In parliamentary elections on December 4, United Russia, the governing ‘Party of Power’ previously chaired by Vladimir Putin, suffered an unprecedented electoral setback. The party received just under fifty percent of the vote, compared to 64 percent in 2007. The true figure for United Russia’s support – if such a notion is at all meaningful in the absence of real political competition – could be fifteen to twenty percent lower. United Russia remains by far the largest party in the Duma, and claimed to be celebrating victory, but for many the result has been interpreted as an ignominious failure. At a press conference at party headquarters after the polls closed, President Dmitry Medvedev looked worried and exhausted; Putin seemed furious.
A week later on December 10, demonstrations took place across Russia to denounce the election results and the ruling party. Estimates for the protest in Moscow varied from 25,000 to 100,000. Even the lower figure is unprecedented for Putin’s Russia, where opposition rallies are typically attended by a few hundred activists, and often violently dispersed by police. On this occasion, the protest was sanctioned, no arrests were made, and even the highly-controlled national television channels provided coverage. This may only be a start: a second demonstration is scheduled for December 24. Now that people have seen that the authorities will not use force to suppress the protests, the movement could develop an irresistible momentum as it did in the last days of the Soviet Union.
In formal terms, the election result has had little impact. The Duma has become slightly more pluralistic but remains weak as an institution. One of the fundamental problems of Russia’s super-presidential system is that parliament does not directly form the government or appoint the prime minister. Opposition parties were long ago co-opted into the informal networks which drive much of Russia’s politics. Analysts have characterised Russia’s political system as ‘imitation democracy’. A façade of political debate is maintained in parliament, whilst the real decisions are made behind the scenes, on the basis of informal agreements and understandings. There is as yet no sign that any of the parties are willing to take on the role of formal opposition, to form something akin to a shadow cabinet and put forward a coherent alternative to the government’s agenda.
The atmosphere surrounding these protests is decidedly unrevolutionary. The protestors, who appear to be largely middle class and well-off, are not seeking to bring down the regime, but to open it up. By demanding a recount of the votes, the demonstrators provide an oblique endorsement of a political system many liberals had dismissed as a worthless charade. The main complaint has been about electoral falsification, but paradoxically it is the bad result for United Russia which has emboldened many people to participate in the protests. One conclusion we can draw from the protests is that Russia is too big, the administrative machinery too inefficient, and society too complex, to entirely steal an election.
These events pose serious challenges for the ruling elite. The most pressing concern is next year’s presidential election, when Vladimir Putin is due to return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister. The problem with “imitation democracy” is that virtual politicians can suddenly develop a life of their own. The billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who until recently headed the Right Cause Party, has indicated he intends to run in the presidential election against Putin. As the latter part of the Boris Yeltsin era showed, personalised power cannot function when the key personality loses credibility. There have been indications in recent months that Putin’s popularity is in decline; in November he was booed by the crowd at a martial arts contest which was broadcast live on television. The anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny called it the end of an era. According to the Public Opinion Foundation, Putin’s personal rating fell to 44% in December, it’s lowest ever level. Suddenly the prospect of the presidential election being pushed into a second round does not seem impossible. This would be a disaster for Putin.
Russia is in desperate need of reform. Dmitry Medvedev acknowledged many of the problems when he became president in 2008: widespread and debilitating corruption, weak institutions, a predatory law enforcement service. The question is whether the current elite are capable of confronting change. Medvedev’s attempts to address the challenges he articulated at the start of his presidency amounted to little more than a tinkering at the edges. United Russia is a political project which is only configured for out-right success in the absence of an effective opposition. The ruling elite are unaccustomed, and perhaps unable, to operate in a truly competitive electoral environment. The core challenge is to confront the country’s entrenched and deeply corrupt bureaucracy, which represents perhaps the most powerful and regressive force in the country. The Putin consensus was built around serving the interests of this bureaucracy, whilst guaranteeing stability and relative prosperity to the broader populace.
The problem is that the elite may be right when they argue that overturning this consensus is fraught with risks. Discussing his decision in October 2011 to return to the presidency this year, Putin again invoked the danger of a return to the chaos of the 1990s: “it would be enough to make two-three wrong steps, and everything that we had before could overwhelm us so quickly, that we wouldn’t have time to look back.” The reliance on personalised rule under both Yeltsin and Putin has hollowed out Russia’s political and civic institutions. This makes the position of those at the top extremely precarious – there is no common ideology binding the elite together beyond a commitment to retaining power. Should this appear to be in doubt, the elite will show no compunction in abandoning Putin. This may make Russian politics more pluralistic, but it will not automatically lead to reform. What is required is not simply a change of leadership, but a fundamental reformatting of the country’s political system, and the state’s relationship with society.
There is no guarantee this will happen. Writing in the Moscow Times, the analyst Lilia Shevtsova warned that the next Putin presidency could be more repressive than the first. If the regime could not guarantee support through economic growth, it could fall back on classic authoritarian instruments of mobilisation, such as an international conflict or a domestic state of emergency. The large increases in spending for Russia’s military and law enforcement agencies suggest the regime is preparing for conflict, either with its neighbours or its own citizens
There are nevertheless reasons for optimism. The collapse of Communism and the dysfunctional politics which followed it bred a widespread cynicism about power and those who wield it. Putinism has fed off this lack of civic engagement. The fact that such large protests took place without coherent leadership challenges the stereotype that Russian society is passive and indifferent to its future. Whatever scenario one projects for Russia, in the absence of functional institutions, civil society will have a vital part to play in holding the country and its people together. Just a few months ago, Russia’s political system seemed monolithic and predictable; Putin’s return to the Kremlin appeared to herald many years of stagnation. Suddenly the future seems much less certain.