The presidential election is still 6 months away, but speculation about who would stand i.e become president had reached fever pitch. A section of society really hoped that Medvedev would continue his liberal policies, even though signs that this could happen were few and far between. Now there is clarity – and disappointment, says Alexei Levinson
It has happened. Putin has announced that he, not Medvedev, will stand for president. During the last few months both men have hinted vaguely that they would be candidates. The hints may have been vague, but the two have always been very open and clear about the fact that they alone would make the final decision about who would stand i.e. be president.
There was a general feeling of public anxiety and even some expressions of irritation that the leaders would not make their intentions clear. The gist of the complaints was – why are you playing with us? Why won’t you tell us straight? The current situation, as we can see, is not the electorate using its votes to tell the candidates which of them will be president, but the candidates telling the voters who to elect. This is considered par for the course.
The “Popular forecast”
Levada Center surveys have shown month in month out that, were the election to be held next Sunday with both candidates standing, Putin would win. By March 2011 – a year before the election – the gap between the two had started to close.
"The ‘popular forecast’ promised that Putin would be president on the eve of the announcement referred to at the beginning of the article too."
But even then the question “Who do you think will be president in 2012?” always elicited the confident answer “Putin”. The ‘popular forecast’, as our director Yury Levada calls it, has never yet been wrong. It was right when elections were on the whole fair. It was also right when the electorate considered that they were to a large extent fraudulent. The forecast is not about the elections, but about the outcome of all the political moves and processes, whatever form they take. The ‘popular forecast’ promised that Putin would be president on the eve of the announcement referred to at the beginning of the article too.
The liberal public’s first reactions, which we managed to test in hastily arranged focus groups, were very pessimistic. These voters expect that either ‘nothing will change’ or ‘they’ll start tightening the screws.’ No one expressed the view that this turn of events would be beneficial for Russia. The idea that, when Putin comes to power, he might fulfil those hopes which people had put on Medvedev continuing as president elicited the reaction that Putin is a master-showman, so he could probably pull that off too. But these voters have no faith in any real liberalisation of policies under Putin.
There are two reactions in this category of voter which are worthy of note. One was expressed in words: we expected nothing else. The second was not formulated, but made it clear that people actually had been expecting something different. The hope that the next presidential term would continue with the liberal measures seemed realistic with Medvedev as president, but impossible under Putin. It would appear that in this particular social stratum it was a serious hope: people believed less in forecasts and social surveys and more in the hope they were cherishing.
It should be stressed that this hope was not related to a ‘real’ election, where a liberal would be elected on a majority vote. They didn’t believe in that and no one expected it. The hope was for a decision to be taken ‘at the top’ that Medvedev would go for a second term. It has to be said that the grounds for such a hope were few and far between. Analysts would say that one or other elite had had enough of the Putin regime and would be prepared to bet on Medvedev, but no one said that these groups of people were more significant numerically than the forces needed to preserve the status quo i.e. real control remaining with Putin.
There were occasional signs that Medvedev thought he would have enough support to win the presidency from Putin – in an intra-administration struggle or at an election – but they were pretty feeble. Putin gave no sign at all that he had any intention of handing over and leaving politics.
Few grounds for hope
Everything seemed to point towards the unspoken agreement between Putin and society that, to comply with the Constitution, he was standing down after two terms and becoming prime minister, though he was retaining his hold on power and would return as soon as he legally could. But there was still a hope….
"The liberal public’s first reactions, which we managed to test in hastily arranged focus groups, were very pessimistic. These voters expect that either ‘nothing will change’ or ‘they’ll start tightening the screws.’"
The fact that, with so few grounds for hope, the dream continued to exist and to grow stronger demonstrates that some sections of society had made a serious error in their perception of the social layer we have described. Having witnessed, and to a large extent participated in, the ceding of democratic positions won in the 1990s, this layer of society is longing to get them back. But they want this not as a result of the democratic process and open political competition within institutions created for this purpose. They want the rulers to bring them freedom and make them a present of it – freedom from the rulers themselves.