Commentary Magazine


Is Putin’s Grip on Power Slipping?

Yesterday’s elections for the Russian Duma (lower house of the legislature) returned mostly bad news for Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia. Preliminary results matched exit polls, indicating United Russia would receive just under 50 percent of the votes, down from 64 percent in 2007.

The reason this created such a public relations disaster is because camera phones, blogs, and social media services such as Twitter made it easy for those outside Russia to receive updated and verifiable evidence of widespread election fraud on behalf of Putin’s party–including ballot box stuffing, the distribution of pens with invisible ink to polling places, intimidation of election observers, and vote buying. So the impression left lingering in the air was: Imagine if they didn’t try to rig the vote!

Polls have shown the public generally approves of Putin, and many such polls are reliable. But the objection to those results is that there is no real competition for Putin, so how can Russians truly know they want him to lead them? It’s a fair question, and the presence of other parties, such as the Communist Party and A Just Russia, is an unconvincing response to it. Indeed, many Russians believe that, since Putin changed the party registration rules to make it impossible to participate without Kremlin approval, most of the parties are there to prop up the Putin administration, not to challenge it.

I asked Garry Kasparov recently about his contention that voters shouldn’t vote for any of the existing parties, and he said, in a nutshell: in Russia, the liberals aren’t liberals, the Communists aren’t communists, and the nationalists aren’t truly nationalists. He didn’t hesitate to point out that some of these parties, such as the Communist Party and Yabloko, feature the same people who led them when they formed in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union twenty years ago.

This doesn’t mean that democracy is completely absent in Russia; indeed, the results of yesterday’s election show that Russians have been able, despite the barriers, to register their disapproval of the governing party. But the inability of ordinary Russians to stand for election without a party, and the impossibility of registering a party without Putin’s express imprimatur, means Russians are unable to choose their leaders. The elections essentially serve as a nationwide poll.

But with Russia’s economy reliant on the oil market, and with the tidal wave of anti-authoritarian movements sweeping through the Middle East, Putin may view these elections as an indication that his grip on power is less secure than he once thought. Whether that inspires him to liberalize the country’s politics or crack down further on the political participation of opposition groups remains to be seen, but his record—not to mention his party’s behavior yesterday—isn’t particularly encouraging.