international analysis and commentary

Russia’s parliamentary elections: the end of Putin’s era?

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The parliamentary elections of December 4  marked a pivotal change in post-Soviet Russian history. Evidence of electoral frauds fuelled widespread social discontent as thousands of people felt increasingly alienated by a government that they no longer legitimize and support. Regardless of how popular movements will develop, the unrests of the past week are a stark warning for Russian authorities that the status quo of Putin’s rule can be undermined.

Having won officially 49.32% of votes, Putin’s United Russia is still the largest party in the Duma. But with 238 seats out of 450 – in contrast to 315 in the last term – United Russia does not have a “Constitutional majority” . Even worse, the Kremlin did not just lose 77 seats in the Parliament; it lost its legitimacy due to blatant evidence of electoral frauds.  These were a common practice in past Russian elections as well, but United Russia still enjoyed the support of the majority of population – i.e. results were boosted from 50% to 70% – and in any case fraud allegations were never proven.

The latest elections are different, as observers witnessed manipulations in favor of United Russia. New technological devices, like smartphones, allowed to promptly upload on the Internet videos that were then disseminated among thousands of voters on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Following 7,000 official complaints of frauds, representatives from the OSCE expressed their concerns over the interference of authorities in the electoral procedure (which were echoed, among others, by the US government).  According to the only Russian independent electoral watchdog, Golos (“voice” in Russian), Putin’s party did not even get close to the 50% mark, and according to the website Gazeta, it only gained 33.7% of votes. In other words, out of 32 million votes obtained by United Russia, some 15 million would be the result of fraud.

The unprecedented evidence of violations stirred the indignation of many voters. As a result, an increasing number of people have been protesting in major Russian cities, as well as some European capitals. Most protestors are politically alert professionals, including journalists, IT specialists, and young entrepreneurs who gathered in the streets to protest for the first time in their life. Among the key figures of the protest are, for example, blogger Alexei Navalny and the leader of the ecological movement Defend Khimki Forest, Yevgenia Chirikova. The most common slogan has been “Russia without Putin”, and the current climate is also encouraging well known politicians to ride the tide of discontent: thus, Russian politician Boris Nemtsov in a recent interview stated that “the number of people refusing to live in a rotten, stinking regime is growing day by day. Soon they will reach critical mass, and they will not be ignored any longer”.

However, this embryonic protest movement is still not sufficiently ripe to constitute a threat to the established system. The opposition lacks charismatic leaders and a unifying political ideology:  on Balotnaya Square, flags of the Communist Party were waved next to those of the extreme right wing nationalists. The ticking bomb of another separatist conflict in the Caucasus, and a growing nationalist sentiment that instigates ethnic violence, still constitute a serious threat if the desire for freedom turns into an explosive mixture of intolerance and revanchism.

More broadly, the opposition parties do not agree on a constructive political agenda, while the real strength and stamina of the Russian street movements is untested: so far, they have been able to organize no more than two rallies a week – compared with 18 consecutive days in Cairo’s Tahrir square. Yet, more than 50,000 people are expected to take part in a new rally on December 24.

It must be underlined that the blatant frauds are only the trigger for the current protests: Putin had been gradually losing his popularity, especially after his decision to run again for President next March. Such a move was inevitably viewed as a sign that the status quo will continue, againsta the background of economic stagnation and rampant corruption. The very few government figures who are widely seen as competent and more reform-oriented, such as Alexei Kudrin and Germann Gref, have resigned.

Putin is most unlikely to accommodate the main request of the protestors, i.e. new elections, and has just officially launched his new presidential campaign. The current Prime Minister seems caught in a trap: if he calls for new parliamentary elections and admits the frauds, he will run the risk of losing the majority in the Duma – and with it his political legitimacy. But the alternative could be even worse, as an iron-fist approach will inevitably drive more people to perceive his regime as increasingly authoritarian.

The fundamental problem is that Russian citizens – at least many of them – have become aware that the key priority is a quite radical change of the country’s political system, including the Constitution, but the existing power structure is inimical to such a major break with the past. With popular level at its lowest level since 1999, Putin faces a new political outlook: should the protest movement become bolder, wider clashes might ensue as the presidential election approaches, with truly unpredictable consequences.