The humiliation of Russia’s ruling party in elections on Sunday demonstrates just how fed up Russians are with a regime that has brought them crushing corruption and 12 years of monolithic rule. It also exposes a deeper problem: the lack of a viable way to bring about peaceful democratic change.
The official results, which shrank the parliamentary majority of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to 53 percent from 70 percent, only partly reflect what was a surprising triumph of grass-roots activism. Hundreds of Russians, many of whom had never before shown much interest in politics, came out to act as monitors and document the Kremlin’s efforts to “win” the vote. Thousands joined protests Monday night in Moscow, chanting such slogans as “Putin is a thief!”
Thanks to the monitors’ vigilance, we know that the elections were probably much worse for United Russia than the official tally suggests. Despite widespread harassment and mysterious outages on monitoring websites, observers reported thousands of violations and posted videos on the Internet. One video showed pre-stuffed voting urns at a just-opened polling station. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted “several serious indications of ballot box stuffing.”
One homegrown monitoring organization, Citizen Observer, estimated as of Monday evening that United Russia won only 25.9 percent of the vote at those Moscow voting stations where monitors found minimal violations, compared with an official result of 46.6 percent throughout the city. The lower number meshes with an exit poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, which gave United Russia 27.5 percent of the Moscow vote.
The Kremlin’s performance adds to mounting evidence that its implicit social compact with Russians -- economic growth in return for a firm grip on power -- is falling apart, particularly since President Dmitri Medvedev announced in September that he would step down to make way for what could be 12 more years of Putin’s Russia. A nascent middle class is losing patience with its lack of control over officials whose greed and lawlessness complicate everything from running a business to getting a driver’s license.
Beyond protest, though, these elections haven’t achieved much positive change. The Kremlin has so assiduously eliminated any viable competition that the official opposition offers little outlet for legitimate dissent.
The votes United Russia lost, for example, went mainly to two parties that owe their continued existence largely to the Kremlin: the Communists and the deceptively named Liberal Democrats, led by veteran ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A third gainer was Just Russia, a socialist party created with Kremlin support. This so-called opposition isn’t likely to undermine Russia’s leadership on important parliamentary votes. Tellingly, Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has become a political celebrity, has shown little interest in forming a party at all.
All this means that we can expect tensions between an increasingly desperate Kremlin and a disenfranchised electorate to grow. Putin’s best option is to heed the people’s message and hold free and fair presidential elections in March. His record in this regard, however, doesn’t inspire hope. If the government can’t offer a legitimate mechanism to transfer power, a violent Russian Spring is not unthinkable.
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