Vladimir Putin’s clear victory in the Russian presidential election, garnering about 64 per cent of the votes — close to the 70 per cent he won in the 2004 election — suggests that his overall standing with the electorate at large has not been substantially eroded in spite of the impression that he had become palpably unpopular with sections of the urban middle-class electorate. This impression was created by the unprecedented anti-Putin rallies in Moscow after the parliamentary elections in December 2011.
While those elections were marred by accusations of vote rigging, the presidential election has not been surrounded by such controversy because of some unprecedented measures taken to make the voting arrangements less open to manipulation. The opposition’s complaints of not being given equal time on the visual media and Putin’s refusal to debate and so on are insufficient for the purpose of mobilizing and sustaining street protests against the president-elect, although, for larger geopolitical reasons, those challenging the fairness of the election will receive Western encouragement to continue agitating with a view to fuelling internal political unrest as much as possible.
The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries has now been eroded to a point where the conduct of elections within a country is subject to oversight by outsiders and judgments are passed on the legitimacy of the results. Even major powers like Russia are not spared the ignominy of being made answerable to others for the conduct of their domestic politics.
Putin’s victory was not in doubt; the question was whether he would win in the first round with 50 per cent plus one of the votes or be forced into a second round, in which case public sentiment against government policies would have got registered strongly and might have accelerated the introduction of reforms that the middle and entrepreneurial class in Russia seeks. Russia no doubt needs political and economic reforms as corruption, bureaucratic apathy, over-centralization, the exactions of the security apparatus, the weakness of the judicial system and the stifling of entrepreneurial initiative are problems that even the government recognizes.
But Russia also needs stability as the trauma of the Soviet collapse, the turmoil of the Yeltsin era and the bitter experience of the Russian public with democracy and the market economy in the 1990s have not been effaced from public consciousness. Putin has incarnated that stability from 2000 onwards. At some stage, stability can become a form of stagnation, and so the challenge for Russia now is to find a new balance between stability and reform, a reassurance that the past will not be repeated in the bid to prepare for the future.
If Russia faces serious internal problems, its uncertain relations with the West make its external environment fraught with acute challenges too. The “reset” of relations initiated by President Barack Obama and the then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has not proved durable, with sharp differences persisting over the United States of America’s plans to install anti-ballistic missile systems in Central Europe and over policy towards Iran and Syria.
Putin has not hesitated to censure severely over-militarized, unilateral Western policies calculated to promote the geopolitical interests of the West, often at the expense of perceived Russian interests. He would have endeared himself even less to his Western interlocutors by robustly attacking their policies and notifying his determination to strengthen Russia’s military potential in an article published under his name shortly before the presidential election. In it, he refers to “deliberately managed chaos” and attempts to provoke conflicts close to Russia’s borders, as also to “basic principles of international law being degraded and eroded, especially in terms of international security”. He underlines, therefore, the need for Russia to “sufficiently develop its military potential as part of a deterrence strategy” in order to make others “listen to our country’s arguments”. Alluding to those “calling for resources of global significance to be freed from the exclusive sovereignty of a single nation”, Putin expresses latent fears about outsiders seeking control over Russia’s natural resources. Not surprisingly, therefore, he speaks of allocating almost $900 billion over the coming 10 years to the modernizing of Russia’s defence industry.
Putin is animated both by defensive reflexes as well as by ambitions to restore Russia’s weight in international affairs. Western pressure on Russia has induced it to move closer to China strategically, despite Russia’s own concerns about the latter. Russia may need to make common cause with China over issues that divide both of them from the West, but it is China, with its much bigger demography and economy, that has replaced Russia as the number two global power, and it is from China’s vast population and hunger for resources that Russia would eventually need to protect Siberia. Russia’s drive for multipolarity, reflected in its promotion of groupings like Ric (Russia-India-China) and Brics (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), is intended to compensate for its reduced international status vis-à-vis the West, thwart the latter from dictating the global agenda, create a forum outside the Western block where issues before the international community as well as principles and norms that should govern international relations can be discussed. These groups also serve to anchor China within a consensus view of major non-Western powers on global affairs and frame its conduct as China’s power grows.
India has a strong political relationship with Russia. It is a partner of Brazil and South Africa in Ibsa, a South-South grouping. It is engaging China in spite of undercurrents of political antagonism between the two countries. At the same time, its relationship with the US has taken a new turn, with a shared concern about the implications of the explosive rise of China as well. India, which is going to host the Brics summit in New Delhi this month, has to play its diplomatic cards deftly. The India-Russia relationship should remain one of mutual trust, even as India continues to strengthen its ties with the US, and acrimony between Russia and the US does not abate. West Asia should not become a testing ground for this complex challenge. In the end, India has to take a position on issues in this region that takes into account certain basic principles, that is not opportunistic and clearly serves its own national long-term interest best.
As regards Putin’s election, India does not share Western attitudes towards the issue of democracy in Russia. India, a well-established democracy in its own right, does not believe that any universal norms of democracy applicable to all countries exist. It is against democracy being used as an aggressive geopolitical tool against any country. This is not shying away from taking positions; it is more a question of recognizing and showing respect for diversity, of discouraging interference in the internal affairs of countries except in extreme circumstances, of understanding the motivations behind the global campaign for democracy, of manifest selectivity in the application of the democratic principle and so on.
Beyond that position of principle, India respects the leadership of Putin and his contribution to building a strategic partnership with India. To have an experienced leader like Putin, who has visited India several times, held summit meetings with Indian leaders regularly, addressed various bilateral issues between the two countries constructively, is advantageous for India. The continuity that Putin brings to India-Russia relations is most valuable.