Allan Massie: Political stability is the legacy of Vladimir Putin’s reign

Russians face another six years of rule by an authoritarian monarch but the alternative is something that might be worse for the people, writes Allan Massie

Vladimir Putin has been re-elected as president of Russia. Whatever doubts there may be about electoral malpractices, this is undeniable. Opposition to him is increasing and even becoming formidable, but he is there for the next six years unless something remarkable happens. The USA and the EU have to accept this.

The first thing to be said about Putin is that he is not a dictator. Dictators are not content to receive only 63 per cent of the votes in an election; they arrange things better than that.

Putin is an authoritarian monarch, but an elected one. He may have lost the support of Russia’s growing middle-class – he got less than 50 per cent of the vote in Moscow – but outside the capital he retains majority support, if only for fear that something worse might follow his removal. That fear is quite reasonable.

Russia is edging its way to what is sometimes called “managed democracy”. This may be the best that could have been hoped for. The first thing to be grasped is that Russia lost out on almost 100 years of political development. Before 1914 the Tsarist autocracy was very gradually being liberalised. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the Leninist-Stalinist One-Party state.

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The collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union resulted in a decade of weak government, widespread corruption, looting of state resources, and what was perceived as the humiliation of Russia on the international stage. This was what Putin, the former KGB officer, inherited.

He had two aims when he first became president 12 years ago: to give Russia strong and stable government after the near-anarchy of the Yeltsin years and to restore what he believed to be Russia’s rightful place in the world. In his two terms as president and four years as prime minister after, in obedience to the constitution, he gave way to his protégé Medvedev, he has achieved both these aims.

Nobody would pretend that Putin’s Russia is now a liberal state in which the rule of law prevails. There is still widespread corruption as Putin’s gang rip off the state to enrich themselves. Little has been done to improve the infrastructure, redress the imbalance of the economy still far too dependent on oil and gas, or to establish a legal system independent of the government. There have been horrors like the second Chechen war, political opponents have been conveniently imprisoned on charges which were probably trumped up, and critics of the regime have been assassinated.

Many foreign observers describe Putin’s Russia as a “criminal state” and the opposition to Putin does not dissent from this opinion. The slogan “Putin is a thief” has been popular on the internet and been displayed on banners carried by protesters in Moscow and other cities.

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Yet this is itself a sign that Russia is inching towards something that we can recognise as democratic freedom. Nobody would have been allowed to flourish a banner declaring Stalin a murderer or Brezhnev a thief.

There have even been a few tentative signs of judges showing a degree of judicial independence. That Russia is nevertheless a long way from being a state ruled by law is not surprising. Most of the judges today are still products of the Soviet system, reared to enforce the will of government. Nevertheless, the announcement that there is to be a review of the conviction and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who dared to defy Putin, is a small step in a desirable direction.

Putin is, of course, a Russian nationalist – no surprise there – and one who remains deeply suspicious of the US. This may be regrettable, but it is a suspicion shared by many in the West. Seen from the perspective of Moscow, American foreign policy is aggressive and expansionist. In Libya, Nato went far beyond what Russia was persuaded to approve in the Security Council. When Russia – and China – vetoed the proposed Security Council resolution on Syria, it was not only because Russia regards the Baathist regime there as an ally.

In an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, Sir Malcolm Rifkind opined that Putin’s “current obstructionism at the UN is leading Russia into a cul-de-sac and doing untold damage to Moscow’s relations with the Arab world”. He may be right, but it may also be the case that Russia’s position with regard to Syria is more sensible than the West’s, since we have little knowledge about the composition and aims of the rebels there, and indeed that Russia, by refusing to condemn president Assad, may be able to broker a settlement. Be that as it may, Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, is fully entitled to veto any proposed resolution.

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Actually, despite this criticism, Sir Malcolm finds that Putin’s re-election is “not entirely disagreeable”. It means that Russia will continue to be “stable and fairly predictable”. This is in our interest, and it is also in the interest of the mass of the Russian people. If that huge country, spanning nine time-zones, is ever to advance to what we recognise as a “pluralist democracy” , then it will do so only after it has experienced a prolonged period of stability and growing prosperity. The last thing it needs is a new period of upheaval, the outcome of which is incalculable.

So, while one may sympathise with the aspirations, discontents and resentments of the mostly middle-class protesters in Moscow, the probability is that, whatever electoral cheating has gone on, a majority of the Russian people value the stability Putin has brought about, and don’t want to risk its disruption.

Putin is not as popular as he was a few years ago, but on the one hand he retains majority support, while on the other the flowering of the protest movement is, paradoxical as this may seem, evidence as much of his achievement as of his failures. For most of Russia’s troubled history, it hasn’t been safe to engage in open denunciation of the government.

That it now seems to be at least comparatively safe is evidence that Russia is slowly moving towards becoming a more liberal state.