December 5, 2011

RUSSIA’S VOTERS have just demonstrated that even a rigged election can send a message. Despite the lack of a meaningful choice in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, and despite what international observers said were “serious indications of ballot box stuffing,” the voters made clear their dissatisfaction with Vladi­mir Putin’s regime. His United Russia party was reported to have received 49.5 percent of the vote, compared to 64 percent in the last election four years ago. The Communist Party got the biggest share of a massive protest vote, while two other Kremlin-tolerated “opposition” parties substantially increased their number of parliamentary seats.

Mr. Putin is in no danger, for the moment: United Russia will still control a parliamentary majority, and he is a heavy favorite in the presidential election scheduled for March. But Russians have made a contribution to what has been a global outpouring in 2011 of popular dissatisfaction with rulers — particularly in authoritarian countries.

No less than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Putin invited the backlash by choosing to retrench rather than reform his regime. His decision to shove aside sidekick Dmitry Medvedev and return to the presidency next year, for a second run of at least six years, dashed the fading hopes of Russians that the country might be inching toward a more open political system. The restoration signals a perpetuation of the criminality that has infected every corner of the Russian government and the economic stagnation that has kept it dependent on exports of oil, gas and other raw materials.

Mr. Putin further provoked voters by manipulating the election system to eliminate alternatives. After a billionaire businessman attempted to rejuvenate a liberal opposition party called Right Cause, the Kremlin organized a clumsy internal coup to remove him. Other liberal pro-Western parties were denied registration, while the sole Russian independent election monitoring group, Golos, was subjected to a campaign of intimidation.

There’s no telling how far the ruling party would have fallen in a free vote. In central St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin’s political home base, only 27 percent was recorded for his party. Such results were balanced by massive rigging elsewhere: In Chechnya, which was devastated by a war launched by Mr. Putin, 99 percent voter participation was reported and 99.5 percent of the votes were tallied for United Russia.

Mr. Putin will now face the question of how to respond to the rebuff. One likely answer is bribery: Economic analysts expect government spending to soar before the March presidential vote. Meaningful steps to combat corruption might also appease many Russians. But Mr. Putin’s history suggests he will move in a more dangerous direction, stoking Russian nationalism and looking for enemies at home and abroad. The regime was already shifting in that direction before the parliamentary vote, with threats to target U.S. missile defense installations with nuclear weapons, or to withdraw from the START nuclear treaty negotiated by President Obama.

The Obama administration should be prepared to deflect such attacks and to defend other likely Putin targets, such as the democratic government of Georgia. In the meantime, the democratic world can hope that Sunday was the beginning, and not the end, of a Russian awakening.