The March 4 presidential election in Russia, which Vladimir Putin won, continues to provoke debate both in Russia and abroad. During a videoconference between the Carnegie Moscow Center and the Institute of World Policy (Kyiv, Ukraine), experts analyzed the results of the elections, the future of the Russian political system, and the prospects for relations between the authorities and society, as well as Russia’s relations with its closest neighbor, Ukraine.

Participating in the event was Irina Prokhorova, head of the New Literary Observer journal and publishing house and sister of presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov; Carnegie’s Alexey Malashenko; and other Russian and Ukrainian political scientists and officials. Carnegie’s Nikolay Petrov and Institute of World Policy’s Alyona Getmanchuk moderated.

Elections and the Aftermath

  • Citizen Engagement: The participants of the discussion agreed that one of the main features of the recent elections was a growth in political literacy and social activity.

    • Observers: Petrov said that one example of increased engagement was rising interest in the activities of election observers and the growing number of Russians involved in this process. According to Petrov, people realize that the observers’ work complicates an otherwise easy victory for the authorities, and that their presence at precincts almost always results in lower—and more accurate—numbers for candidates connected with current authorities.
    • Electorate: The electorate has also become more active. However, Petrov rejected the idea that protests in Russia after Duma elections in December 2011 might have helped Putin to win the elections in March 2012. Although some have argued that a lot of Putin’s new supporters became involved in the presidential elections in March as part of the wave of increased social activity, Petrov noted that an increase in the activity of the electorate is dangerous for those in power and is only useful for them in the short-term.
  • Issue of Legitimacy: Petrov said that a significant portion of the population doubts the legitimacy of the election results. Prokhorova confirmed that multiple abuses of election laws were noticed during the election. In her opinion, this allows Russian society to believe that the elections and their results are only “relatively legitimate.”
  • Protest Movement: According to Prokhorova, doubts about the election’s legitimacy will contribute to the rise of social and political movements in Russia, which have the potential to become a real vehicle to enable differing political ideas to reach the highest echelons of power. She added that protest movements are necessary in any society and state, because any power, at one time or another, can transform into authoritarian power without social resistance.

An Alternative to Vladimir Putin

  • New Leaders: Despite Putin’s victory, Prokhorova contended that the political program put forth by her brother Mikhail Prokhorov, which proposed to reinstitute direct elections of governors and mayors, establish a simple notification procedure for registering new parties, and limit the defense expenditures by the level of allocations on public health, is an improvement over the current system’s policy. Additionally, according to Prokhorova, potential new political leaders are already emerging among the protesters. Prokhorova said that these figures meet the modern needs and demands of the Russian society, and they will slowly force their way to the heights of power.
  • Middle Class: Malashenko asserted that the only possible alternative—not only to Putin but to the system itself—is Russia’s middle class in general, because the most cutting-edge ideas appear among these people.

The Role of Russian Society

Prokhorova said that political activity (including new politicians who want to create an alternative to the system) should begin through education and a serious talk with people—rather than through contacts with current authorities. When this work is done, it is possible to begin a dialogue with the authorities. But this process of working with society is not yet visible. This is due to the underestimation of society and a lack of vision, even though this society formulates advanced political demands and ideas. For example, social organizations such as the Society of Blue Buckets, which fights against misuse of blue rotating emergency lights by bureaucrats, or defenders of Khimki forest, are often not taken seriously, but these organizations may transform into the base for future political forces, Prokhorova argued.

Russia, Ukraine, and Integration in the Post-Soviet Space

  • The Eurasian Union: Speaking about the Eurasian Union project, which should include Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, proposed by Putin during his campaign, Malashenko said that without Ukraine in particular, this union is meaningless. However, with Putin’s return, it is unlikely other post-Soviet countries will want to join the Eurasian Union.  
  • Cultural Ties: According to Prokhorova, the relations between Russia and Ukraine should be developed on the basis of the cultural kinship shared by the people of the two countries. Russia and Ukraine should expand the scale of cultural communication.