The Russian parliamentary election campaign has disappointed a lot of people. There’s no real doubt about the outcome. Those who hoped that the last few weeks would answer the big question of Russian politics—how President Putin plans to hang on to power even though the constitution rules out a third term—also feel let down.
Yet such complaints miss the rich payoff of this campaign. It has given us a more vivid, unplugged, up-close-and-personal picture of Vladimir Putin than we’ve had in a long time. We may have gotten (pardon the expression) a sense of his soul at last.
Many accounts of the campaign describe it, correctly, as a “referendum on Putin,” an attempt to turn his extraordinary personal popularity into a mandate for political continuity. The man hasn’t been particularly subtle about what he has in mind. “Victory in December,” he declared recently, will lead to “victory in March”—when the next president is chosen.
The substance of his message has been even less subtle. Putin has not preached a simple don’t-rock-the-boat, you’ve-never-had-it-so-good gospel. His is not the politics of personality in the Western sense, in which a leader tries to win votes by embodying attractive personal traits.
Every political campaign with which Putin has been associated in the past eight years has revolved above all around an enemy, and this one is no exception. Eight years ago, it was Chechen terrorists. Four years ago, it was oligarchs. This time around, it’s the West.
You have to go back to Nikita Khrushchev to find a Russian leader using the pungent anti-Western rhetoric that Putin has made the staple of his campaign. Khrushchev liked to warn Westerners not to “poke their pig snouts into our socialist garden.” Putin’s updated 2007 version is that Russia has to be strong enough so that “no one from outside can stick his snotty nose into our affairs.”
When asked on a call-in show about alleged Western plans to break Russia up and seize its energy resources, he confirmed that Western strategists dream about this sort of thing, but dismissed their hopes as “political erotica.” Russia, he said, “is not Iraq.”
Putin has long warned about foreigners who want to weaken Russia. It’s his ready explanation, no matter how implausible, for any embarrassment or setback. Lately, he’s gone further, angrily linking foreign enemies to dangerous pro-Western forces inside the country.
Although the two parties running behind his own are the communists and the extreme nationalists, Putin pays no attention to them. What really energizes him is the chance to attack the now-marginal liberal parties.
At less than 2 percent in the polls, these groups have no chance whatever of making it into the Duma. All the same, Putin warns darkly that they haven’t “left the political stage.” “They want to take revenge”—to revive a system of “corruption and lies.” The most popular man in Russia fulminates publicly that these people take instruction from abroad and operate in the shadows. They want to “do their little deeds and eat cake on our tab!”
Putin has saved his most colorful phrases for the campaign trail, but he has not spared foreign audiences. On Wednesday he summoned the diplomatic corps to the Kremlin for a little lecture on Russian foreign policy. At the end of a mostly upbeat presentation came the snarling conclusion. Russian has embraced “evolutionary development,” he told the ambassadors, “and, I am forced to repeat, we will not allow any external interference in the process.”
What are we to make of all this? The ferocity of Putin’s rhetoric is, at a minimum, an admission of how much is wrong with his own party—which he has himself refused even to join. United Russia, he acknowledges, has no unifying ideology. It attracts power-seekers and “all kinds of scoundrels” (this, in a campaign speech for United Russia!). Small wonder, then, that he feels the need to enhance its appeal to voters. And what better enhancement than a little xenophobic nationalism?
There is a more ominous reading of what Putin is doing than merely trying to give United Russia an identity that it doesn’t have. Focusing on pro-Western liberals makes little sense in electoral terms, where they count for almost nothing. But if Putin’s strategy for prolonging his rule is going to involve blatant legal chicanery, then these same liberals may play a much more critical role, as the potential core of a public opposition.
How better to intimidate and discredit them than by branding opposition—in advance—as treason? And how better to explain—and contain—Western criticism than by painting the West as incorrigibly hostile to a strong, successful Russia?
In the weeks ahead, we are going to learn the answer to the question that this fall’s campaign has not answered—what does Putin want to do with the mandate he wins? When his plans are clear, they may help to explain the strange way he has been handling himself.
But the Vladimir Putin we have seen on the campaign trail is likely to be with us for a while. When he makes an issue his own, he tends to stick with it. Ask the Chechens, or Mikhail Khodorkovsky: They’ll tell you that when Putin made them his enemy during previous electoral cycles, he didn’t change course when the voting was done.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.