A 21st-century tsar

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A 21st-century tsar

The presidential election in Russia yesterday was a contest with a predetermined outcome. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was running for a third presidential term, had been far ahead of the other four contenders in the race. Barring unexpected events, he will likely be the winner after getting more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round. Even if the election goes to a runoff, the result will hardly change.

After serving as president for two consecutive terms from 2000 to 2008, Putin is guaranteed a renewed presidency for six years until 2018, thanks to a constitutional amendment passed under Dmitry Medvedev, the current president and Putin’s protege. As a result, the next president can enjoy up to two terms of six years each. That means Putin could remain in the Kremlin until 2024, making him a “21st-century tsar.”

Putin’s re-election can only be explained by a lack of alternatives. Russian voters could not do much but vote for him despite their unpleasant feelings toward him. Putin should remember that he received votes, not trust. He could be sowing the seeds of an overthrow of his regime at anytime. He must not forget the lessons he learned from middle class citizens’ vehement protests against the controversial ballot rigging in the general election last December.

As a candidate for president, Putin vowed to improve the livelihood of the middle class, root out corruption and achieve an even distribution of national wealth. Such commitments, however, will be difficult to put into action without a fundamental change in the oligarchic structure of Russia’s political and economic systems, which rely heavily on energy exports, including petroleum and natural gas.

Putin’s authoritarian regime rests on a corrupt structure deeply rooted in collusions between a small number of conglomerates and political power. Fundamental change to this structure cannot occur if Putin’s government attempts to sustain the system with a harsh crackdown on the press.

He needs to change his foreign policy, too. Russia cannot expect to raise its international status by taking a unilateral approach on global issues, as evidenced by its opposition to intervention in the crisis in Syria.

Ironically, the future of the Russian people depends on the choices made by Putin. That’s the limit of Russian democracy. Depending on his decisions, Putin’s third term as president could mark the beginning of his end or a starting point for a real democracy. We will watch closely to see which path he will take.
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