The widespread conviction that the results were inflated on behalf of United Russia set off a demonstration larger than any Moscow has seen in years, with 5,000 or more youthful protesters gathering around Chistye Prudy boulevard before police dispersed them Monday evening. Opposition demonstrations normally attract only a few hundred protesters, as did one in favor of fair elections the weekend before the vote.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking in Bonn, Germany, said the United States had “serious concerns” about the conduct of the vote, adding: “Russian voters deserve a full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation.”
Despite all its advantages, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party won slightly less than half the ballots cast Sunday, according to near-final results announced Monday. That will ensure United Russia’s continuing control of the state Duma but, for the first time, raises the possibility that Putin’s formidable political machine may have its vulnerabilities.
Politicians and political scientists agree that Putin’s election as president March 4 has not been jeopardized — he has always been more popular than United Russia and has managed to keep the opposition in disarray during two terms as president and the past four years as prime minister. One especially disliked party was not allowed to run in the elections. Another was destroyed after its leader became too independent.
But there is also widespread agreement that the voters have sent a loud, though ambiguous, message. It came mainly from the new middle class and city dwellers, who were demanding change without explicitly endorsing a specific direction. No strong opposition emerged to rally them, and many gravitated toward the familiar and always well-organized Communists.
“This new political stratum wants change,” said Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy and United Russia member, “but they didn’t decide what kind they want. They have no political champions.”
Putin and United Russia must change to get them back, he said, reviving the economy and raising the pay of teachers, doctors and engineers. The moral climate also must be improved, Markov said. “There shouldn’t be this feeling that Russia belongs to those stealing money, not those who are working,” he said.
Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, said United Russia’s first loss of Duma seats would force the party to change.
“They are accustomed to a supermajority where no one could even think of challenging them,” he said, and they will have to learn how to respond to criticism, compromise and sell their ideas to the public.