Who knows what explains the teardrop that streaked down Vladimir Putin’s cheek as he announced his victory in Sunday’s presidential election? The Russian strongman blamed the wind. We’d like to think Mr. Putin was contemplating what he now faces as president of a country that cannot afford the promises he made, that cannot function under the voraciously corrupt bureaucracy he has nurtured and that cannot satisfy the rising middle class that has decisively turned against him.
The official results gave Mr. Putin 64 percent of the vote. Russian and international observers said irregularities were widespread; his real share of the votes was likely somewhere below the 58 percent recorded in an exit poll. Tellingly, Mr. Putin was reported to have won only 47 percent of the vote in Moscow, where turnout was below 50 percent; while in Chechnya, which was devastated by a war he launched, the president-elect was reported to have received 99.7 percent of a 99.6 percent turnout.
For a dozen years, Mr. Putin has bought the tolerance of Russians with a rising living standard, mostly paid for by oil and gas. That formula is likely exhausted. Though he promised hundreds of billions of dollars in pay increases for teachers and doctors and in subsidies for children and students — not to mention $790 billion in new military spending — the Kremlin chief is unlikely to find the required funds. The oil price needed to balance Russia’s budget has risen from $34 a barrel in 2007 to $117 this year, and outside estimates of the price that Mr. Putin will require to meet his pledges range from $130 to $150.
Even if the economy holds up, the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined street demonstrations against the regime since December — and the millions who have followed them on an uncensored Internet — are unlikely to tolerate another six years of rigid autocracy. Mr. Putin hints that he understands that: The Russian parliament is considering legislation that would restore elections for governor and liberalize the registration of opposition political parties. On Monday Mr. Putin’s sidekick, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, ordered a review of 32 criminal cases, including that of the country’s best-known political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky — though few expect he will be pardoned.
If it is authentic, liberalization will threaten Mr. Putin and his circle of ex-KGB cronies. Free media will ask what happened to the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been siphoned out of state companies and deposited in foreign bank accounts. A parliament with a real opposition would investigate who was behind the murders of journalists including Anna Politkovskaya (gunned down on Mr. Putin’s birthday in 2006) and of dissidents such as whistle-blowing spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by radiation in London.
That’s why many Russians expect Mr. Putin will stick with repression and the anti-American policies he has adopted in recent months. If so, it will be time for the Obama administration to set aside its policy of seeking accommodation with the Russian leader while playing down issues of democracy and human rights. The United States must begin to focus on Russians who represent the country’s future. Mr. Putin is not among them.
— The Washington Post