For the first time in his 12-year rule, Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival. Following the fraudulent parliamentary election earlier this month, Russia was swept with pro-democracy rallies on a scale unseen since 1991; the largest of these protests brought out 100,000 people to central Moscow on December 10th. According to a Levada Center poll, Putin’s support in the capital has fallen to a record-low 28 percent. Nationally, the government-owned VTsIOM polling agency estimates that Putin will receive 42 percent in the March 4th presidential election, thus failing to win a first-round victory. Given the current environment, an obvious rigging of that vote is likely to cause even bigger protests around the country.
Days after the Duma election, Putin signed an ordinance doubling the salaries of riot police. But police may no longer be the solution for the regime. In a poll conducted by the Moscow police labor union, more than 80 percent of its rank-and-file members expressed support for the protesters. In Syktyvkar on December 10th, junior police officers refused to follow their superiors’ orders to break up an opposition rally.
Faced with a new reality, the regime signaled political concessions. In his final state-of-the-nation address on Thursday, President Dmitri Medvedev announced a package of reforms that include restoring direct elections for regional governors, which Putin abolished in 2004, and which Medvedev himself promised will not return “in a hundred years”; restoring direct single-member district elections for Parliament, also abolished in 2004; reducing the minimum membership requirement for registering new political parties from 40,000 to 500 people; and reducing the number of nominating signatures required for a presidential candidacy from 2 million to 300,000. These changes—as well as the proposal to install Web cameras in polling places to prevent fraud during the vote-count—were already hinted at by Putin in his televised interview last week.
According to newspaper reports, the Kremlin has instructed judges to accept some of the local challenges to election results—short of changing the seat distribution in the Duma, or calling a new vote. The purpose, as explained by an administration official, is to “reduce the protest sentiments.” Apparently for the same purpose, Putin prompted billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to run “against” him in the presidential election, imitating a pro-democracy and pro-business alternative. To help Prokhorov meet the deadline for submitting nomination papers, the Central Electoral Commission extended its workday by two hours. The Kremlin had tried playing the Prokhorov card in the Duma campaign, before deciding that it was too risky. After the recent protests, the regime has evidently altered its risk assessment.
Even a few months ago, these tactics may have worked. Today, they will be futile. The main demands of the protesters—a new parliamentary election, the dismissal of the head of the electoral commission, and the release of all political prisoners—remain unfulfilled. Moreover, most of the announced reforms will only take effect in the next electoral cycle (currently scheduled for 2016 and 2018), and will have no bearing on the upcoming presidential election.
By offering too little, too late, Vladimir Putin has fallen into a classic trap of dictators: giving enough concessions to show weakness, but not enough to satisfy demands. Russia’s pro-democracy movement is gaining momentum. On December 24th, the opposition will once again bring tens of thousands of people to the streets of Moscow. Their aspirations are not for a cosmetic facelift, but for real change; not for a new imitation, but for a free and fair election; not for “Putin lite,” but for a Russia without Putin.