over, they are waiting for investors to refocus on Russia's fundamentals, which are excellent.

Now the inevitable has happened and Vladimir Putin is back as president, there is bound to be a hue and cry over the exact extent of voting fraud, which will be played out in the courts and on the street through protest and counter protest. The Kremlin will seek a new equilibrium, or even just to maintain its authority, depending on exactly how angry the proto-opposition gets over the result.

But all the brouhaha that is going to fill the newspapers for the next few months is froth to the main result of these elections: several cats have been let out of their respective bags and the Kremlin has no way of stuffing them back in.

The fur flies

The first and most obvious is the protest movement itself. The marchers faced down the Kremlin after the Duma elections in December and the authorities found themselves strangely powerless to prevent the demos from happening. One of the principles that has emerged so far is that neither side wants or can afford violence. Even at the Pushinskaya Square event on the evening of March 5, the protest leaders went out of their way to call for calm.

The popular protest cat is out of the bag and now is a reality of Russian politics. And the Kremlin will have to listen and be seen to do something about protestors' demands. The important point to note here is that for most of the last 12 years, Putin has dictated the terms of the debate by simply highlighting something as "important". Now he has lost control of the debate and been brought down to the level of a mere politician (the fact of which he doesn't seem to be entirely aware of yet). The terms of the debate are now being set on the streets of Moscow and to a lesser extent in the halls of the regional governments.

A second cat to escape is the Kremlin's ability to fix the vote. It seems fairly sure at this point there was some jiggery-pokery at the polling stations, but it was not as blatant as, say, in the republics of Central Asia: in the recent Turkmen elections, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov "improved" on his previous result by winning 97% of the vote. Russia never dared - indeed it couldn't - get away with this level of vote fixing, but the population has more-or-less accepted a 5-10% massaging of the numbers to ensure United Russia got a constitutional majority in 2007 and a simply majority 2011. Likewise, no one really complained when Putin won 71.9% in the presidential election in 2004 or Dmitry Medvedev 70.1% in 2008.

But look at this election. Putin won a relatively modest (by his standards) 63.6% of the vote, yet the next day Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov came out the next day screaming "fix". This from a man who probably won 10% more votes than he would have in a "free" election by taking almost all the anti-Putin votes as the only real opposition figure on the ballot. Even the Kremlin stooge Mikhail Prokhorov says that he is going to court over vote fixing in Moscow and St Petersburg (the two cities where he did best). Greater transparency and proper election monitoring are going to be a permanent fixture of Russian elections from now on.

These two feline escapees follow in the trail of Medvedev's letting loose the corruption cat, which could be the most significant of all those now on the prowl.

Putin complained about corruption in nearly every "State of the Nation" speech in the last decade, yet did little about it. But the bribes that Putin was talking about are the RUB500 you have to pay a GAIshnik, as traffic cops are still known, who has caught you in some infraction that he just invented. Medvedev not only expanded the definition to include the $10m that regional governors skim off a state procurement contract by awarding the deal to a firm owned by their wife, he also lifted the taboo on talking about corruption. Now this cat is out of the bag, the Kremlin has no choice but to follow through and actually do something about it. Indeed, this particular kitty is partly responsible for engendering the whole protest movement.

There is no going back now on any of these issues: it is only a question of how far, how fast and how dramatic these changes can be brought about. And that is a function of the strength of the various players in the game. The only way Putin can possibly stop this process unfolding is to let the dogs out - and even that is not guaranteed to work, as he well knows.

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