Putin Rebuffed

Despite a rigged election, Russian voters deal a setback to Putin and his party.

Elections under Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy” have become grimly predictable affairs. Rampant fraud and bans on all but fringe or manufactured opposition parties have ensured that Putin’s United Russia Party routinely triumphs in a landslide, with Putin then trumpeting the results as a vindication of his authoritarian regime. This weekend’s parliamentary elections largely followed this script but with a surprise ending: United Russia failed to capture even 50 percent of the vote, a major setback considering its blatant manipulation of the election and one that highlights the extent of the Russian public’s discontent with the country’s corrupt one-man, one-party rule.

That this weekend’s election was a mockery of fairness goes without saying. Serious opposition parties were prohibited from taking part, while governors and mayors across the country were issued specific quotas for votes that they were required to meet. There were countless reports of young people being transported from voting station to voting station so that they could vote multiple times. So extensive was the vote rigging that some regions of Russia reported election turnout exceeding 140 percent. Elsewhere, United Russia claimed support that echoed the fixed elections of the Soviet-era. In Chechnya, the domain of Kremlin-installed dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, United Russia claimed 99.5 percent of the vote.

While party apparatchiks rigged the vote, Russia’s state-owned television stations, the source for most of the national news, churned out a steady stream of pro-Putin propaganda. One notable target was Golos, Russian for “voice,” the country’s sole independent election monitor. Harassed by police and smeared as traitorous by the media, Golos was also the victim of cyber-attacks, which shut down the organization’s web site, including an online map that allowed people across the country to report voting violations. The websites of the country’s few remaining independent media, such as the radio station Ekho Moskvy, were also shut down, as was LiveJournal, Russia’s leading blogging host.

Considering the efforts expended by United Russia to engineer its latest landslide, it is all the more notable that it not only failed to achieve it, but actually lost votes, with some of the largest losses coming in the major cities. In St Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, United Russia garnered just 34 percent of the vote. Overall, the party won less than 50 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2007. In a low-turnout election, the majority of Russians who voted gave their support to the only other parties available, mostly communist and extreme nationalist parties.

It’s hard to see the results as anything but a rebuff of Putin. While the prime minister has enjoyed high approval ratings, inflated by the absence of a critical press and any curbs on political opposition, there are signs that he may have overreached in recent months. In September, Putin announced that he would seek the presidency again, meaning that that he could be in power until 2024. That announcement was not unexpected. It has been widely understood that Putin’s decision to yield the presidency to his former deputy Dmitri Medvedev was a temporary arrangement, one that would allow Putin to maintain his grip on power from behind the scenes. Nonetheless, Putin’s accompanying statement that the decision had been made long ago was startling in its brazenness and confirmed that any hopes Russians may have had of political reforms were hollow.

Putin deserves much of the blame for that depressing reality. Political corruption has been a hallmark of the Putin era. A 2005 report by the Moscow-based think tank INDEM found that corruption surged between 2001 and 2005, while Putin was still president, growing to over $300 billion, a figure equal to a quarter of Russia's economy. President Medvedev, who early on pledged to tackle corruption, has essentially conceded failure in that project. Earlier this year he revealed that that in 2010 alone some $35 billion in Russian government funds were stolen in state contracts. Putin has presided over much of that theft. Among other corrupt arrangements, he has appointed personal friends to run a bank called Rossiya, which then won generous state contracts from Russia’s nationalized oil company Gazprom. With Russia’s past and likely future president at the center of this official corruption, it is no surprise that Russians have little confidence in their public officials and institutions.

Until now, Putin has escaped the blame for this state of affairs. That was largely due to his self-professed role in providing the country with “stability” after the turmoil of the 1990s. For Russians scarred by memories of that decade, Putin’s slogan had a powerful resonance. But it is increasingly less compelling. One reason that Russia has enjoyed relative economic stability in recent years is its so-called Stability Fund, a reserve made up of cash stored during the height of the oil boom. The fund has allowed Russia to weather the economic instability that has shaken the debt-ridden nations of Europe and the United States. It may not last, however. The Russian government is expected to dramatically boost public spending in the coming months as Putin attempts’ to purchase public goodwill ahead of the presidential election in March. Higher spending would in turn make Russia even more dependent on oil prices to make up its budget, and thus even more vulnerable to a slump in oil prices. If the oil price should fall to $60 a barrel, as some analysts predict, Russia’s fossil fuel dependent economy will be hit just as hard as Europe and the US.

In the past, Putin has relied on public relations stunts to distract attention from such systemic concerns. He has been photographed tracking polar bears, driving a Formula One racecar, and roughing it shirtless in Siberia. But as the country’s problems mount, these displays of hyper-masculinity have failed to capture the public imagination. Last month, for instance, Putin was roundly booed while making an appearance at a martial arts contest. Just prior to that, a Putin spokesman was forced into the embarrassing admission that a diving expedition in which Putin was captured retrieving some Greek amphorae from the ocean floor was in fact staged. Few Russians were impressed.

Nor should they be. While justifying his power grabs as preventing Russia’s return to the political chaos the post-Soviet era, Putin has dragged the country further and further into the Soviet past. Press and individual freedoms have been curtailed, government and police power has expanded, and Russia is ever more increasingly alienated from the outside world. For a time, economic growth immunized Putin from paying the political price for this regression. But with dark times on the horizon, this weekend’s election may be a sign that Russians have begun to resent Putin’s strong hand.

The point was poignantly driven home by protestors who took to the streets of Moscow on Monday in the largest opposition demonstration in Russia years. They condemned this weekend’s vote and chanted, “Russia without Putin!” As the prospect of 12 more years of Putin’s rule looms, Russians may find the notion ever more appealing.