[Viewpoint] New rules for Russian ‘czar’

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[Viewpoint] New rules for Russian ‘czar’

In the first presidential election since the Russian Constitution was revised in 2008, former leader Vladimir Putin was elected as the country’s first three-term president on Sunday, putting him back in power for an extended term of six years, with an option to run again in 2018. It may take some time to finalize the counting of the votes, given Russia’s vast size that stretches over nine time zones, but survey groups and local media have already reported Putin’s victory with over 50 percent of the votes in the first round as a fait accompli.

The election gained the world’s attention for a number of reasons. First of all, it is the first international event that will provide a key to upcoming changes of policy or power dynamics in major countries this year including France, China, India and the United States. Second, the election was held amid strong anti-Putin sentiment, bolstered by the power of social networking services. Third, it was an unprecedented experiment in international politics for a former president who had served two terms then transferred the post to a puppet successor before attempting to retrieve it again.

Despite a show of wavering affections, Russians permitted Putin to seize control of the Kremlin in the end. Most of the Russian public had grown tired of the growing gap between the rich and poor, the widespread corruption, strong media controls and authoritarian rule during Putin’s reign. On the other hand, there was no solid alternative to replace him, given Putin’s sphere of influence, and no one who could realistically aspire to give Russia the same level of political stability, economic growth and global prestige. This unfettered view of the current state of affairs resulted in Putin’s high support rate. In short, voters chose him not because they loved his policies, but because the alternative was not any better.

By confirming his victory in the first round, Putin also justified his return to the president’s post by showing how he can be a force of stability. However, a weakness has been exposed in the form of those who withdrew their support for him during the course of the campaign. Many Russians vocalized their disillusionment with the man and the regime, while protestors chanted slogans such as, “Russia without Putin.”

Although the return of this 21st century tsar was approved through a national consensus, considerable challenges and trials await Putin in his third term. His aim of concentrating power within the federal government and the president himself to create a strong nation, strengthen the national identity and enhance Russia’s international status are losing their persuasive appeal. At the same time, opposition to his administration and policies is growing more systematic and organized.

The political situation in Russia now demands changes to Putin’s ideological stance, which has long been the foundation of national policy. Russians are calling for a more fundamental reform of the political system and a redesigned administrative philosophy in order to overcome the anti-Putin fatigue that is beginning to set in. Regardless of Putin’s goals, he will be forced to implement reforms driven by the liberalist ideas planted by incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev. If Putin neglects to do so, he is likely to be confronted by intense attacks from the middle class, which has swelled its ranks in the last 12 years due to the fruits of his so-called Putinomics.

In the topology of Russian politics and public sentiment, options other than liberalist reform are very limited. In the future, the international community will be scrutinizing Putin during his third term to see whether he devotes enough attention to guaranteeing civil rights and freedom, alleviating centralization and encouraging free market mechanisms. The question is whether these will be implemented stably and gradual, or whether such shifts will cause political and social unrest, which generally accompany liberalization. The outcome solely depends on Putin’s leadership. Regardless of the speed with which it happens, the journey of liberalization and reform is never easy.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor at Hankook University of Foreign Studies and the director of the Institute of Russian Studies.

by Hong Wan-suk
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