12/12/2011 01:42 EST | Updated 02/11/2012 05:12 EST

Opposition to Vladimir Putin a Sign of Democracy


There's a certain amount of hand-wringing and subdued glee over the surprising (to some) sag of support for Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party in the Dec. 4 elections for the Duma -- Russia's version of parliament.

Putin, himself, is hoping his status as prime minister will be upgraded to president again, when he stands for election in March. And, one presumes, today's Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will revert to being prime minister.

In the 2007 election, Putin's party (of which, as president, he can't be a member) won something like 64 per cent of the popular vote, while on Dec. 4 it was just under 50 per cent.

Fifty per cent is a pretty comfortable margin in a democratic election, and in the range that U.S. presidents get. Better than the 40 per cent Stephen Harper got to form a majority government.

Looked at positively -- the idea that the pillars of power are trembling in Russia because the ruling party got only 50 per cent of the popular vote seems absurd. Also, that stability is threatened by mass protests that are underway against voter fraud and too much power relegated to one man for too long.

In its history, Russia has had much experience in democracy. Until the fall of Soviet communism, the brief regime of Alexander Kerensky, before it suffered a coup from Lenin's Bolshevik party, was the only democratic interlude in the country's history.

In the West, knives are out for Putin. Russia's election results are being used to remind people that Putin is former KGB, as if that implies he's akin to Stalin, the Gulag and purges. This is a bit unfair.

Putin is clearly tough as a boot. He is ruthless and can be generous, but he's sane, cool, and has achieved remarkable things for Russia. He doesn't panic when criticized.

Maybe most impressive is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and after the deposing of Mikhail Gorbachev (deservedly, the favourite of Westerners), and when Boris Yeltsin was bounced, Russia was in muddled chaos with criminal oligarchies looting, exploiting and corrupting the country.

When Putin took over, he re-introduced rule of law and brought order to social disorder. Under Putin, the price or Russian oil rose and a solid middle class emerged which, today, is expanding faster than most "experts" predicted.

Inevitably, with a growing middle class comes political divergence. Innumerable political parties compete in Russia -- more growing pains of democracy.

The fact that the top politician in Russia can be denounced in the streets with something resembling impunity, is also reassuring and evidence of democracy. Russia is not the old Soviet Union where criticism was viewed as treason, and elections were won by 98 per cent of the vote going to the only candidate on the ballot.

One hopes Putin understands this -- as he should, since in Soviet times the only ones who really understood the West were the KGB.

Putin clearly relishes power. But he's a lot of other things too. From a Western standpoint, Russia today has no aspirations for world dominance, or for subverting friends and enemies alike. It seeks repect and influence -- as do all countries.

At this moment in history, it's hard to see anyone but Vladimr Putin leading Russia into the future.