Elections for the Russian Duma: Change in the Continuity?

December 4th 2011 may yet become known as that particular moment in time when we witnessed a move into a new era in Russia’s post-Cold War politics. As I write, exit polls from the Russian parliamentary elections are indicating United Russia, the dominant political party in the Duma, and headed by Prime Minister Putin, will see a marked reduction in popularity, of approximately 15%, compared to the 2007 elections. So is this the beginning of the end for Putin? And will a more democratic Russia emerge?

In accounting for the reduction in support for United Russia, we must remember at least two things. It is always harder for any incumbent party to maintain its initially high level of support as voters hold them accountable for not fulfilling all their campaign promises. This is particularly true in a harsher economic climate. Secondly, therefore, we cannot forget that Russia, like the rest of the world, has not remained immune from all the negative effects of the financial crisis. But it is clear too that these factors do not account for the level of that drop in support. Some analysts are speaking of the effects of the Arab spring. Others cite what amounts to a feeling of betrayal as it becomes clear to more Russians that Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev (titles soon to be reversed) have engineered presidential and prime ministerial power relations. This clearly links to longstanding accusations of corruption in Russian politics, and therefore life, and may yet prove to be an indication that people have had their fill. The West’s long-term criticisms of Russia’s lack of democratic processes – high levels of state ownership of key industries, state ownership and interference in the media, unfair electoral processes, state involvement in economic and social life – have had little effect in terms of winning movement towards more democratisation. Ultimately, however, it had to be the Russian people who sent the message about political accountability.

For many analysts watching events unfold on December 4th, therefore, the exit polls resonated precisely because they seemed to be about this very message. The resonance was all the more significant in a context of allegedly unfair electoral processes and media manipulation in favour of United Russia. The more optimistic amongst us will hope that Putin will finally realise the dangers of extensive state involvement: If you are synonymous with the state, there is noone but you to blame for its failures.

But we mustn’t get carried away: In the short term we are likely to see little effect. No-one is seriously entertaining the idea that Putin will not be returned to the Presidency in 2012, nor that United Russia will have problems getting its policy agenda through in the Duma. President Medvedev has already spoken of the fact that United Russia will have to share power in a coalition but this is unlikely to be a formal coalition and they will not find it hard to find allies, especially amongst the Liberal Democratic Party. Hence, there are concerns that in real terms, very little will change.

In the medium term, however, Putin’s political future does not seem nearly as secure as before; a finger in the dyke may not come to mind but we’re suddenly watching the tides more closely. The polls are showing that half the country chose not to vote, with many of those opposed to United Russia and Putin citing reasons of pointlessness. If Putin does not shore up his defences – and quickly – those who want change will be encouraged to think they can achieve it. Equally, a further crackdown on opposition voices will generate even greater resistance. So some hope may lie with Putin being a canny political operator and understanding the need to make concessions to those Russians demanding that change in favour of democratic principles be made effective. Thus, an important step forward will have been taken. Of course, it may simply be that Putin will have to take the faster route to modernisation that Medvedev has espoused. This is by far the more difficult route but if it brings positive economic and social benefits for ordinary Russians it may be enough to quell opposition voices.

In the longer term, as I intimated at the beginning, there is greater hope. Russian voters may just have won their first real taste of power. As we know, power is addictive.