20 years under Putin: a timeline

On the eve of the presidential elections, experts on Russia discussed their predictions for the results and their consequences. Although no one doubts the victory of Vladimir Putin, many say that the regime is doomed, and its downfall is only a matter of time.



On March 1st, the Russian presidential elections were the subject of a round table discussion on Reuters TV’s Fast Forward with Chrystia Freeland. The show’s guests were Masha Gessen, journalist and author Vladimir Putin: The Man Without Face, Stephen Kotkin, professor of Russian History at Princeton University, and Pavel Khodorkovsky, President of the Institute of Modern Russia. In their discussion, the participants focused on the procedure of the upcoming elections, and particularly on the possibility of a repeat of the blatant voter fraud that had caused mass protests following the parliamentary elections in December 2011.



All agreed that Vladimir Putin would become the next Russian president, and that, in Masha Gessen’s words, the election itself would be a non-election, considering the fact that all the candidates on the ballot had been pre-approved by Putin and had no real chance of winning. Pavel Khodorkovsky noted that forcing Putin to hold run-off elections could be a real victory for the opposition, although the possibility of that turn of events remains small. “Winning in the first round will empower Putin. But if he enters the run-off, his aspirations for the national leadership will be diminished. Therefore, it is important that Russians go vote for any of the current Prime Minister’s opponents,” Khodorkovsky said.

Professor Stephen Kotkin suggested that despite Putin’s polling numbers, there is still a chance that Russian governors would try to get a higher figures for him in their respective regions in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime. If this happens, it will mean a great deal of fraud. Nonetheless, Kotkin believes that fraud will only fuel protest. The more illegal acts are perpetrated, the more evidence of them will be gathered by mobilized citizens observing the elections at polling stations.  Masha Gessen and Pavel Khodorkovsky concurred.

Similar issues were also being discussed at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. David Kramer, president of the Freedom House, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Editor-in-Chief of the Washington bureau of RTVi network and one of the leaders of the Solidarity opposition movement, and Donald Jensen, Senior Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at John Hopkins University, shared their thoughts on Russia’s political future. Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who moderated the panel, set the tone of the discussion, opening it with a Brezhnev-era joke: “So who will be the next Russian president? Mr. Putin or… Mr. Putin?”



All panelists agreed that a second round of elections would be unlikely. Vladimir Putin has done everything in his power to ensure that all other candidates the ballot were not opposition leaders and had no real chances of winning. The panelists agreed that the most interesting part of the election would be Putin’s margin of victory. David Kramer and Vladimir Kara-Murza were not willing to speculate, while Donald Jensen ventured that Putin would get around 50-60% of the vote. He added that Putin would be able to win without a great deal of fraud due to the strong support from the people living outside of the major cities. “Putin owes his success to a properly run campaign which targeted the Russian provinces rather than Moscow or other large cities,” Jensen explained. All the experts agreed that fraud might take place, although it wouldn’t be aimed at getting Putin into office, but merely at providing him the largest possible margin of victory.

The panelists were most intrigued by what Russian would look like on March 5th and onwards, in the aftermath of the elections. As Vladimir Kara-Murza reported, half an hour before the panel had begun, Moscow authorities had granted permission for a post-election protest rally on Pushkin Square and on Tverskaya Street, in the center of Moscow. Both Kara-Murza and Kramer agreed with what Masha Gessen had said to Chrystia Freeland: starting on March 5th, political change in Russia would be inevitable, and the the downfall of the current regime would only be a matter of time. Donald Jensen’s prognosis was less optimistic. According to Jensen, in the best case scenario, substantial change should not be expected anytime sooner than in several years, although Putin would not be likely to serve two full terms (12 years).

Ariel Cohen pointed out that if Putin doesn’t make efforts toward liberalization, there would either be more political stagnation or a violent uprising.  Donald Jensen countered by suggesting another alternative for Russia – a soft authoritarian regime, similar to the Belorussian one, established by Alexander Lukashenko.

Upcoming events are likely to have an impact on the U.S.-Russia relations as well. The relationship stands to be complicated not only due to the political instability stemming from the upcoming U.S. elections, but also because of standing disagreements on critical foreign policy issues, such as the situation in Syria. The panelists also emphasized that the U.S. should to continue its work in defending human rights in Russia and adopt the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which would replace the outdated Jackson-Vanik amendment.