Moscow (AsiaNews) – Comparing Vladimir Putin to Ivan IV, the 16th century tsar know as Ivan the Terrible comes naturally from the start of the political career of today’s tsar since he threatened Chechen terrorists when he became prime minister in 1999.
Threat in Russian is groza (угроза), and is the root of Grozny (Грозный), fearsome or terrible, a word to scare all the enemies of Russia. Since the West is now the true and great “enemy”, even more than the Muslims tamed by Putin at home and abroad (in Syria), his fourth victory makes him even more like Ivan IV of medieval Holy Russia.
The final tally of the 2018 presidential elections in Russia will be announced in a few days, in accordance with Russian electoral law, but since last night, the “people’s president” is a clear winner, after running as an independent and above partisan divisions.
With almost all ballots counted, Putin has 76.6 per cent of the vote (56.2 million, ten million more than in 2012), ahead of Communists candidate Pavel Grudinin who got 11 per cent (in 2012 his predecessor Gennady Zyuganov took 17 per cent), the permanent nationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky (6 per cent), followed by the others, including “liberal opponent” Ksenia Sobchak at 1.7 per cent. The final results might change before their officially proclaimed ten days from now, but not by much.
The “Crimea” effect
Putin exploited the Crimea effect. The election was held on the fourth anniversary of the annexation of the peninsula in 2014. Taken from the Ukraine, the region is charged with symbolic value in Russian history. It was here that Prince Vladimir was baptised in 987 AD, before he led his people to Christianity the next year in the waters of the Dnieper near Kiev.
Over the centuries, Crimea was Greek, Genoese, Tatars and Turkish, always reconquered by Russian Cossacks to assert the victory of the true faith. Peter the Great made it the springboard of his empire, and Stalin summoned allied leaders to the peninsula to set the bases of the “cold war”. Today it is from Crimea that Putin proclaims Russia’s renewed role to shape the world balance of power.
In reality, Putin’s great victory was harder to get than expected. The president’s popularity four years ago was sky-high, above 80 per cent, and then progressively slipped under the strain of the economic crisis, exacerbated by Western sanctions that followed the annexation of Crimea.
Promising to overcome all difficulties in full autarchy, Putin has had to rely mostly on national pride, blaming the hated West for the sacrifices Russians have to face.
The war in Syria was the great “weapon of mass distraction”. With the blessing of the Orthodox Church and even the Pope of Rome, Russia regained the upper hand in this crucial area of the Middle East, which had always been its protectorate, with advanced and terrifying weapons, whose use the incumbent justified in his last speech of the campaign.
In this he was also helped by the “spy war” that followed the attack against the spy Sergey Skripal and the mutual expulsion of diplomats between Russia and Great Britain. The incident, a Cold War classic, raised Putin’s groza, a show of his capacity to counter attacks and punish traitors, as did Tsar Ivan and Generalissimo Stalin, whom Putin is increasingly imitating. The latter’s popularity goes in fact hand in hand with the rehabilitation of the Georgian dictator, whose crimes are increasingly accepted by large segments of the population as an historical necessity. The elimination of spies fleeing to Britain is nothing compared to that.
The contribution of the Orthodox Church and Kirill
Despite all these favourable circumstances, the presidential campaign required a great commitment by the state apparatus, and the Orthodox Church to get Russians to vote. The turnout was 67 per cent, up from 65 per cent in 2012. Any drop would have left a bitter aftertaste in the president’s mouth after 20 years in power.
Some have cast doubts on the reliability of this figure, given the wide gap between the turnout in polling stations without observers (80 per cent) compared to the turnout in polling stations with observers (50 per cent), something typical in the Russian elections.
Voters also seem to have been turned off by the Communist Party’s decision to present a agrobusiness executive and a former member of Putin’s own party as its presidential candidate. Most Communist Party voters are older and more conservative. Liberals helped Putin’s triumph too by their constant in-fighting. The latest negative controversy pitted Sobchak against and the “non-candidate” Alexei Navalny, who heads a grassroot opposition and called on Russians not to vote.
The total inability of Putin’s opponents to mobilise Russians almost makes one think that the Kremlin is behind it, staging each election as a show based on a script of “democratic competition” for what, in reality, resembles increasingly the crowning of a tsar.
As soon as the outcome was known, the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundyayev) gave his blessing, giving a succinct explanation for Putin’s triumph. “Your convincing victory in the elections,” said the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, “in the conditions of an open and honest electoral procedure, with a high turnout of voters, testifies of the will of the Russians to unite around you, and of all those who belong to different nationalities, religions and confessions, to different social groups and age groups, and even to those who have different political ideas.” Putin IV, is now tsar of all the Russia.