For the third time in twelve years, a familiar face is set to take over as Russia’s president. The outcome of the March election was scarcely in doubt. Ever since Vladimir Putin made it clear back in September that he and Dmitry Medvedev had struck a tacit deal years ago, in which Medvedev would take over the post essentially as a placeholder (while Putin served as prime minister), his re-election has been a foregone conclusion. The only uncertainty was what percentage of the vote Putin would obtain, and what effect his re-election would have on the rumblings of the opposition movement that emerged last December.
The official poll results claim that Putin gained 63.6 percent of the vote—down from 71.3 percent in 2004 and Medvedev’s 70.3 percent in 2008. By these measures, Putin comfortably skirted the 50 percent threshold, which he needed to do in order to avoid a second round run-off. Not surprisingly, convincing accusations that the elections were not free and fair arose almost immediately. Golos, Russia’s only independent election watchdog, put Putin’s actual count at just over 50 percent—an uncomfortably close margin of victory. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has claimed that there were irregularities at one-third of the polling stations. And despite Putin’s campaign chief calling these elections the “cleanest in the history of Russia,” there were widespread reports of “carousel voting”—busloads of people being driven from one polling station to another to cast votes for Putin.
Still, most observers agree that fraud alone could not have produced Putin’s victory. Although scholarly debate continues on how to categorize the regime—authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, “hegemonic party system,” “dominant-power system,” and “competitive authoritarianism” are just some of the terms used—it is impossible to explain the persistence of Putin and United Russia’s electoral success over the past decade without accounting for the ways they have legitimated themselves in the eyes of a large portion of the electorate. During that time Putin has used his presidential and ministerial authority to generate and maintain popular support, and to organize a hierarchy of political power among Kremlin loyalists.
Since first taking office in 2000, he has overseen a thorough transformation of the country’s political system. One of Putin’s first acts as president was to revise the country’s federal system, transferring many of the powers of regional executives to presidential representatives from the military or security services. He later replaced elected regional governors with presidential appointees and (as prime minister) handpicked a cabinet, the large majority of which was accountable directly to him, rather than to United Russia. The latter was formed as a Kremlin-backed party in 2001, during Putin’s first term, from a merger of two smaller parties. Although Putin and Medvedev both ran as independents in each of their presidential elections in order to retain an appearance of nonpartisanship, Putin’s association with United Russia has established it as the dominant party, with a system of patronage that reinforces the loyalties of lower officials through financial and political incentives. It has essentially acted as a parliamentary stand-in for Putin’s policies, allowing him and his associates to link the country’s political elites and consolidate power in what was already a strong executive branch.
As well as retaining a presidential office already endowed with wide-ranging powers by the constitution, the Kremlin elites around Putin and United Russia successfully imposed limitations on party competition within the political system. The passage of an electoral law in 2001 required parties to have at least 50,000 members, and to have a presence in at least half of the country’s regions, in order to stand in elections. In order for a party to nominate a candidate to the ballot in a presidential election, it had to gather 2 million signatures. Another fundamental change to Russia’s party system occurred in 2005, when the electoral rules for the State Duma were changed to a fully proportional representation (PR) model, where candidates were selected off a single national party list. In contrast to the previous arrangement (half PR, half single-member district), this effectively prevented independent candidates from having any chance of victory. Furthermore, the threshold for proportional representation in the Duma was raised from 5 to 7 percent of the vote, with small parties forbidden to form electoral blocs to overcome this barrier.
The effects of these institutional changes have been significant. They have stabilized a high rate of party turnover and candidate switching, and pushed out marginal political actors. The number of officially registered parties allowed to compete in elections has dropped from 139 in 1999 (with twenty-six making it onto the final ballot) to seven in 2011. Russia today is nowhere close to the disarray (in terms of party stability) of the Yeltsin years, and now arguably more closely resembles other parliamentary systems. However, in Russia these changes have benefited United Russia’s hold on power, and relegated mainstays like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the (inaptly named) Liberal Democratic Party of Russia to the status of “loyal opposition” within a managed democracy.
Nevertheless, the executive branch remains at the center of Russian political life. Both Putin and Medvedev have scored higher in public opinion polls than United Russia, and have retained a larger vote share in their respective elections. For the March election, out of a potential sixteen candidates, eleven were prevented from running on various technicalities, primarily invalid or insufficient petition signatures. This once again left voters with a small field to choose from: Putin, Gennady Zyuganov (Communist Party), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democrats), Mikhail Prokhorov (independent), and Sergey Mironov (A Just Russia). Zyuganov, who came in second with 17.19 percent of the vote, was the only candidate other than Putin to reach double digits. The billionaire Prokhorov (best known in the United States as the owner of the Brooklyn Nets), Zhirinovsky, and Mironov all trailed far behind.
BUT THIS presidential election was cast in a different light by the large-scale public protests in major cities following the contested Duma election on December 4. Facing popular discontent from Putin’s already-orchestrated succession and an economy still recovering from the recession, United Russia suffered a surprising setback in December 2011, losing seventy-seven seats and with them the two-thirds majority that allowed it to alter the constitution. Overall, it took in just 49.3 percent of the vote—a stark decline of 15 percent from the 2007 elections. The Communists, Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia all saw impressive gains, as Russian citizens adopted a strategy of voting for any other party that had a chance of winning seats. Once again, accusations of fraud, ballot stuffing, and carousel voting were made, both by opposition parties and independent observers, particularly in Moscow.
The surprising citizen mobilization in the days after the Duma election encouraged further waves of protests—the biggest non-state sponsored demonstrations that Russia has seen since the Yeltsin years. Similar to other movements that took place around the world in 2011, organizers spread word of the protests through social media platforms like LiveJournal, Facebook, and Twitter, including Alexey Navalny’s popular blog (in English here). The largest turnout was on February 4, when between 100-200,000 people (according to the organizers; the police placed the number closer to 35,000) marched in Moscow, calling for free elections and Putin’s resignation. Not surprisingly, Kremlin authorities wasted little time in implying that foreign influences, including the OSCE, were at work. Yet a much more likely explanation for this flurry of activity has to do with the socioeconomic dynamics of Russia in the post-recession years.
In the Western media these protests have commonly been represented as those of an urban middle-class that emerged from the economic boom (mostly based on oil and natural gas exports) of the mid-2000s. Whereas an implicit bargain between this class and the governing elites kept Putin’s approval ratings quite high, the downturn of 2008-2009 threatened to upset the balance. By some accounts, corruption now drains between one-third and one-half of the national GDP. And even though the effects of the recession sparked by the 2008 financial crisis were not felt immediately in Russia—as UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman notes, the Medvedev/Putin government managed to keep real wages and real disposable incomes stable during the worst stretch in 2008 and 2009—the economic slowdown is seen to have emboldened the urban professionals who make up a significant portion of the opposition movement. The argument is straightforward: economic development under authoritarian regimes leads to democratization, especially when those who have previously benefited from it experience relative deprivation.
It seems that even Kremlin authorities believe this to be true. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, had told the New York Times that “Ten years ago we hadn’t had any middle class,” just a group of workers struggling to secure cars, apartments, and financial security for their families. “Now, they got it. And the interesting part of the story is that they want to be involved much more in political life.” What limited campaigning Putin did largely focused on economic issues meant to appeal to the wide majority of Russians in a precarious position. Stable pensions, increases in social spending, and higher salaries for state officials were recurring themes in the run up to the election.
However convincing such a narrative initially seems, it is likely a simplification. As Tony Wood perceptively noted in a recent article in the New Left Review, not only are the boundaries of the middle class difficult to pin down in the Russian context, but the remnants of the Soviet order continue to influence social relationships in the country. Rather than seeing the oligarchic accumulation of privatized state resources under Yeltsin and the re-entrenchment of state and economic power under Putin as accidental detours on what was supposed to be a linear transition from Soviet Communism to capitalist democracy, it is more important to ask how this particular system grew out of the previous one, why it has remained relatively stable, and what implications the opposition movement could have on Russian politics and society in the near future.
There is little question that many Russians, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, are disenchanted with the country’s Byzantine politics. In Moscow Putin received only 45 percent of the overall vote, compared to the astronomically high (and surely inflated) results exceeding 70 and even 80 percent in a number of other regions. (The results of the presidential election in Moscow were less suspect than those of the Duma elections, where post-election analyses found a much more questionable relationship between overall voter turnout and votes cast for United Russia.)
More complicated, however, is Putin’s electoral success outside the urban centers where the protests have been concentrated. Due to Russia’s tremendous size and the advantage that United Russia has over other parties on the national scale, spreading grievances beyond major cities is a daunting task even with the use of internet-based technologies. With little to no competing party presence in most localities nationwide, many Russian citizens continue to rely on Kremlin-controlled television for their political information. These limitations have, in turn, contributed to the image of the opposition as an urban-based and upper-middle-class movement. Moreover, informal pressures from local networks to vote for Putin—for example, from schoolchildren sent home with instructions for their parents, or employees directed how to vote by their managers—as well as outright fraud combined to give Putin the victory.
DESPITE HIS win, the protests and economic insecurity are putting more pressure on Putin to perform. During his last months in office, Medvedev initiated discussions about a series of political reforms ostensibly meant to liberalize the system. After three rounds of voting in the Duma and arguments over the contents of the new law, Medvedev signed a version of the bill in early April. Its most significant effect will be to reduce the minimum number of members that parties need in order to register from 40,000 to 500. This drastic loosening of the requirements for party registration is likely to benefit the Kremlin by fracturing the opposition into a multitude of irrelevant parties. Another law signed by Medvedev in the same month reverses one of Putin’s policies by reinstating gubernatorial elections, albeit with the caveat that candidates must obtain presidential approval and the formal backing of part of the local legislature. Taken as a whole, these reforms do not point so much to a liberalization of the political system as to a change in the Kremlin’s strategy.
Complicating matters further for the opposition is the lack a potential ally among the political leadership within the current establishment. A remnant of the Soviet system, Gennady Zyuganov has led the Communist Party, in one incarnation or another, since 1993. Public reconciliation with Russia’s Communist past remains an undecided chapter in the country’s political culture, and a significant part of the population remains nostalgic for the order and relative prosperity of those years. By consistently appealing to that sentiment, Zyuganov’s CPRF has become an essentially conservative part of the establishment. Not surprisingly, while the party refused to recognize the results of the presidential election, it has also condemned the protest opposition as liberal provocateurs. Sergey Mironov’s center-left A Just Russia, founded in 2006 as a pro-Kremlin organization, received over 13 percent of the vote in the December Duma elections—an impressive amount when only the Communists (and United Russia, of course) can reliably expect to reach double digits in parliamentary elections. Yet it has been torn by intra-party conflict, between those who wish to join the opposition protests and those who wish to remain aligned with the Kremlin, leaving its future up in the air.
At the same time, this lack of association with establishment figures may have helped to revitalize the Russian Left. According to Aleksei Levinson of the Levada Center, an independent polling organization, “If we take the left to mean socialist ideas in the strict sense, and in the Soviet notion of socialist ideas, then these represent the most widespread views in the bulk of the population, and among the elite. I believe that the dominant views here are without a doubt the left.” Sergei Udaltsov, the leader and spokesman of the Left Front, has become an active figure in the protest movement, calling for the nationalization of strategic industries and a redistribution of income to the poor. As one of the most prominent faces of the recent protests, he has played an important role in organizing the “March of Millions” set to take place on May 6—a day ahead of Putin’s inauguration. Although the Left Front was not on the presidential election ballot, and Udaltsov supported Zyuganov for president, it has been a prominent participant in the rallies. At the moment it is still seen as too mercurial to have a widespread impact on the country’s politics, perhaps because it is not merely a handmaiden of the “loyal opposition” CPRF. And while both Udaltsov and Mironov have each floated the idea of forming a coalition that would include the Left Front and A Just Russia, this looks to be more of an option for the future rather than a strategy currently being implemented.
The opposition now faces the daunting task of carrying its momentum forward into this post-electoral landscape. While the pre-election rallies drew hundreds of thousands to Moscow’s streets, a rally on March 9 saw a disappointing turnout of only ten to twenty thousand. There is concern among the organizers that with the election outcome already decided, little can be done to muster the same level of public enthusiasm as before. Whether a stable coalition emerges that can articulate political demands beyond anti-Putinism is an open question, as there have been tensions between anti-Putin liberals and more radical left and nationalist groups. With Putin’s inauguration set for later this week, one has the sense that a large turnout for the March of Millions would be a major boost to the movement.
However, barring a truly unexpected turn of events, and with constitutional changes passed under Medvedev extending the presidential term limit from four to six years, Putin will remain in office until 2018 and could once again seek re-election after that. There are also developments that suggest Putin is distancing himself from United Russia—the “party of crooks and thieves,” as its become known among protesters. He has said he will step down as party leader, passing this task to Medvedev. Instead, he has begun promoting a new nongovernmental organization, the All-Russia People’s Front, intended for those “non-party people” who support United Russia’s policies, including trade unions, NGOs, and business associations. With the Front still a developing project, it is too early to tell whether United Russia will be gradually phased out in its favor. But between this and the recent changes to the electoral rules, there are many signs that Putin and Kremlin elites will continue to adjust the political system in ways they believe will allow them to retain power.
In any case, a possible twelve more years of Putin is an unnerving prospect to Western media, scholars, and policymakers, closing the window on the possibility of seeing Russia transform (if ever so belatedly) into a liberal democracy. Indeed, for much of the twenty-year period since the breakup of the Soviet Union, we have thought in terms of a dichotomy between the telos of liberal democracy—free elections and free markets—and its obstruction in the post-Communist bloc through statist bureaucracy, elite technocrats, and patronage politics. For the most part, this is also the language in which the opposition has formulated its demands. Yet considering Putin’s re-entrenchment and the uncertainties facing the opposition, perhaps we should rethink our categories, as some have already done, and ask if we are dealing with a new form of government that will remain in a “gray zone” between democracy and authoritarianism for at least the near future.
Rafael Khachaturian is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University. He thanks Jeffrey C. Isaac for his helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this article.
Photo of Putin and Medvedev at government meeting in 2009, via Wikimedia Commons