Sunday’s heavily disputed election results were a disaster for the Kremlin, who seem to have underestimated the level of national frustration. Putin now finds himself in a crisis, and while he has historically used such situations to his advantage, might the task of regaining authority prove too much this time?
The preliminary results from Russia's parliamentary elections are bad news for the Kremlin. Putin's pet party, United Russia, got slightly less than 50% and it lost its constitutional majority in the Duma. That translates into a 14% fall from the last elections in 2007 for a party that had never seen its share of the vote decline at federal elections. The question now asked is a simple one: is this just a temporary setback or the beginning of the end for Edinaya Rossia and the Putin consensus?
'All authoritarian regimes thrive on the political apathy of the governed. Ruling a politically apathetic population is cheaper, as elites need fewer resources for either coercion or co-optation, while having more time to enjoy on the benefits of power.... But instead of apathy, in the run up to these elections the Russian intelligentsia was at boiling point.'
By the standards of Western democracies, falling just short of the 50% mark after three years of global economic crisis and 12 years in power would be a stellar victory. But in Putin's Russia this is a serious setback for two main reasons. First of all, the elections were neither free, nor fair. Evidence of ballot stuffing is already swirling around the internet, and the election campaign was heavily biased in favour of United Russia. Federal TV channels and local authorities worked hard to persuade and pressurise people to vote for United Russia. Under normal campaign circumstances and with no ballot stuffing Putin's party would perhaps have got somewhere closer to 30-35% of the vote. The authorities know that. This is hardly a rock-solid foundation for the supposedly Teflon President Putin who wants to be a fatherly leader of the nation for a life-time. His lifetime.
Secondly, all authoritarian regimes thrive on the political apathy of the governed. Ruling a politically apathetic population is cheaper, as elites need fewer resources for either coercion or co-optation, while having more time to enjoy on the benefits of power. Throughout the last decade, from the average voters' perspective the question was why bother voting when life standards were rising, Putin was cool and the election results were always going to be another Olympic-size victory for United Russia.
But instead of apathy, in the run up to these elections the Russian intelligentsia was at boiling point. Political activism (mainly online) among the young and urban middle classes was at its highest. Among the glamorous 'crème de la crème' of Russian society - pop singers, ballerinas and TV stars - supporting Putin (and especially United Russia) became markedly uncool. In the absence of access to TV or wider platforms for discussion, Russia's oversized blogosphere hotly debated whether to boycott the elections (the argument of the 'Nah-Nah' campaigners - one could translate this as 'fuc-fuc', a short form of 'f..k off'), or go out and vote for any party except United Russia. True, this was a bit of a storm in a teacup. But nonetheless the spilt water also leaves traces outside the cup, consolidating the trend of rising anti-government feeling among the growing middle-class (even including the half of it that is employed by the state). This trend is not so much fuelled by a hope of change, but by the desire to punch United Russia in the nose. That too suggests a change in attitudes.
A parallel side-story is how the elections affect President Medvedev, who led United Russia's electoral list. For friends, Medvedev is now the president who lost the presidency. For his intra-Kremlin adversaries, he is the president who lost the elections. After Putin announced his return to the presidency in September, Medvedev lost most of the small band of hopeful followers who believed in his talk of modernisation. Now his adversaries will frame the results as due to a failure of Medvedev's leadership, rather than a vote against Putin's system and the fear of 'Brezhnevisation'.
Medvedev could try to re-establish himself as a stronger player by once again sacking some powerful people. This was virtually the only daring thing he did as a president, when he sacked a powerful finance minister, several long-serving governors of Russian regions and the mayor of Moscow. This response may signal that he is not a spent political force, but it could also fuel further splits among the ruling elites, accelerating the erosion of Putin's system.
However, beyond the headlines about possible decline there is room for a note of caution. Putin thrives on crises. His presidency was forged in the 1999 crisis: a time of terrorist attacks in Russia, war in Chechnya and struggles with rival oligarchs. Even if United Russia has fewer MPs, the other 3 parliamentary parties are willing collaborators, provided they get a slightly higher share of rent-seeking opportunities. Such an arrangement would not be novel. In United Russia's first term in the Duma, from 1999 to 2003, it even had fewer members of parliament than now. Yet this did not prevent Putin from making some of his sharpest ever political manoeuvres - centralising power by kicking regional governors out from the upper chamber of the Parliament, asserting full control of the media that matters, throwing Khodorkovsky in jail and two other formerly powerful oligarchs Berezovsky and Gusinsky out of the country. In other words, even if Putin's beginning of the end has started, it is not around the corner yet.