Putin expected to come in first in bid for Russian presidency

By virtually every account, Vladimir Putin will emerge triumphant Sunday in his bid for a third non-consecutive term as president of Russia.  For all the internationally-watched protests in Moscow and the recent willingness of opponents of the heavy-handed former president-now-prime minister to voice their Putin-hating before cameras and online, the hard truth is that Putin’s Kremlin controls the election machinery. Moreover, his leading opponents are not exactly first-tier contenders. 

Many at this point are willing to wager that Putin wins the election outright with more than 50 percent of the vote, thus avoiding a run-off March 4. 

But does that mean that Russia faces 12 more years (two six-year terms) of Putin rule, unchecked and uninterrupted?  Hardly.

Although banners at the growing demonstrations outside the Kremlin read “Mubarak, Gaddafi, Putin,” the Russian strongman is neither, and the recent streak of protests and criticisms of his regime are no sign of a “Moscow spring.”  Putin, in fact, has tolerated it all — permitting the crowds to grow and hurl invective at him and appearing to welcome dissent from Russia’s middle-class.

“But,” wrote Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times, “there is definitely a Moscow thaw.  After a long period of close political control in Russia, the ice is cracking.  The intoxicating sense that taboos are being broken is reminiscent of the outbreak of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Soviet era.”

To find the next step in what many see as the eventual twilight of the Putin era, one might watch who’s in second place when the votes are counted in Moscow Sunday night.  Polls have long shown the runner-up to be — as he has in every presidential election since the fall of Communism — Gennady Zyuganov, longtime head of the Communist Party and one who embraces neither the protest movement nor the present.  The 67-year-old Zyuganov, in fact, wants to renationalize all major industries, waxes nostalgically for the good old days of Stalin, and denounces the anti-Putin demonstrators as the “Orange Plague” (a reference to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine that replaced a Kremlin ally with a more independent, anti-Moscow government). 

Very possibly to co-opt some votes from Zyuganov, Putin has ratcheted up his own nationalist rhetoric and nostalgia for the old Soviet Union.  More than a few Kremlinologists suspect that Russia’s veto at the United Nations Security Council of a Libya-like action against the bloody Assad regime in Syria was a not-so-subtle flirtation with voters who are hard-liners and recall warmly the Soviet Union’s vetoes of U.S. backed measures at the Security Council during the Cold War.

“A new president — a new Russia”

Running third in most polls but coming on strong in the finish is Mikhail Prokhorov, ranked by Fortune as the third-richest man in Russia ($18 billion is his reported net worth), owner of gold and aluminum repositories, as well as the New Jersey Nets basketball team.  At 46, standing 6-foot-eight inches tall, and a very eligible bachelor, Prokhorov is drawing increasing crowds with his attacks on Putin (“Russia needs a director, not a tsar!”) and his calls for reform in economics, housing, education and health care.

 “A New President — A New Russia” is the slogan of the first-time politician, who has been likened to virtually every capitalist-candidate from Italy’s Sylvio Berlusconi to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to U.S. Republican hopeful Mitt Romney.  As a reform candidate (who has vowed to sell off his assets if elected), Prokhorov appears fresh next to such all-too-familiar faces as Zyuganov, the outrageous nationalist Vladimir Zhirnovsky, and Putin himself.

In one spot on his website (which has attracted more than 440,000 hits), Prokhorov’s older sister Irina lists reasons for his election, and concludes: “Vote for Mikhail. Because (if he wins) he will certainly get married. After all, the country needs a first lady — and I need nieces and nephews.”

Journalists who have lived in Moscow and covered the Russian political scene have insisted to HUMAN EVENTS that Prokhorov is a secret ally of the Kremlin who accumulated his fortune through contacts made under Putin’s governance.  The tycoon is a candidate, they say, solely to divide the middle-class anti-Putin vote.  Prokhorov himself denies the charges, pointing out that he broke with the party Right Cause (which is allied with President Dmitry Medvedev) and charged it was a “puppet party” of the Kremlin. 

As further proof of his independence and sincere motives, Prokhorov has vowed to remain in politics if he loses and start a fresh political party.  In short, he will be around for a while and watched by the press. 

A second place showing by Zyuganov or Zhirnovsky will mean a lot of Russians still like the “old guard.” A second place showing by Prokhorov will surely mean something else. 

A lot can happen in six years.  The protests can continue, anti-Kremlin bloggers such as Alexei Navalny (a sworn Putin enemy) will grow in influence, and enemies of the regime — notably jailed billionaire Miklhail Khodorkovsky — will be free and out mobilizing for the next election. 

So Putin is almost a sure bet to win Sunday.  But 2018 is a long way off.  A bet on another term will be a long-shot.