In a four-hour telethon, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin ruled out new polls and poured scorn on what have been the worst political protests in his country since the Soviet Union’s fall. He dismissed claims the parliamentary polls were rigged and said the protestors had “Russian passports” but were “funded with foreign money.”
The vote share of Putin’s United Russia party fall from 64 to 50%, a decline Putin called “natural.” Independent monitors claim the party may have polled as little as half that.
There is concern among Russians that Putin is, as one foreign correspondent in Moscow said, “out of touch” and in denial about the extent of the protests which have spread to over 50 cities.
Others note Putin has avoided a violent crackdown and is carefully portraying them as products of the opposition parties and Western governments. They argue the political savvy that has marked his career has not deserted him yet. “One should see how he worked with democrats and liberals before he became mayor of Leningrad,” says Professor Hari Vasudevan, a Kolkata-based Russia expert.
The question is whether this crisis snowballs to the point Putin loses presidential elections next year. Vasudevan sees Putin scraping through. “There is no real alternative,” he says.
One Russian political scientist who preferred anonymity was less sure. “Putin needs to strike a deal with the middle class and big capitalists who want a rules-based Russia. Otherwise he may lose or be forced to hold an election so unfair he will lose legitimacy.”
But the relative ease with which Putin has ruled Russia, either as president or prime minister, is now in question.
An important source of support has been an ability to ensure steadily rising living standards to the average Russian. This is now in question.
In 2008, Russia’s GDP was $1.6 trillion, well ahead of India’s $1.26 trillion. In 2009, the subprime crisis wiped out over $300 billion of Russia’s wealth. India’s economy held steady and has been ahead of Russia ever since. A failing economy and falling popularity spell a bleak future for Putin and Russia.