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Putin Sweeps Nation; Nation Undewhelmed

In news that surprises no one, Vladimir Putin has been elected President of Russia with almost two thirds of the vote — well over the fifty percent he needed to avoid a runoff.

Via Meadia suspects the Great One would have won in an honest count; Russia has been through Hell since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and much of the electorate is in no mood for adventures. The opposition to Putin is divided and confused and no serious governing alternative to the Putinocracy really exists. Who knows: if we were Russian citizens we might have voted for him ourselves.

But Putin’s electoral machine cannot resist shooting itself in the foot. Widespread fraud shows contempt for the voting public and the institutions of government itself. As usual, many districts in the North Caucasus reported close to one hundred percent of the vote for the Putin Forever movement. One suspects that local officials were acting under instruction to produce the highest possible — or even impossible — totals; Russian voting statistics are as reliable as Chinese growth estimates.

Unfortunately Russian democracy is suffering from the same syndrome that marred the privatization process after the Soviet collapse. It is well known in Russia and abroad that the “oligarchs” stole their vast fortunes from the corpse of the Soviet state. That means that their title to their ill gotten wealth is forever suspect. If future governments come after the oligarchs and strip them of their riches, the public will consider that justice has been done. They stole it in the first place and aren’t morally entitled to keep it.

The illegitimacy of the great Russian fortunes greatly reduced the chances that the rule of law could ever take hold there. Property remains dependent on the whim of over mighty rulers; Putin can strip the most powerful Russians of their wealth almost at will and throw them in jail overnight.

But Putin’s abuse of the democratic process has the same effect on his own legitimacy. Even though quite possibly a majority of Russians support his candidacy (with whatever reservations), the massive fraud that attended the process has deprived him of the mantle of legitimacy that honest elections confer. If public opinion turns decisively against him, he cannot claim the protection of the laws or appeal to the hallowed provisions of the Constitution.

Stolen power like stolen wealth is never secure. In attempting to secure his re-election, president-elect Putin has weakened both his own position and the legitimacy of the state he hopes to defend. In stable countries, when rulers lose popularity they can appeal to the protection of the laws and to constitutional procedures. They will fall from power when the voters speak, and not before. In Russia, Putin will have no moral or legal defense if people power demonstrators in sufficient numbers take to the streets and his cronies and power brokers contemplate switching sides.

Thanks to fraudulent congressional and presidential elections, if Putin gets in trouble he cannot claim the protection of the laws. An honest electoral process and count, even if it forced him to endure the unpleasantness of a runoff, would have served Putin better than the process he engineered.

The United States should work practically and pragmatically with the president elect on all matters of mutual concern. Nothing has changed about Russia’s government since last week. But Russia, alas, is going to continue to be undermined by institutional weakness and the potential for instability that results from the short cuts and dodgy methods its rulers seem unable to avoid. These are tumultuous and dangerous times; a Russian regime with stronger roots in the law would benefit the whole world.


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