Leading article: An election in name only

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Whatever else they may have been, Sunday's elections for a new Russian president were not an exercise in democracy. True the communist candidate did rather better than expected, at 17 per cent, and the turnout, at nearly 70 per cent, was above most predictions. But even these figures are far from reliable, given the degree of government manipulation in this election. For a Kremlin determined to ensure legitimacy on President Putin's decreed succession, some appearance of a free vote was deemed necessary. For a president equally determined that the change-over should be entirely on his terms, the election process was orchestrated from the start to be just that – an election in name only.

Had it happened in Africa, the capitals of the West would have been full of condemnation. As it concerns a country with a considerable voice in the world's institutions and even more real power in energy supplies, the realities behind Sunday's vote are likely to pass essentially unchallenged.

Not for nothing did the EU rush to proclaim the new boy in the Kremlin. That is not to say that the overwhelming vote given to Putin's candidate as his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is necessarily unrepresentative of the Russian will. Such opinion polls as have been carried out all suggest that Mr Putin's presidency has been broadly approved by the Russian citizenry, all too pleased to see the country's standing in the world promoted by an aggressively nationalist foreign policy.

Given Putin's standing, and his ruthless deployment of the machinery of state to suppress voices of opposition, he could have probably run a Borzoi and got it elected. As it is Dmitry Medvedev is no Russian wolfhound, but he is a long-standing protégé of the outgoing president, without a power base of his own and with his boss staying on as prime minister.

Given Putin's temperament and his dominance of the machinery of power, it would seem idle of the West to look for some fundamental change in Russia's governance simply because he's done a sidestep shuffle with his nominated replacement. Putin may well see the need for some change, at least in tone, to keep pace with Russia's growing economy and its opening out to the world.

But it is a change he is clearly determined to keep control of as prime minister. That may hold out the prospect of some amelioration in Russia's recent confrontational position vis-á-vis the West, most obviously with Britain. But to expect a softening in the nationalism of Russian policies would seem naive at best, whilst to hope for greater freedom for its own citizenry may well prove an aspiration too far.

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