What the Recent Russian Elections Really Mean

Why liberals must let go of their blinding anti-Putinism and the naive notion that what is bad for Putin is good for them.

The recent Duma elections and the subsequent wave of comments on them forces me to express my views on both.

First, it is astonishing that some comments (such as Ariel Cohen's in The National Interest on Dec. 6, 2011) speak of the “unexpected” loss of the United Russia party. After all, there was nothing unexpected about it. Over a year ago, Vladislav Surkov, first deputy chief of staff of the president of the Russian Federation, was talking about how United Russia would not have a constitutional majority following the forthcoming elections, and he usually knows what he is talking about. And all public-opinion polls in the months preceding the elections, including the respected Levada Center, suggested that United Russia could count on support in the range of 45–55 percent. This is exactly why all talk of mass falsifications does not stand up to scrutiny, even though there were certainly isolated cases of fraud. They could not have influenced the final outcome as the results matched the most conservative of the Levada forecasts, and the center is far from being sympathetic to the authorities.

Second, many observers portray the electoral results as defeat not just for United Russia but also for Putin personally. Still, for a party that has been both dominant and ruling for nearly ten years, and during the time when Russia was through serious socio-economic turmoil due to the global economic crisis, this is a dignified performance. After all, such a result would be considered a glowing triumph for any Western party in power during the economic crisis.

We need to pay attention to the potential connection between the recent electoral results and Putin's chances in next March’s presidential elections. I believe that, had Medvedev resigned as president on the night when he first put forward Putin's candidacy, the authorities could have combined the presidential and parliamentary elections, and Putin could have used his personal charisma and popularity to cement victory not just for himself but also for United Russia. The party likely would have attained about 10 percent more votes than it garnered on December 4. According to the Levada Center, Putin's rating stood at over 60 percent on the eve of the elections (and not the 31 percent suggested by Ariel Cohen).

After September 24, something happened that caused considerable confusion within the electorate. Although the party was founded by Putin, it was the acting president who led the electoral lists. In those circumstances, the prime minister could not run his own campaign and thus use his charisma and mobilizational potential. Had he done so, Medvedev would have been forced to operate under the shadow of Putin, which would have been disrespectful on Putin's part.

On the other hand, Medvedev still could not muster a full and persuasive campaign because United Russia was not his party, and he lacked Putin’s level of charisma and mobilizational savvy. Thus, recognizing that factors in the outcome included the economic crisis, the weariness of the party, and the growing demands of the electorate, the absence of a clear party leader contributed to the not-very-convincing victory for United Russia.

A more interesting opinion was expressed by Paul Saunders on December 7. He wrote that the electoral results for United Russia have removed the aura of invincibility from the party and also from Putin. I would argue that the removal of this aura is a positive development for both Putin and the country. It will shake off the danger of stagnation that authority faced, thereby forcing them to take more effective measures in the economic and social spheres—and also improve the system of feedback communications between society and the authorities.

Further, it was amusing to watch many liberally oriented politicians and analysts respond to the elections by portraying their wishful thinking as reality. Convinced that the elections in Russia were a crushing defeat for Vladimir Putin heralding an impending Arab Spring for Russia, they rushed to raise parallels with the fates of Mubarak and Qaddafi. It is not surprising that Russian liberals are willing to set their own house on fire to spite the authorities. Neither is it surprising that the political process in Russia and in the Arab world does not enlighten Russian liberals. But it is surprising that the spread of the Arab Spring does not bring lessons to Westerners. At the beginning of the turmoil in Egypt, I wrote in these spaces that the departure of Mubarak would spell either military dictatorship in Egypt or Islamist rule, in which there would be no consequential place for liberals. The recent Egyptian elections fully match my forecast: the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in the parliamentary elections makes the future of the country and the entire region increasingly uncertain. As the results of the Duma elections show, the losses by United Russia did not translate into gains for liberals, but instead for rightist and leftist populist nationalists.

In both Russia and the West, liberals cling to their blinding anti-Putinism and a naive notion that what is bad for Putin is good for them. They might instead try to learn from the Russian political experience and from the recent events in Egypt and Libya so they do not come too late to the insight immortalized by Alexander Pushkin. He said that in Russia, the only Europeans are in the government.

Andranik Migranyan is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York. He is also a professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow, a former member of the Public Chamber and a former member of the Russian Presidential Council.

Image: World Economic Forum