Vladimir Putin won Russia’s presidency over the weekend, surprising no one. While Putin’s victory has resulted in criticism of the electoral process — the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that “conditions were clearly skewed in favour of one of the contestants” — there really was never any doubt about the election’s outcome: Despite the high profile protests of the last four months, it’s difficult to escape the basic fact that Putin still enjoys a lot of popularity within Russia.
So is Russian democracy dead? Not really — and the circumstances of Putin’s election present a key opportunity for the U.S. and for NATO to repair relations that have frayed over the war in Syria.
In the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on Monday, Russian opposition activist Vladimir Milov had some harsh words for the nascent youth movement. “The opposition suffered an honest defeat,” he writes. “Now the opposition faces the long and painful realization that beating Putin with creative flash-mobs won’t work — they’ll have to get down to persistent, routine old-school political work of the kind that seems pointless to hipsters.”
It might seem like a slam against Alexey Navalny, the protest leader who has consumed a lot of Western media attention over his organization of the protests, but it is really a criticism of the youth movement in general. The Muscovites who took to the streets to protest Sunday’s election are generally well-off urban youth. This doesn’t excuse or justify the Russian police’s needlessly violent crackdown on the protesters, but it does help to explain why the protests haven’t taken off the way the Arab Spring movements have.
While the anti-Putin protests captured the Western media’s attention, pro-Putin rallies across Russia drew thousands of people as well. Despite the fraud and unfairness of the campaign, Putin still enjoys genuine popular support in many quarters in Russia. The country is not rising up in fury against a hated tyrant; some of its citizens are protesting the way he won an election.
Putin’s victory also means the West will have a fairly predictable known quantity to deal with in Moscow. Despite his occasionally heated rhetoric toward the West, Putin is also pragmatic and not especially aggressive abroad (despite much rhetoric from and about Georgia). In other words, everyone knows how to work with him.
It is into this space that the U.S. and NATO can move. Putin’s victory was assured but it was not overwhelming: He garnered just 48 percent of the votes in Moscow, where turnout was less than 49 percent. While it’s astounding that a quarter of Moscow voted against Putin, that also means three-quarters of Moscow either supported Putin or didn’t care enough to vote — meaning there is a big opportunity for political engagement with Russia’s electorate.
This is not to endorse a massive “pro-democracy” movement by the West. Immediately after winning, Putin suggested his political opponents are traitors, establishing that he’ll only accept so much dissent before cracking down. But the small amount of space Navalny and Milov have carved out, where they can hold rallies (to a point) and talk openly of canvassing voters (also to a point), might mean there is a chance to ease Putin onto a path toward allowing more political freedom — like January’s decision to reinstate the direct election of regional governors.
While Milov and Navalny often face criticism for spending more time at cocktail parties with Western grantmakers than they do out campaigning for democracy, their visibility and effectiveness at drawing crowds means they can also be encouraged to practice what they preach: to actually get out and start organizing parties and voters for the next election. They’ll face a lot of barriers — Putin’s party, United Russia, doesn’t feel particularly constrained by the rules and might fight dirty to keep them marginal — but it would be a wasted opportunity not to try.
Russia’s recent ascent into the World Trade Organization presents one way for the U.S. to extend an olive branch and further repair bilateral relations by permanently normalizingtrade relations. But shifting to a less aggressive posture toward Russia is difficult for many American politicians who are angry that Russia doesn’t see everything the same way we do. Russia and the U.S. have a number of common interests both countries can and should be working toward, including Russia’s full inclusion in the world economy. It helps the U.S., it helps Russia — and it helps Putin.
Of course, doing so will require firm leadership from the White House. It is election season in the U.S., which means both parties will swerve into rhetorical excess to frame problems and criticize each other’s policies. Russia has done the same thing, and it’s likely that Putin’s worst statements about the West will turn out to be just like American electoral rhetoric: a bunch of hot air (this is something Steve Levine at Foreign Policy has also noted as a possibility). A firm commitment to furthering strong ties with Russia could defuse the worst of Putin’s rhetorical triangulation.
Russia’s election was a disappointment for many who want to see a free, thriving Russia. But it wasn’t a defeat for those forces, or even a setback. Elections don’t always bring every change a country needs, and Russia’s opposition remains immature and ineffective at gaining huge numbers of votes. With time, some mentoring, and some de-escalation from the West, Russia can mature into the normal political system everyone seems to want. But it needs to be given a chance to do so.
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist for The Atlantic. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group and edits the Central Asia blog Registan.net.