VLADIMIR PUTIN HAS just been elected Russian president once again; he won 75.9 per cent of the votes. The only mystery here is why he stopped at that number. If Putin wanted, he could have got 100 or even 101 per cent. He is, however, a more cunning illustration of what Foreign Policy magazine once called ‘'The Dictator’s dilemma—To win with 95 percent or 99?’. The article under which this headline appeared was written after Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov had won with 97 per cent of the votes. Victories that other autocrats earlier had polled were also listed: Hosni Mubarak, 88.6 per cent in 2005; Bashar al-Assad, 97.62 per cent in 2007; Fidel Castro, 99.01 per cent in 2005. And then there was Saddam Hussein, who in one election managed to get each and every vote that was cast. Putin, we can see, is a less hungry-for-votes person. On the other hand, he gets to decide who stands against him.
In his book, Winter is Coming, Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and now a prominent anti-Putin campaigner in Russia, writes that he first tried to contest for the Russian presidential polls in 2008 knowing well that he would be disqualified. It was to show the world that he would not be allowed to stand that he stood for the election. It happened exactly as he had foreseen. This time too, Alexei Navalny, who was probably the only genuine contender and had begun campaigning last year, was declared ineligible for criminal cases trumped up earlier against him.
Putin will soon have only Josef Stalin’s record to beat as the longest running ruler of Russia. That is an extraordinary achievement for a man who had been an anonymous KGB agent right up till the time the Soviet Union disintegrated. It is Russia’s tragedy that Boris Yeltsin, the man of the hour then for a revival of democracy, turned out to be an inept drunk. A statesman might have laid a strong foundation of liberal democracy and guided Russia into stability; Yeltsin added to the chaos he inherited and in his train came oligarchs who took over the resources of the state and made billions. Putin was also a Yeltsin creation, first appointed the chief of his espionage agency and then the prime minister of Russia. A year later Yeltsin unexpectedly stepped down and made Putin acting president. In a subsequent election, it was ratified by the Russian people.
Putin also shared with Saddam Hussein the achievement of having annexed another sovereign nation’s territory in recent times. In 2014, Russia sent in troops and took over Crimea from Ukraine. But in the beginning of his reign, embattled by domestic crisis, Putin was willing to be a meek bystander to the dominance of the United States in global affairs. He even made token gestures of democratic norms, like giving up his presidentship in 2008 to a puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, while making himself prime minister. But after returning as president in the next election, he has brought Russian participation back to centre-stage, and often not in nice ways. Besides the Crimea annexation, there was the meddling in the US presidential polls by Russian intelligence agencies. In war- ravaged Syria, through alignment with its dictator Assad, Russia undermined the Western powers. Just recently, in what harks back to the spy-versus-spy antics of another century, a Russian double agent and his daughter were assassinated in the UK by the use of a nerve agent. And half the US believes their president is an agent of Putin.
In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and China became completely capitalist, the progress of liberal democracy seemed only a matter of time. Putin’s latest victory was prefaced by Xi Jinping appointing himself for life in China. It seems as if this is now going to be an era of dictators. China never accepted democracy, so Russia’s fall under Putin is greater. Reforms have been rolled back, the media harpooned, civil rights—especially of minorities—put under threat. Oligarchs, who propped him up initially, found themselves ruthlessly quashed once they earned his disfavour. A true dictator, everyone realised belatedly, only answers to his own power.