Russian Voters Send Putin a Message

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.

Ironically, from this perspective United Russia’s showing in the State Duma elections could provide a second-time president Putin with a useful political opportunity to share responsibility, something that may be especially attractive in an era of global economic crisis that could drive down energy prices and seriously weaken Russia’s economic prospects. On one hand, United Russia remains dominant in the Duma and, with a majority of seats, can determine the outcome of most parliamentary votes; despite its diminished reputation, the party remains a potent political force. On the other hand, however, United Russia could position itself to shift blame to others—if needed—by allowing opposition politicians to head some Duma committees, something that has occurred in the past. Likewise, Putin could invite select opposition figures to serve as government ministers. This would expand “the party of power” through co-optation and limit the opposition’s ability to make trouble. Needless to say, such a strategy would have to focus on the loyal opposition, meaning parties and personalities who might prefer different policies but do not challenge Russia’s political system as a whole. So far, the latter group (those who do challenge the system) remains marginal, though protests in Moscow and the reaction by security officials make clear that Russia’s leaders take it seriously.

While some in the loyal opposition could benefit from the Duma voting, Russia’ regional governors may be particularly vulnerable in the weeks before the March 4 presidential election. Unable to rearrange the government until after the presidential election, Putin and Medvedev could well be tempted politically to sack one or more governors on the basis of corruption charges. Governors widely seen as ineffective could be the most likely targets; government prosecutors have few constraints in building corruption cases against anyone they choose. Putin has in fact already said that United Russia’s disappointing showing is in part attributable to frustration with local authorities.

Whatever he decides to do, Mr. Putin now has less than three months until a presidential election that some said just a few months ago he was “200 percent likely to win.” He will face a difficult balancing act in both politics and policy, with pressure to do whatever is necessary to win public support, possibly including substantial increases in government spending before the election that could worsen Russia’s economic dilemmas afterward. Moreover, after the Duma elections Mr. Putin and has advisers may believe that a clear first-round victory (requiring a majority of the votes cast) in the presidential balloting is essential to demonstrating his enduring authority and avoiding an unpredictable second-round vote. Yet the Russian public seems increasingly sensitive to electoral manipulation, and Russia’s authorities must also fear a weak presidential election prospect requiring extensive and transparent fraud to guarantee Putin’s victory. That could provoke a dangerous and destabilizing backlash across Russia.

After March 4, corruption appears set to remain Russians’ principal grievance. It is also the top obstacle to sustainable economic growth in Russia and the glue that holds Russia’s political system together. Accordingly, while the task would be an extremely hard one, there will be no better time for Mr. Putin finally to tackle corruption decisively, as he has promised to do for many years. This will require removing some top officials, including some of his allies, if it is to be either credible or effective, and recruiting new and cleaner (but probably not spotless) replacements. Success against corruption leading to investment, growth, and jobs would also deflate Russia’s left-nationalist opposition—the most serious threat to Putin’s rule.

Truly fighting corruption would demonstrate to many Russian citizens that Putin has received and is acting on the feedback that they have provided and that he said he wants. As a new president next year, however, Mr. Putin would also do well to solicit and listen to feedback from his own government, including from senior officials. In the past, few other than Medvedev and former first deputy prime minister Alexei Kudrin have been able to disagree with him. Kudrin in particular appeared unique in being able to confront Mr. Putin with unpleasant truths. The task of ruling Russia is going to get tougher, and the president will need the best and most honest advice he can get.

The bottom line after Russia’s elections is that Putin, Medvedev and United Russia remain dominant but have lost the aura of invincibility that Putin especially has enjoyed for many years. Russia as a whole appears to be stable but somehow seems less stable than it did last month or last year. Most important to Americans, the opposition parties that did well in the elections tend to be more skeptical toward the United States than Russia’s government, which is already a difficult partner. For Washington, this likely means that securing Russia’s cooperation on key foreign-policy challenges such as Iran will not get any easier.