Russian police detain a protester in St. Petersburg, March 5, 2012. (Alexander Demianchuk / Courtesy Reuters)
Vladimir Putin did not wait long to celebrate. At eleven o’clock on Sunday night, just three hours after the polls in Moscow had closed, he stood outside the gates of Red Square and addressed a crowd of 100,000 people -- many of whom, reports would later reveal, had been bussed in from outside the city or been paid as little as 300 rubles (about ten dollars) to attend. By the final days of his campaign, Putin had begun to present his attempt to return to the Kremlin not so much as a contest for a particular political office but as an almost militarized battle for the future of the country. “We are a victorious people! It is in our genes, in our genetic code!” he said at a rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on February 23. And in his speech on Sunday, he resurfaced similar rhetoric, saying, “I promised you we would win, and we won.” He went on, “We proved that no one can force anything on us.”
With such language, Putin returned to the idea that has undergirded his reign for the past 12 years. As he likes to present it, the choice has never been between him and, say, Gennady Zyuganov, the longtime head of the Communist Party, who first ran for president in 1996, or between him and Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, who entered the race in December. Rather, the choice has been between Putin and chaos, between Putin and the abyss. In other words, there is no real choice at all -- Putin is a politician above politics.
What has made Russian political life interesting for the first time in years is that this façade of omnipotence has begun to show cracks. After parliamentary elections in December were marred by gross falsification, the country’s urban professional class underwent a political and civic reawakening, a process I chronicled in Foreign Affairs last week ("The People Vs. Vladimir Putin"). For the first time in a decade, there seemed to be a hope -- however amorphous -- that an actual, workable alternative to Putinism could emerge, even as the Kremlin kept any serious challengers off the presidential ballot and maintained its claustrophobic control over politics.
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