Russian Elections 2011: Not Much Ado About Something

Duma Elections 2011

Almost two weeks ago, some interesting events took place in Russia that caused much of the West to take pause. Russia’s Duma election returned surprising results where the majority party, United Russia, took a shellacking, and gave many people a thought or a hope that something had finally changed in Putin’s Russia. Peter Robinson, of “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” fame excitedly asked if Russia had, at last, begun it’s march toward the West. I decided to write about this situation after I talked with several of my Russian friends in order to get an inside glimpse of what was really happening.

My conclusion is that something significant did happen, however, it will not produce the change that we typical Westerners crave for our Eurasian brothers. This is evolution and certainly not revolution. Vladimir Putin will win the presidential election in March and will still hold the reins of power for the next six years. If all goes well, he could even last a total of twelve years, but I won’t let myself get on such an untenable hook as Russia’s future.

So how did we get here? I’ll need to assume that readers know a bit about Russian politics to keep this post to a reasonable length. To keep it short, Putin, after a four-year hiatus from the Presidency, is now eligible to run again for the office. His party, United Russia, is the mechanism for generating his popularity and legitimacy. If United Russia does well in the parliamentary elections, Putin does well everywhere else. Unfortunately for Putin, United Russia performed poorly in last week’s Duma elections, widespread voter fraud occurred, and thousands of Russians in most major cities demonstrated against the falsified results. Now people ask, “Is Putin finished? Has he lost his mandate? Will Russia change?”

For some specifics, the elections reduced the direct power of United Russia from a typical majority in the range of 60% or more down to a more sober 49.5%. If not for the enormous number of election violations that took place, some experts claim that United Russia’s share could have dropped another fifteen to twenty percentage points. This is an astounding drop in popularity for the party that claimed to own the stability and prosperity of the nation for the past 11 years. Putin’s popularity rating has also taken a drubbing in the past few months and especially in the past week. Recent polls show he has only a 50% approval rating. This is the lowest result he has received in the past decade. Usually, he garners ratings in the sixties or seventies (and higher).

When reading the numbers, it is easy to get giddy. However, several realities descend upon the scene, and give the desire for change some serious obstacles.

  1.  Putin’s ratings are still high enough to win the Presidential election. There is some talk that he may need to go to a run-off election since he is required to gain at least 50% of the vote. Still, he will likely overcome and win his third term.
  2. There is no viable alternative candidate to run against Putin. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist candidate, and Mikhail Prokhorov, the richest man in Russia, are the only two possible contenders. Most don’t take Zyuganov seriously in Russia and the jury is still out on Prokhorov. Russians typically don’t relate to oligarchs well, so he has an uphill climb.
  3. Even if there was a good candidate to compete with Putin, it is incredibly difficult to run for President in Russia. A candidate must garner 2 million signatures from the electorate to run. These signatures must come from all regions in the country at a proportion to their population. This is a logistical nightmare. Very few have the infrastructure to make this happen. Those that have attempted this in the past have ultimately failed because the Election Committee has frequently declared that a large portion of the signatures was forged.
  4. The Power Vertical is still the Power Vertical. This is a crucial factor in Russian politics, economics, and culture. Putin, with cooperation from the apathetic citizenry, has created a vast and deep network of support from the Duma and the Justice Ministry all the way down to the lowly bureaucrat at the DMV or the fire brigade. Everyone is dependent on the other. If it breaks, i.e., a new leader comes to power, the entire network falls apart and the system could easily descend into chaos as it did in the 1990’s. Nobody wants that.
  5. Influential opposition parties will not be running as many candidates. They’ve had enough of the games. They also don’t want a revolution for reasons stated in bullet 4.
  6. Regardless of United Russia’s newfound percentage in parliament, Putin will still maintain control of the Duma’s agenda. The Duma has never formed itself into a serious arm of the government and is largely ignored. Also, the other parties within the Duma, though considered opposition parties, are really “Kremlin-controlled” interest groups. Their existence is dependent totally on the whims of Putin and his political apparatus. None of these parties can stray from Putin’s whim too far. Any party that does gets shut down.
  7. Lastly, and most importantly, most Russians have a severe case of apathy. They hate politics, politicians, and everything to do with it. Change is too complicated. They’ll either not vote or just vote for the status quo. This is ultimately the most important factor for where Russia is going.

In summary, Russians have few options to produce change in their country and have little will to do so. There may be some compromises Putin is willing to provide to get him out of the pickle he is in at the moment, but in the end, people will shrug their shoulders and move on.

To illustrate this conclusion, I will give you the views of my Russian friends. In all cases, they are well-educated, speak two or three languages, work for multi-national companies or have financial security, and they are in their twenties and thirties.  These are the people who would be the most westernized people in the country, yet their responses hardly inspire.

Friend 1:

Software Development Manager at an American company in Nizhny Novgorod, population 1.4 million. (this is where I lived for 5 years):

“I think nobody knows where is it going and how significant it is. There are lot of people who believes that the elections where faked (me included). However, many more people do not care or just scared to speak out. It all will be played in Moscow. NN or other provincial cities have little role. Compare 50-80 thousands of protesters in the capital and 1500-2000 in Nizhny. I was at Minin square last Saturday, the meeting was not permitted by city officials but all ended peacefully.”

Friend 2:

Staffing Manager at an American company in St. Petersburg.

“It is temporary. People in Russia doesn’t want revolution. We just want our giverment to hear us and react according to our law. On Saturday there was a huge meeting in Moscow and other cities as well, and it went wery well – quietly and firendly from the both side either police or protestors.

The fact is that at some places the results of elections are extremly doubtful. But in general the elections went well and shows the real pictures.

Everything will be alright :)”

Friend 3:

Country Manager at an American company in Moscow.

“I am not really in a middle of it, so it is hard for me to be very objective, and here is my oppinion: middle class (professionals with good incomes not connected with government) wants a stronger voice in the government, better representation. At the same time it is still too insignificant in numbers, compared with other social groups and the ideas it supports do not resonate with to many others. Higher concentration of those middle class people are in Moscow, and it gives good reason to belive Election was crooked there. So people got upset and more resolute to get their voice out. It is unlikely things will get really screwy, out of control, but current ways the governmment does things will have to change. Will see. This is definately not a civil unrest – just a Hyde park type of event taken to extreme.”

Friend 4:

Software Developer working at a startup in Cyprus.

“Definetly there will be changes. I am sure, I only worry that other parties does not have reasonable/any agenda in economy. So it mostly just protest, but one should think one step futher or ones who come after United Russia can be the same.”

Friend 5:

Born and raised in Nizhny Novgorod, now married to an American and living in New York, studying English Literature at a local private college. (Pieced together from a Skype chat)

“I really don’t care. And I never did. And I have no idea what happened to people this year. It is well known that the president always picks his substitute, it was always like that and it always will be.

So I don’t understand why people act like it’s something new

I think that the reason for it are social networks

My Russian vkontakte (ed. Russia’s version of Facebook) was full of propaganda and agitation information, slogans, pictures and so on. And here comes the rule of a crowd. People follow other people, without even understanding what exactly they are following and why they are doing so.

I think that people knew that election wouldn’t be fair, and they tried to do something about it. The problem is that no one can offer any alternative, because there is no alternative.”

As you can see, I don’t see a revolution any time soon. If change does occur, it will be at a glacier’s pace. Of course, that won’t keep me from watching. On the other hand, forecasting the future of Russia is a grim occupation. Sometimes the more you know about it, the less you feel qualified to predict it. It is surely the enigma that Churchill talked about.

In the meantime, I will see how Putin handles this situation. I’m sure he will promote new programs, promise much the same Medvedev did and never actually do it, throw in some patriotic purpose, and then squeak by for the next several years. I’m sorry to burst any balloons, but this is what I see for now. I could say so much more since Russia is an endless topic, but I’ll have to stop here. Feel free to ask any questions you have. I can expand on any of the items I mentioned to a much deeper level if you are interested.


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