Russia: Why Putin won the presidential election

On March 6, 2012, the Real News Network interviewed Aleksandr Buzgalin, who explained that
Putin promised social democratic reforms but will more likely continue neoliberal policies.

By Aleksandr Buzgalin, translated by Renfrey Clarke

March 8, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The winter of 2011-2012 saw the rise of a new – and powerful – wave of political activism in Russia, a development which understandably has drawn the attention of most Russians, and of wide circles abroad, to the country’s political processes. What has happened?

Formally at least, the results of the elections are well known. Vladimir Putin received 63.6 per cent of the votes, and became president of the Russian Federation.

His losing rivals achieved the following results:

  • Leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov – 17.18%;
  • Independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov – 7.98%;
  • Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky – 6.22%;
  • Leader of A Just Russia party, Sergey Mironov – 3.85%.


These figures on their own tell us a good deal – but by no means everything.

First, a note of explanation. Despite the optimistic assessments of the democratic nature of the elections made by most foreign observers, many forces in Russia and abroad are pointing to numerous cases of vote rigging during the election and to unjust conditions in the lead-up to the ballot.

Zyuganov, for example, refused to recognise the results of the elections and did not congratulate Putin on his victory. All the other candidates were more loyal to Putin, who has become president once again. On March 5, participants in a meeting on Pushkin Square, the traditional site for dissident gatherings in Moscow, also put forward a negative view of the elections. Official figures put the number of demonstrators at 14,000; among the speakers Sergey Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front, was much more prominent than in the past. The most active participants in the meeting refused to leave and were “dispersed” (the official formulation) by police. A number of organisers, including Udaltsov, were arrested.

Many public organisations, including the League of Electors[1], also refused to accept the election results.

New models of ballot rigging that were used in the presidential elections were widely discussed in the Russian internet. In the view of experts, direct stuffing of ballot boxes was relatively rare, but in many cities and especially Moscow so-called “carousels” were organised, with specially chosen citizens conveyed on buses around different polling stations, where they voted using “detachable coupons” that were handed out to them. This was pointed out by participants in a debate on the Russia 1 television channel on election night (the author of this article took part in this live-to-air broadcast).

The most important distorting factor, however, was the specific conditions under which the election campaign took place. Access to the mass media enjoyed by the candidates and their financial resources were far from equal. According to experts from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Putin received more than two-thirds of the television coverage given to the candidates, including coverage he received due to his status as prime minister. In Russia the state television channels remain the principal source of information for people in outlying regions and especially for pensioners, who made up close to half of the citizens who turned out to vote.

If we take into account all the factors tilting the result in favour of Putin, then the number of his supporters can be put at 50 per cent or a little higher.

Why did Putin win?

In the author’s view (which is by no means uncommon), the key factor allowing Putin to retake the presidency was the fear, which continues to dominate public consciousness, of a return to the “evil nineties”. It was no accident that so much attention was devoted to describing the problems of those years. The disintegration of our country (that began the period as the USSR); the threat of a further disintegration of the Russian Federation; criminalisation; the drastic fall in living standards – all this remains as fresh in the memory of most Russian citizens as if it had happened yesterday.

The leaders who addressed mass meetings in Moscow poured oil on the flames. Among them were people such as Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, who were notorious as supporters of the right-wing liberal course associated with Boris Yeltsin and Gaydar. The deliberate use by these figures of slogans of that time, their programs in which free-market rhetoric features abundantly and their pro-Western declarations all helped the Putin team to create a rock-hard stereotype in the social consciousness of Russians on the eve of the elections: “either Putin or the collapse of Russia and a return to the chaos of the 1990s”. Supporters of the current president also came out with the same slogans in pro-Putin demonstrations.

A further significant factor in Putin’s victory was a skilful election campaign. On the eve of the election several articles were published in his name, setting out his election promises. As in Putin’s first campaign, these were partly borrowed from the opposition. But while that first campaign used patriotic slogans from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and other members of the “people’s patriotic bloc” headed by Zyuganov, this time the accent was on social populism.

The social goals stressed in the election programs of Zyuganov and Mironov were inserted, without any acknowledgement of their source, in texts signed by Putin promising to improve the standing of the working class, to increase the wages of teachers and health staff, to raise pensions and so forth. In addition, the period immediately before the elections saw a number of real, widely propagandised moves to increase the pension somewhat and to improve the pay of a number of groups of state employees.

Most lamentable was the fact that a significant number of Russian citizens, despite their experience over many years, believed these promises. The fairytale of a “good tsar” and “evil noblemen” is still popular in Russia, just as it was a hundred years back. It remains popular even though the real actions of the present authorities tell a different story; of the proceeds of economic growth in Russia, the overwhelming bulk is going to the oligarchs, to the top levels of the bureaucracy and to the quasi-middle class that serves these elites. Of course, it is not only Russians who believe fairytales; more than a few pragmatic Americans are convinced that in their country of “equal opportunities” anyone can become a millionaire.

The opposition

Finally, Putin’s victory was due in no small part to ... the opposition. Especially the right-wing opposition, the people who were most audible at the demonstrations, who received huge support from the Western media, and who were used as a scarecrow by Putin’s propagandists. The curious thing is that these figures were criticising Putin on account of his populism. As an alternative, they started talking about a need for a new wave of privatisation and market reforms, for greater openness to the West, and for rejecting calls to indulge the parasitism of pensioners, state employees, and so forth. In other words, they demanded precisely the things that the majority of ordinary Russians are most scared of.

This refusal by the right-wing section of the opposition to clearly prioritise social goals – a refusal heard most widely and in its most shrill tones in the mass media – became a strategically important factor lowering the rating of the protesters and increasing that of Putin.

Who voted for Putin?

Important is the traditional question: Who was it voted for the current president?

Sociological research on this question has still to be performed, but analysis of the disposition of social forces on the eve of the election suggests strongly that those who voted for Putin were the following.

  • The significant sector of business, along with the circles close to it (the so-called “office plankton”), that has managed to establish itself firmly within the present economic system, in one way or another parasitising raw materials and other state-owned resources.

  • The middle and upper bureaucracy.

  •  A certain proportion of pensioners and government-sector workers who had received one or another paltry gift on the eve of the elections, and/or believed the latest promises.

  • Significant numbers of people living in the countryside or in small towns, where a low percentage of votes for Putin might result in a refusal by the authorities to turn on heating supplies or to finance the building of a road.
  • Broad numbers of people dependent on the authorities in the administrative sense, from service personnel to prisoners.

  • Inhabitants of autonomous national republics, especially in the North Caucasus, where as many as 100% vote for the authorities.


In sum, Putin draws his support from an extremely contradictory and heterogeneous grab bag of social strata, consisting of people who either control Russia, or are dependent on those who do.

What about the left-wing opposition?

The candidates from the left campaigned poorly. Moreover, they doomed themselves from the very beginning to suffer not just a defeat, but a wipe out.

The crucial moment came when the left parties nominated two long-time leaders, Zyuganov and Mironov, instead of putting forward a single, new figure who had proved in practice that he or she would fight to the end, decisively, regardless of personal dangers and difficulties, for the interests of the majority of citizens.

Russia’s citizens are tired of Zyuganov and Mironov, who have made endless promises but have shown their incapacity to do anything serious. The author of these lines has repeatedly encountered people of very diverse types, from students to professors, from young engineers to retired officers, who have said: “We support socially oriented development. We know that Putin is no leftist. But we cannot vote any longer for Zyuganov. We don’t believe him. So we’ll vote for Putin as the least of the evils on offer.”

Mironov in this regard is an even less attractive figure, since as head of the Council of the Federation (Senate) of Russia he was supporting Putin as recently as a year before the election. When Mironov was sacked from this leadership post he started depicting himself as an oppositionist. Following the rout he suffered in the latest election he has again been declaring his loyalty to Putin.

Meanwhile, Russia has more than a few people who could present a strong alternative in the election. They are to be found both in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and in A Just Russia, and outside these parties.

At the last Forum of the Russian Educational Association the author of these lines stated directly that Oleg Smolin could act as such a candidate. This remarkable man has been blind since birth, but despite this graduated from university with distinction, defended a doctoral dissertation in philosophy and has written hundreds of highly interesting texts. But this is not the main thing. For more than 20 years Smolin has waged a continuous and uncompromising struggle in the Duma [national parliament], to which the residents of Omsk (and more recently Moscow) have kept electing him, for the interests of handicapped people and for universally accessible education. I have not met anyone, either on the left or among centrists, who do not respect him precisely for this consistent, skilfully conducted struggle for social priorities.

Such is Smolin. And he is not alone.

The upper hierarchies of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and of A Just Russia do not admit such people to leadership positions, correctly foreseeing the results: if people like Smolin were to be successful, there would be nowhere at the top for people like Zyuganov and Mironov.

If we ask the question of which social forces support left and left-centrist candidates, that will not for the most part be old Stalinists. Most such people vote for Putin, considering that any ruling power, whether that of a general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or of a president of “democratic” Russia, is either god-given or at least holy.

Those who cast their votes for Zyuganov (the votes for Mironov were too few to allow firm conclusions to be drawn, so the argument in his case is more abstract) were a section of those who always vote for the Communist Party. The reason why this was only a section is because many people, as already explained, have no faith in Zyuganov personally. The voters who supported Zyuganov were primarily:

  • workers and members of the “rank and file” intelligentsia in large industrial centres;

  • impoverished or uniformly oppositional layers of youth;

  • a part of the older generation who have a serious commitment to left ideals.


“In the context of widespread violations, the League considers it impossible to accept the results of the 2012 presidential elections in Russia.”The League also concludes that the election was unjust “because the registered candidates conducted their election campaigning under unequal conditions, and one of them had a notorious advantage” (RIA Novosti, March 7).


This time, however, the left lost a significant section of its earlier supporters. The individuals concerned are members of the scientific-technical intelligentsia and young people (residents of science-based settlements and students) who are oriented toward active creative activity, both in their own interests and in the interests of their country. Many such people, disillusioned with Zyuganov and not trusting Mironov, voted this time for Prokhorov.

Meanwhile, Zhirinovsky’s electoral base did not change, merely grew smaller. This is a blessing, but does not point to any decline in the influence of Russian nationalism. It is simply that this time, most of the people who make up this layer of the electorate voted for Putin.

The Prokhorov phenomenon

Wining almost 8 per cent of the vote in this election, Mikhail Prokhorov became, if not a sensation, then at least an enlivening factor in the otherwise dully predictable outcome. Who is Prokhorov? Whose support did he attract, and why?

The fact that Prokhorov is a billionaire (in ruble terms, his fortune is close to half a trillion) is known to everyone. Almost as many know that he set out to become leader of the Just Cause party, but that he was rejected by the key figures in that organisation. In media circles and among experts there has been much talk of Prokhorov’s candidacy being a Kremlin project. And indeed, while Prokhorov pretended to take a certain distance from Putin, he basically lent his support to the current president. The only differences between his program and Putin’s lie in the even greater stress that Prokhorov places on support for private business, and in his modern right-wing rhetoric in favour of the “creative class”, who are supposedly independent, active, innovative and so forth.

Russians who are given to critical thinking grasp that behind all this stands that section of the oligarchy and of middle-sized business that for the present lacks close access to the resources of government. But here too, there is a readiness among many people to believe in the fairytale of an honest, intelligent young individual who through his talent and hard work made billions for himself, while criminal privatisation and parasitising the raw materials wealth of Russia had nothing to do with it.

The saddest thing is that a large part of the “elite” intelligentsia, and considerable numbers of genuinely creative Russians, believe in Prokhorov – and really believe in him, just as people used to believe in the “good tsar”. In a sort of Russian caricature of the “American dream”, the place of the tsar is taken by the “honest billionaire that any of us might become”.

Prokhorov’s followers among the “elite” intelligentsia are privileged figures employed in the mass media and mass culture, and people from the top layers of analysts, consultants, lawyers and so on who serve big business. These people proved their respect and love for this oligarch during the earlier-mentioned direct broadcast on the Russia 1 channel on the night of March 4. I listened without surprise, but with sorrow at the naivety of these dinosaurs of the computer mouse, as almost all of these “independent” experts and journalists reiterated one and the same Philippic. The message was that Putin was receiving support from populist-minded state-sector workers and pensioners, and Prokhorov from Russia’s newly resurrected “creative class”. By the latter was understood an exclusive stratum of business entrepreneurs and top managers, along with the intellectuals who serve them.

It is pointless to try to explain to these people that 90 per cent of the real creative class consists of individuals whose work includes creative elements, and who fashion our most valuable national wealth and the main resource for our innovative development – that is, human beings. The individuals referred to are the same state-sector workers – health staff, teachers, scientists, museum workers, and so forth – whom Prokhorov’s elites treat so contemptuously.

It is not pointless, though, to ask: why did a section of this genuinely creative class vote for a right-wing leader who clearly acts against their interests?

In essence, this question has already been answered. It is because Zyuganov and company have shown, through their 20 years of continuous candidacy, that counting on them any further is pointless.

This is sad, but it is not fatal. There are prospects in Russia for the rebirth of genuine politics that has citizens at its very centre.

P.S. the end of the elections as the beginning of the political process in Russia

The key outcome of the events during the Russian winter of 2011-2012, in my view, will not be the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections – which in any case were predictable in advance – but the fact that after a seven-year sleep, our citizens began to sense that politics was their affair.

It was no accident that hundreds of thousands of people came to demonstrations for and against Putin, and no accident that at the overwhelming majority of many thousands of polling stations during the latest election dozens, sometimes more than a hundred volunteer observers were present. (The importance of this is truly difficult to overstate!) Russia’s citizens have begun to understand that unless they “do politics”, then politics is something that will be done to them. They have begun to understand that deciding who to vote for is a fundamental matter. That in Russia, there are still things that are not determined in advance. That the authorities are scared and if subjected to honest, persistent pressure will give way and be forced to take account of citizens’ interests. Of necessity, this abstract-democratic protest will rapidly expand to include socially based demands. At that point a real socio-political struggle will begin.

At a minimum it will raise social-democratic demands, and at a maximum it will demand that our country move beyond its criminal-bureaucratic and oligarchic capitalism.

[Aleksandr Buzgalin is professor of political economics at Moscow State University. He is also editor of the independent democratic left magazine Alternatives, and is a coordinator of the Russian social movement Alternatives.]


[1] The League of Electors’ memorandum states, “considers that the elections of 4 March were not honest, since the counting of votes and tallying of figures was accompanied by systematic falsification, which systematically distorted the expression of the voters’ will.

“In the context of widespread violations, the League considers it impossible to accept the results of the 2012 presidential elections in Russia.”

The League also concludes that the election was unjust “because the registered candidates conducted their election campaigning under unequal conditions, and one of them had a notorious advantage” (RIA Novosti, March 7).