Sunday’s Russian Duma elections were dull, but the consequences could be spectacular after a series of strategic mistakes by the authorities. First, the campaign itself lacked drama once Putin removed the main question after announcing his return as president in September. The surprise announcement also meant the elections were no longer about the fate of the ‘tandem’, but became a referendum on United Russia.
Second, and unusually for Russia’s managed democracy, there was no real dramaturgiia either. There was no over-inflated thematic script, no ‘war against the Communists‘ (as in 1996), no war against the Chechens (1999), oligarchs (2003) or more or less everybody (2007).
The simultaneous absence of drama and dramaturgiia were obviously related – the Kremlin’s political managers didn’t know what the script was supposed to be until relatively late in the game. Several options were discarded early. Observers like myself had speculated whether the Kremlin might run a new nationalist party to release the pressure from growing anti-‘immigrant’ and anti-Caucasian sentiment (Patriots of Russia); but it seems to have been too risky to ride that particular tiger.
At the other end of the carefully-managed political spectrum, the new Right Cause project briefly promised to serve as an outlier for Medvedists and modernisers, and become a key forum for ideas if not a serious competitor for power. But it also floundered, most likely because the Kremlin stepped back from planning a new wave of reform in early 2012, at the same time as the West, the EU in particular could be staring into the economic abyss. This particular scenario may therefore only be postponed.
But a drama-free election exacerbated long-standing problems of political disengagement and declining turnout. Participation was claimed to be just over 60%, but the authorities resorted to cruder methods of fraud to get there. Ballot stuffing in areas Dagestan, where United Russia was supposed to have won 92 percent, was even more obvious this time. Highly visible ‘technologies’ like the ‘carousel’ (groups of activists being bussed around to ‘vote early, vote often’) were more common, even though they have gone out of fashion in states like Ukraine.
Putinism survives, but many of its control techniques are suddenly looking distinctly old-fashioned. ‘Political technology’ and ‘administrative resources’ don’t solve every problem anymore. Aleksei Navalny’s jibe that ‘Putin is the ‘President of Chechnia, Ingushetia and Dagestan’ reflected the bollger’s anti-Caucasian nationalism, but also showed how Putinism is increasingly and disproportionally dependent on these ‘controlled regions’. Political technology isn’t used in Chechnia, just crude fraud; but this made the steal even more obvious in Moscow, where United Russia was awarded 46.5 percent, but opinion polls put its support in the 20s. The ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia were sparked not be election fraud per se, which is depressingly common throughout the former USSR, but by egregious theft and a clear sense that voters have been cheated, which is now the mood in Moscow.
Official Results (www.cikrf.ru)
United Russia 49.7% 238 (-77)
Communists 19.2% 92 (+35)
Just Russia 13.2% 64 (+26)
Liberal Democrats 11.7% 56 (+16)
Yabloko 3.3% (+1.7%)
Patriots of Russia 1%
Right Cause 0.6%
Turnout: 60.2% (-3.5%)
But the fraud didn’t add much – which is a dangerous combination. Even on the official figures, United Russia was down to 49.7 percent from 64.3 percent in 2007, and from 315 seats to a predicted 238 out of 450. In the short-term, this will suffice. United Russia still has more than half the Duma seats, and the other Duma parties are not in opposition anyway. The lack of a constitutional majority (two-thirds) is unlikely to be a problem – the Constitution has been amended often enough since 2004, so presumably the authorities are now happy with the current version.
But no singly party led the charge (although Just Russia had most reason to be pleased, given that there was talk of wrapping it up only a few months ago). Russian bloggers have been debating whether to boycott the elections for several months, with radicals like ‘Nah-nah’ (untranslatable, or rather very rude) arguing that people should spoil their ballots (up 0.46 percent to 1.55 percent). But Navalny’s campaign for people to vote for anyone but United Russia seems to have won out: all three of the loyal opposition parties saw a collective surge in their vote. Russians, or at least a sufficient number of Russians, want to see more competition, and ironically voted to try and stimulate some competitive life in the regime parties, which may now prove more difficult for the Kremlin to manage hereafter.
Another sub-plot was the good performance by Yabloko. Not an earthquake, but still a significant tremor, although there was two obvious technical reasons for a higher Yabloko vote as Right Cause had faltered and the Union of Right Force, Yabloko’s long-term rival, had shut itself down in 2008. The respectable pollsters VTsIOM had Yabloko on 4.2 percent in their exit poll; and support for Yabloko was particular strong among Russians voting abroad. Not that they matter too much, but many expats are rich.
The lack of drama reflects the regime’s struggle to find a new narrative, over and above the mere fact of Putin’s return. It also leaves the government’s control techniques exposed. The vacuum in the campaign has also gifted the opposition the narrative. Chants of ‘Putin – thief!’ were unimaginable even a few weeks ago. The authorities were also surprisingly complacent. The first protest rally in Moscow on Monday was big by recent standards (8,000 or so), and used the kind of youth group satire tactics that were prominent in the coloured revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-04, and which the Kremlin thought it had blocked off, including ‘Mr Botox’ references to Putin’s allegedly suspiciously youthful appearance. It is dangerous for any autocrat to be both booed and mocked.
And finally, people seem to be forgetting that Medvedev is supposed to be Prime Minister in the spring. The election result leaves him even weaker and could serve as an excuse not even to appoint him in the first place. Or the opposite – Putin can clamp down, but he can also try and regain the initiative somehow. United Russia is suffering from years of neglect – it blocks others’ path to power, but has never really run the country. The ‘tandem’ is also dead. The ‘power vertical’ is back and is getting dangerously personal. An ever bigger rally is planned for Saturday. The stakes are high.
This week in the East is a weekly commentary by Andrew Wilson for New Eastern Europe.