Vladimir Putin, the Beginning of the End

Apart from silencing opponents and enriching personal friends, the one thing Vladimir Putin was really good at was fixing elections. In this, he had a perfect track record since March 2000—until last Sunday. The Russian parliamentary election on December 4th was neither free nor fair. Several opposition groups had been barred from the ballot; officials pressured voters to support the ruling party; the vote-count was marred by ballot-stuffing and the rigging of protocols. But even in these conditions—and even by the official figures—most Russians voted against Vladimir Putin. His party, United Russia, received 49.3 percent of the vote, losing its two-thirds supermajority in Parliament for the first time in eight years. Compared to the last poll in 2007, when it registered 64.3 percent, United Russia’s result represents a net loss of 13 million votes and 77 seats in the 450-seat Duma (down from 315 to 238).

The 2011 election was a turning point for Putin’s regime. Not because the new parliament will rebel against the Kremlin—it will likely be just as obedient as before. Not because the three officially approved parliamentary “opposition” parties (the Communists, the left-wing Just Russia, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR) will pose a serious challenge—on important issues, they will likely follow the Kremlin’s orders. It was a turning point because December 4th shattered the myth of Putin’s invincibility. The regime whose leaders clearly counted on maintaining their supermajority (Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov declared that the party was not planning to lose “a single seat”) failed to reach even the 50 percent mark. From now on, voters who were intimidated (especially in the provinces) will not be intimidated as easily. Careerists who backed the regime for personal advancement will begin weighing their options. After 12 years of standing still, Russia’s political pendulum is beginning to swing in a new direction.

The election itself represented no improvement. The head of the OSCE’s observation mission aptly compared the poll to “a game in which only some players are allowed on the pitch, and then the field is tilted in favor of one of the players.” Nine opposition parties—from the center-right Popular Freedom Party to the left-wing United Labor Front—were barred from the ballot altogether. Television coverage was heavily slanted toward the ruling party. Administrative interference from officials ranged from openly coercing state employees into backing United Russia to conditioning future budget allocations on the party’s vote tally. On voting day, there were numerous cases of ballot-stuffing, multiple voting, unlawful eviction of observers and journalists, and the outright rigging of protocols. At 30 percent of polling places observed by OSCE monitors, the vote count was assessed as “bad or very bad.” The Moscow-appointed leaders of the North Caucasus once again proved faithful providers of Kremlin votes: United Russia registered 91 percent in Ingushetia, 92 percent in Dagestan, and 99 percent in Chechnya. Russia’s sole independent election monitoring group, Golos, found itself under attack from the authorities: the group was investigated and fined, its director was detained at the airport, and her laptop confiscated. Ten percent of Golos monitors were denied access to polling places under various pretexts. On election day, the websites of leading independent media organizations, including Ekho Moskvy radio, were crashed by sustained cyber-attacks.

United Russia’s actual result was likely much lower than the official figure. An exit poll conducted by the Institute of Social Studies put the ruling party’s vote at 38 percent (officially 49.3 percent), followed by the Communists with 24 percent (officially 19.2), Just Russia with 15 percent (officially 13.3), the LDPR with 14 percent (officially 11.7), and the liberal Yabloko party with 5 percent (officially 3.4). The latter figure is significant. Crossing the 5 percent threshold would have given Yabloko—the only pro-democracy party on the ballot—not only a voice in Parliament, but also unimpeded access to presidential and regional elections (parliamentary parties do not have to collect signatures to register for the ballot). Yabloko’s votes were most obviously stolen in Moscow, where its 18 percent vote tally reported by independent observers was halved to 9 percent in the official protocols.

The day after the election, in what became the largest pro-democracy rally in a decade, 10,000 people gathered in downtown Moscow to protest the unfair vote. Hundreds were arrested and spent the night in police cells. Prominent activists Ilya Yashin and Alexei Navalny received 15-day prison sentences. On Tuesday, the arrests continued, with opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Mitrokhin, and Eduard Limonov among those detained by police. The Interior Ministry has confirmed that it is sending its elite Dzerzhinsky division to “keep order” in the capital.

With the majority against them, and with more and more people prepared to express their frustration not just at the tainted polls, but on the streets, Russia’s leaders face a dilemma. They can either take steps to reform and liberalize the political system—and almost certainly be voted out of office. Or they can attempt to preserve their power by further repression—and likely repeat the fate of Hosni Mubarak. Either way, Putin’s exit now seems merely a matter of time.

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