Russian Voters Send Putin a Message

The defeat is largely symbolic, but it may presage trouble for Putin and his party.

Meeting three weeks ago with an international group of experts on Russia’s politics and foreign policy, including the author, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Russia’s citizens do not feel sufficiently connected to their country’s leaders. Nevertheless, he said, “we are thinking about what to do so that citizens feel a closer connection to the authorities at the municipal, regional and federal levels, have more influence over the authorities, and have feedback.” Notwithstanding a flawed election process, Russian voters delivered that feedback to Mr. Putin and the ruling United Russia Party in the country’s December 4 elections to Russia’s parliament, the State Duma.

The balloting produced a powerful symbolic defeat not only for Putin but also for President Dmitri Medvedev, who theatrically announced in September that he would not run for reelection so that he could concentrate on leading United Russia to victory. Even with widespread reports of fraud—including 90-percent-plus support in Chechnya and in multiple psychiatric hospitals, and further “anomalous” reports likely to emerge—United Russia has received 49.3 percent support. United Russia won 64 percent in 2007.

It is important to recognize that United Russia’s defeat is primarily symbolic rather than substantive. Practically speaking, United Russia will still have 238 of 450 seats in parliament. While the party will no longer have sufficient votes to revise the constitution unilaterally, its leaders will be able to pass legislation and conduct other business on their terms most, if not all, of the time. But symbolism is important, and, over time, perceptions can create new realities by demoralizing United Russia, energizing opposition parties, and raising questions about Putin’s power inside and outside Russia. Channeling public perceptions and sentiments will be a key priority for Russia’s once-and-future president both before and after the March 4 presidential election.

Thus far, Putin has treaded carefully in his public responses to the election, apparently seeking to portray the results as natural and expected—and therefore producing no particular problems for his continuing government or his presidential candidacy—while simultaneously signaling his intent to make changes. United Russia’s losses were “inevitable for any political force, especially for one which, not for the first year, bears the brunt of responsibility for the situation in the country,” Putin said two days after the vote. The same day, he told United Russia members that he plans to shake up the government and remove some of the country’s appointed governors after the March presidential election. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, added that “Russians expect Putin in his new edition” with “new ideas.”

One interesting question is whether “new ideas” alone will be sufficient to appease Russia’s voters. Since the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, government reshuffles have often come before elections for precisely this reason—though of course in the previous cases a powerful president has selected a new prime minister and rearranged other key lieutenants. This option is not easily available to Medvedev and Putin, neither of whom seems likely to welcome the prospect of stepping down at this point. Absent that, it is not clear that removing a few government ministers would demonstrate a new direction. It seems likely that Russia’s political leaders and their fairly sophisticated advisers understand this.

The challenge for Putin and Medvedev is that neither they nor United Russia’s leaders have been able to define the party as a coherent political force with a meaningful philosophy or program distinct from support for the so-called tandem of Putin-Medvedev leadership. In the absence of this definition, Russians themselves cynically defined United Russia as “the party of power.” Not long before the election, however, this cynicism evolved into disgust, encapsulated in blogger Alexei Navalny’s branding of United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves.”

Putin has dismissed this appellation as a “cliché” and has argued that “this is a label applied not to a specific political party but to authorities” as a whole. However, given that Putin has railed against corruption since becoming president in 2000 and that Medvedev has done the same since his own election in 2008, how long can they avoid responsibility for it in the eyes of Russia’s citizens? The election results suggest that many Russians have become impatient.

This is the fundamental problem facing Putin in particular—the widely shared perception that he runs the country. His perceived control (which in reality is probably weaker than many think) is a double-edged sword; it is impossible to exercise control without assuming responsibility. After more than a decade as a preeminent politician, Russians might have begun to evaluate Putin’s record as a leader and to compare his rhetoric to his accomplishments.