MOSCOW – About a year ago, when I kicked off this column, nothing seemed more boring or futile than writing about the Russian presidential election. There was only one question you needed to answer to unlock the whole thing: Would Putin return from the prime minister's office to run for a third presidential term or not? (Which is why we called the column "Kremlinology 2012.") Once Putin decided who was running -- himself or his protégé-turned-President Dmitry Medvedev -- then we would know who was going to sit in the Kremlin, at least until 2018. So it all seemed to come down to Putin, who was often spoken of as the country's only real voter.
In the year since, so much has happened -- the grand swap between Putin and Medvedev announced in September, the suspect parliamentary elections in December, the mass street protests ever since -- and some things have even changed. Yet, in essence, not much is really different: Going into the March 4 presidential election, everything is still up in the air and only one man -- the same man -- can decide how to bring it all down again. But even though we now know the answer to who is running and who will win, there are even more unknowns still to reckon with.
Yes, Putin will win, and he will win with a comfortable margin, but it is wholly unclear how accurately that will represent the popular will. In the hall of mirrors that has been the last month of opposition protests and loyalist counter-protests -- not to mention car rallies and counter car rallies -- it's become hard to gauge where Russian public opinion truly lies. According the latest polling done by the independent Levada Center, 66 percent of those planning to vote say they will vote for Putin. Not bad for a leader facing a wave of street protests.
But if you look more closely at the numbers, Levada sociologist Denis Volkov says, they show something else. Over the summer, when it was unclear which of the two top leaders would actually be running, Putin had 23 percent and Medvedev had 18 percent. More than 40 percent of Russians polled said they wanted the two to run against each other. Then, when that option was taken away on Sept. 24, Putin's number shot up. "People are rooting for the winner," Volkov told me.
On Sunday, many people will vote for Putin not only because they think he's the predestined winner but also because there is no one else to vote for. The Kremlin's two-pronged strategy of first slashing and burning the political playing field and then bemoaning the lack of real competitors -- it's a shame, Putin once said, that his fellow democratic leader Gandhi is dead -- has worked quite well. As it stands now, Putin faces Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist clown who has been the Kremlin-sponsored spoiler for over two decades; old Putin friend and Just Russia leader Sergey Mironov (you can see just how bad a candidate he is from this campaign ad); and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, about whose independence there are serious doubts. Putin's most serious rival, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, resembles nothing so much as a smooth woodcarving. In my utterly unscientific surveys of people at Putin rallies in Moscow and traveling around Siberia last week, support for Putin split roughly in half between the "we-love-Putin" camp and the "got-any-better-ideas?" camp. The liberal-leaning opposition, loud and present and plentiful in the capital, is simply far less energized out there in the great Russian hinterland, where just over half the votes are.
Regardless, on Monday morning, Russia will wake up to its old-new president Putin, and that evening Muscovites will take to the streets in protests, both for and against. The Moscow mayor's office has made a serious concession and allowed the opposition to gather at Pushkinskaya Square, in the heart of Moscow. But some in the opposition are talking of marching downhill to the Kremlin and forming a white circle around the old red walls. Will the authorities crack down? How many more times will city leaders grant permits to the organizers after March 5? How much stomach will Putin have for more protests once the campaign is over and won and he has to go back to running the country?
Speaking of which, how will Putin interpret the mandate he receives this weekend? Will we see a shift toward a more pluralistic Putin, a Putin capable of coalitions and concessions, or will we see a retrenchment, a caricature of the old Putin, a blustery, salty KGB-type who rules by fell swoops and diktats, a ruler to whom the people must bow? Will Medvedev, promised the post of prime minister, be allowed to continue to play the (sort of) liberal good cop? Will the Kremlin's political concessions in the face of these protests -- the return of gubernatorial elections and easier party registration procedures -- have legs, or even teeth? Or will Putin continue tightening the screws by cracking down on independent media and opposition activists?
And what of those long overdue economic reforms? Putin's campaign promises to raise pensions and fly Russian soccer fans to the European Championships for free could cost something like $161 billion. It's a price tag that pretty much requires oil in the $150 a barrel range in order for the Kremlin to keep its word. That or Putin would have to raise taxes, or the retirement age -- anathema to his populist policies and to his core electorate, which depends on such fiscally contradictory largesse.
What Putin decides to do come March 5 is "the central question, not because Putin decides everything in politics on March 5 but precisely because he can no longer decide everything himself," says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked on Putin's 2000 presidential campaign but was fired by the Kremlin in the last year. "It's become a very complicated scene." The way Pavlovsky sees it, there are two possible paths: modernize and reform the political system or "play the tsar." The first option is the more difficult one, but should Putin choose the second door, Pavlovsky predicts, "He'll become a prisoner of his own system, completely out of touch with reality, locked in the Kremlin and with his minions ruling in his name. And this is the worst possible outcome."
For now, it seems Putin can't quite make up his mind. On Thursday night, he met with the editors in chief of major European newspapers. He was calm and confident while monosyllabically turning down the opposition's demands of new parliamentary elections. But just days before that, at a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, he screamed into the microphone of blood and sweat and meddling foreigners. It was a strange and angry speech, bizarrely out of sync with the wearily festive mood of the people who had come out to hear him (some willingly, some not). Moreover, those who had come had come in peace. Everyone I asked at the pro-Putin rally -- without exception -- said they didn't mind the opposition protests. "Everyone has the right to their own opinion," the refrain went. And then Putin talked to them of blood and dying to save the Motherland. From whom? "It's a strange, sudden turn, not really motivated by anything," argues Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It's not his usual tone. His personal campaign is a lot more subtle. It's a little savage, and I think it speaks to a certain unevenness, a nervousness."
Increasingly, however, Putin's rhetoric seems to point to something a little worse than a case of nerves. On Tuesday, at a meeting of his National People's Front, Putin spoke of the opposition, saying bluntly that they would have to "submit" to the choice of the majority and avoid "imposing" their views on the majority. This kind of zero-sum language would seem to preclude dialogue. Putin followed by bizarrely speculating that his increasingly desperate opposition will end up searching for a "sacrificial offering" from its own ranks. "They'll whack [him] themselves, excuse me, and then blame the government," he said. This kind of talk doesn't leave much room for hope; if anything, Putin seems to be encouraging the radicalization of the still amorphous opposition against him. Already, anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who helped launch the protests, has been calling for an "escalation," and some of his activists were arrested on Wednesday for trying to hand out tents: Navalny wants to see a repeat of the great campout in Kiev after Ukraine's rigged 2004 presidential election -- the one that led to the Orange Revolution, as well as to Putin's obsession with "color revolutions" being plotted all around him.
The Putin I've come to know in writing this column for the past year is a leader who, when presented with two options, tends to pick the easier, if often far stupider, of the two, especially in a tense political atmosphere. All spring and summer, the political scene in Moscow stagnated and soured as the city waited for Putin to make up his mind: Would he stay or go? When he finally revealed his decision in September, it was a stunning one, simply because it came out seeming so shortsighted and reckless and blunt.
"It was the most obvious and therefore the least probable move of the ones I could have predicted," Putin's chronicler, the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov told me that day as we both stood slack-jawed in the stands following Putin's announcement. "We all waited for this moment for a long time, and still this is a surprise precisely because it's so obvious." He was in disbelief, despite the obviousness, because he, like many others, had hoped that Putin was capable of a better, wiser decision. When the protests exploded in December, Sasha, half of the duo behind KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter political satire, ruefully pointed out to me that if Putin had let Medvedev stay another term, "none of this would have happened." And I think he's absolutely right.
Would it be foolish to hope that, come March 5, Putin will see his mandate with the nuance the situation requires? To hope Putin has learned that political compromise and political strength can coexist? To hope that, for once, Putin takes the more difficult but ultimately more productive route of reform? Or would it be more prudent to see what's hiding in plain sight? Again. Says Pavlovsky: "I just hope he doesn't send us to war with Tajikistan."