Friday, 24 February 2012

The alternatives to Putin are not viable


With the Russian presidential election looming in just over a week's time, Vladimir Putin's supporters held a huge rally yesterday in Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. Many newspaper reports went to a great deal of trouble to mock the event and question the credentials of its attendees. 

 However there is one detail which will tell you more about the upcoming poll than all the rather patronising commentary.

Among the banners which were carried by the crowd, the slogan in Russian ,”If not Putin, then whom?', was one of the more prominent.

Not a sign of resounding enthusiasm for the former President's return to office admittedly, certainly not an endorsement of Putin's decision to stand, rather than allow the incumbent, Dmitry Medvedev, his chance at another term in office. But still, a political truism which neither the protest movement in Russia nor its enthusiasts in the western media have countered.

The frustration of city dwellers in Moscow, St Petersburg and a few other towns with the Prime Minister and with United Russia is understandable. It may even eventually help shape Russia's politics for the better.

But although the protesters are against Putin, they have not offered any viable alternative, and that's why, however many people come out unto the streets, he will become President and his election will, largely, reflect the will of the people.

Daniel Kalder wrote a marvellous, tongue-in-cheek article examining Putin's rivals in this electoral race. The strongest challengers, by some distance, are Gennady Zyuganov, who leads the communist party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party espouses bone-shaking, nationalist populism.

Not even the most adamant of Putin's opponents in the West could advocate either of these alternatives.

In fourth place is Sergey Mironov, from Just Russia, a pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin party which lies to the left of United Russia. As for the various and disparate so-called liberals, they often draw their most prominent political figures from the ranks of asset stripping oligarchs. Their man in the Presidential race is Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the wealthiest billionaires in Russia.

As Kalder says in his article, 'who would you vote for? Be honest now.'

Of course there is an argument that Russia's political scene has been stunted by a lack of competition. That may be true, but can you blame Russians for preferring a flawed but orderly system, to the anarchic free for all which lies, for example, just across the border in Ukraine?

Certainly, when Russia goes to the polls next week, it will be confronted with a depressing set of options. Vladimir Putin, as the pre-eminent force in politics since 2000 must take his share of the blame for that situation. But it is wrong for western commentators to mock his siren call of 'stability', particularly bearing in mind the country which he inherited from Boris Yeltsin.

Until there is a viable alternative for Russians to rally behind, they will stick with Putin, because the alternative seems so much less predictable.