This article is part of the serie “Eastern neighborhood: the silent consolidation of authoritarianism”. Pieces on elections in Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine can be found here.
Hopes that Dmitry Medvedev could constitute a more liberal and Western-oriented alternative to Vladimir Putin were dissolved ou dissipated in September 2011 when Medvedev announced his unconditional support to Putin’s candidacy. The predicted switch sowed disillusion. The re-election of Vladimir Putin for a 6-year term in March 2012 took place in an unprecedented context for Russia and constituted a nightmare for its leaders. Demonstrators in Russia’s cities massively protested against the system’s unaccountability, pervasive corruption and deteriorating socio-economic climate.
Little hope for change
While some analysts predict that Putin’s return to power will pave the way for continuity, others expect considerable challenges. A Chatham House report foresaw “the beginning of the end of the Putin regime”. The December 2011 Duma elections were marred with fraud and calls for re-running the elections, releasing political prisoners and dismissing the head of the Electoral Commission. Contrary to the 2007 Duma elections, this time the regime allowed the OSCE/ODIHR to observe the elections. The OSCE/ODIHR final report notes a lack of a level playing field and instances of ballot box stuffing. Despite the vote rigging, Putin’s United Russia party scored its worse results (49,32% of votes and 52,89% of seats, comparing to 64,30% and 70% respectively in 2007). However, as Igor Sutyagin (RUSI) explains, the Kremlin de facto controls 80% of the Duma. As to Putin himself, he became the target of the protests, despite the high levels of public support.
Putin was re-elected in the first round in March 2012. Fraud was less widespread and irregularities ranged from limited voters’ choice, biased media coverage in favour of one candidate to unequal access to media and state resources. Putin could not afford a second round therefore the competing candidates did not constitute a real opposition, and Yabloko’s leader failed to register. The heavy presence of riot police raised fears that protests could go violent but this scenario was successfully avoided.
The regime’s half-hearted response
In terms of post-electoral response, Medvedev’s package (direct elections of governors, easier registration for political parties and presidential candidates, access to public television for opposition candidates) seemed right in the form, but proved wrong in the spirit. After the elections, several laws were adopted to restrict internet freedoms, protests and civil society activities. The disproportionate sentence for “Pussy Riot” provoked international outrage and the punk group was even nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize. Alexey Navalny, who attracted much attention in the West, is currently prosecuted, while NGOs, both local and international, are the target of further legal restrictions.
Putin’s United Russia party won the local elections in October 2012 with victories in major regions. The reintroduction of direct elections for five governors was turned to the ruling party’s advantage as the Kremlin introduced a filter for competing candidates. For the remaining regions, the regime took the necessary steps before the reform enters into force, so that they do not face elections in the next four or five years. Several candidates withdrew from the race while others failed to gather enough signatures. The turnout was low and fraud was reported.
Vote rigging is no big news for Russia or other countries in democratic transitions. However there is now a clear discrepancy between Putin’s authoritarian obsession that he only can bring stability to Russia and the general disbelief in Russia’s political apparatus by the wider public. Keeping the economy on track will insure support for the regime - but how long will the regime survive without modernising its resource-dependent economy? Russia’s obsolete-thinking elite has grounds to fear an “Arab Spring” or “Colour revolution” scenario. Nikolay Petrov from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gives Putin one or two more years in power. The real question is what would be the trigger for Putin’s fall. As an MEP recently put it, energy could be the game setter: should the price for a barrel of oil fall below a certain level, the Russian system could simply implode.