On Sunday, 2nd December 2011, Russia elected a new parliament. There wasn’t much coverage in the British media in the run-up to these elections and when most journalists wrote about it, their message was clear: the elections would be boring, the result was a foregone conclusion and nothing could change. The Putin regime would continue to dominate.
In a way, of course, all of this turned out to be correct. The pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, again emerged as the winner by a long way. Yes, it lost its absolute majority, but it still gained around 50% of the votes – a result most political parties in the West can only dream of. The Communist Party and Zhirinovskii’s LDPR increased their number of seats in the parliament, but the pro-Kremlin factions will continue to rubber stamp government-sponsored legislation without any problems.
But something is different this time round. Of course, allegations (and also evidence) of vote rigging and electoral fraud were also abundant following the 2007, 2004 and 2000 parliamentary elections. However, the level of public discontent in Russia with the conduct of the elections last Sunday has caught even the most ardent observers of Russian politics by surprise. Throughout Monday and Tuesday protest rallies have attracted crowds of several thousands of citizens in Russia’s urban centres and in Moscow in particular. The authorities have reacted with the arrest of several hundred protestors, including some of the most famous opposition figures. The protests are continuing and, reportedly, a lot of them are organised and coordinated via social networks.
What does this mean? Can we expect the protest movement to gain momentum? Is a ‘coloured’ revolution on the cards for Russia? Is it likely that, as the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev demands, a rerun of the elections will follow? I think not. Although expressions of public discontent are much more visible than after previous elections, the demonstrations have been fairly small and cannot be compared in size to what happened in Ukraine in 2004. Moreover, the protests seem to be concentrated mainly in urban centres and predominantly in Moscow (and, as we all know, Russia is very big). Although public support for United Russia and for Putin has undoubtedly fallen, this needs to be seen within the framework of the astronomically high opinion ratings they enjoyed in recent years. Last, but not least, unlike Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko, Russia does not have a realistic opposition candidate or political force able to consolidate the protest vote.
Having said all this, the Duma elections and the events unfolding on Moscow’s streets at the moment do matter. In the words of Brian Whitmore, a blogger and columnist writing for Radio Free Europe, ‘Nothing has changed and everything has changed’. For the first time in over a decade Putin and the Russian leadership are facing a legitimacy crisis. The presidential elections will take place in March 2012. Putin has announced his candidacy and it is beyond doubt that he will be elected. However, the current trends in public opinion mean that he cannot simply pick up from where he left when his second presidential term ended in 2008. An unreformed Putin 2.0 is not a possibility.
As we argue in our book ‘Securitising Russia: the Domestic Politics of Putin’, Putin managed to maintain his popularity during his presidency during 2000-2008 with a strong emphasis on stability and security that stood in stark contrast to the chaos of the Yeltsin years. However, these issues are unlikely to resonate as strongly with the Russian electorate eleven years later. During Medvedev’s presidency the emphasis of political rhetoric shifted from securitisation to modernisation as it was understood that Russia’s future economic prosperity can be ensured only with wide-ranging reforms of the country’s economy, society and, to an extent, political system.
I think this shift of rhetoric is more important than often acknowledged. It will also mean that Medvedev’s rule – even if it was short – will be of consequence for Russian politics in the longer term. When Putin announced his renewed candidacy for president in September 2011 this was followed by a sharp decline in his popularity ratings. This can be interpreted as a sign that the Russian electorate does not simply want to return to the political course pursued by the Putin they elected more than a decade ago. Public discontent with the parliamentary elections last Sunday supports this interpretation. And this is why the Duma elections in Russia matter.