Putin must let successor take the nation forward
Russia calls itself a democracy, yet the winner of Sunday's presidential election, Dmitry Medvedev, triumphed over his three rivals in particularly undemocratic circumstances. He took more than two-thirds of the vote with virtually no official campaigning, thanks to being outgoing leader Vladimir Putin's hand-picked successor.
Mr Putin's patronage meant Mr Medvedev benefited from a system that has become increasingly autocratic. The president-elect received more coverage in the state-run media than his opponents, was helped because key figures were barred from running for election on technicalities, and received the backing of government workers who were told to vote for him or risk losing their jobs.
He owes his political rise to Mr Putin, who was constitutionally unable to run for a third term. Mr Putin has known him for two decades and given him all his government jobs, including the two he presently holds: deputy prime minister and chairman of the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom.
Mr Medvedev has promised to make Mr Putin his prime minister, raising questions as to which man will wield the most power. He said in a victory speech on Sunday that he would maintain political stability and a continuation of policies.
Russians know that this is not democracy. But having experienced the hardship of the now defunct Soviet Union and chaos of the 1990s under Mr Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, they are willing to accept the terms of the endemically corrupt system. In return for stability and the promise of a more equitable distribution of the nation's oil wealth, they are willing to forgo choosing their leaders and free speech. Yet with true democracy, they could do far better. Neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine are performing better economically even though they are not as commodity-rich as Russia. Their people have democratic freedoms.
Mr Medvedev is known to be more liberal in his views than Mr Putin, advocating in a recent speech the need for freedom and institution-building. The approach is one Russia sorely needs - only with an institutional framework for more democracy can the nation attain its full economic, political and social potential.
Mr Putin has guided Russia to calmer waters, partly because of high global commodity prices. But he must now take a back seat to his successor and let the nation move forward.