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The Kursk and Russia’s Democracy

MOSCOW: Will the sinking of the submarine Kursk and the death of all its crew also sink the Putin revolution? Until now President Putin’s power was unique in Russian history – it was based on his vast popularity, one legitimized by the vote. He could browbeat Russia’s oligarchs into submission and recast the upper house of the Duma to make it bend to his will because he was universally popular and the other elements of Russia’s mostly discredited government knew it. His handling of the Kursk crisis, however, dented that democratic mandate because Putin seemed as contemptuous of human life as all his predecessors in the Kremlin. How well he recovers will determine whether or not Putin’s revolution will remain a democratic one, or whether he will revert to autocracy to pursue his goals.

I have no doubt that Putin will find people to blame for the failure to seek outside help for the Kursk in time. Indeed, the Kursk crisis may provide him with an opportunity to further clean house in the military. The first tests of his ability to recover are the looming regional elections across Russia. Between October and December over 40% of our country’s governorships will be up for grabs in new elections. As a restoration of Moscow’s authority over the country is a central plank in the president’s platform, he needs to restore his popularity fast.

Although Putin's reforms to the upper house of the Duma have already stripped the governors of their status as federal power brokers as well as of their parliamentary immunity, governorships retain wide powers in their regions. Few can now strut the national stage, or thumb their nose at the Kremlin, as they did during the Yeltsin era, but their powers are real and reigning them in won’t be easy.

Putin’s dominance has already changed the way these campaigns will be run. Money is now less important than even a year ago. What matters now is control over administrative power, and the appointment of presidential prefects throughout Russia gives the Kremlin a powerful hand in directing state administration. Since campaigns will be cheaper, governors will find it hard to buy reelection because opponents will be able to mount a credible opposition.