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Peter Worthington

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Putin: The Devil We Know

Posted: 03/ 7/2012 7:49 am

It's easy to be cynical about elections in Russia, but the election of Vladimir Putin as president -- re-re-election might better describe it -- is both reassuring and expected.

Charges of fraud and vote-rigging are common in all elections everywhere, and Russia is no exception. But what improprieties were indulged in, played a small role -- if any -- in the outcome of the presidential election: some 64 per cent of the vote for Putin, as compared to his 72 per cent win when he ran in 2004.

From a Western point of view, no other candidate in the race would have been preferable to Putin. We know him, he knows us, and neither faction is likely to miscalculate with regards to the other.

While Russia is certainly freer and more democratic than it ever was as the Soviet Union, open criticism of those running for office and those in positions of power still take a bit of getting used to.

In the old Soviet days, any of the public criticisms being leveled at Putin today would have meant a one-way ticket to the Gulag. Nowadays, even though Russian democracy is still in an embryonic stage, criticism is intense and, in cases, more vicious and intemperate than in Western countries.

Elections in Soviet Union days were an irrelevant exercise in hypocrisy, stage-managed for popular consumption. Any win under 95 per cent approval was considered shameful, indicating that five per cent had neglected to vote.

The only way Soviet citizens could safely protest was to leave their regions on voting day, and not be available when officials came to demand that they vote. Later, such individuals would be questioned as to why they didn't vote, and that would enable them to air various complaints -- leaking roof, elevator in permanent disrepair, job dissatisfaction, whatever.

Ridings that got 100 per cent voter turnout, would be praised in Pravda or Izvestia for diligence and patriotism.

So Putin getting "only" 72 per cent voter support in 2004 would have been a national disgrace in Soviet times, not to mention 64 per cent in 2012.

Then again, in Soviet times there'd be only one candidate to vote for, while in this election there were several candidates running for the presidency. This year, second place went to the Communist contender, Gennady Zyuganov (17 per cent). Other main candidates got from three per cent to seven per cent of the vote which, from a democratic standpoint, is a world of difference from Russia's totalitarian past.

Part of the controversy over Putin is that since the implosion of the USSR, the President of Russia is allowed only two consecutive terms in office (as in the U.S.), so after his two terms, Putin switched to be Prime Minister. Now he's eligible for two more terms as Prez. This strikes some as ethically questionable, albeit it quite legal.

On the other hand, it was Putin who established rule by law after the chaotic neo-anarchy in Russia after the collapse of communism, when oligarchies and the Russian mafia held sway and made huge profits at the expense of the rest of the country.

Russia's economic prospects today are excellent, despite the country being plagued by its own Islamic extremism (Chechnya), and disputes with former republics that are now independent countries. Russia's problems are mostly internal now that it has abandoned world domination.

Putin seems the only leader on the horizon with the necessary resolve, know-how, and ruthlessness to make the country work. He is the devil we (and Russians) know, and are comfortable with. At the moment.