Speculation is growing that Vladimir Putin will have to ease his grip on power if he wants to remain Russia’s leader. His approval rating, at 80 percent a year ago, has been driven to 60 by, among other things, an uncertain economic future, critics exploiting the Internet’s increasing popularity and the slowly maturing disgust among Russians at the prime minister’s cynical plan to return to the presidency next year. The usually haughty Putin provided visual symbolism for these changes by appearing shaken last month when boos greeted his appearance at a martial arts fight.
The results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections appear, at first, to have struck a further blow to Putin’s authoritarianism. His United Russia Party failed to regain its majority, earning just under 50 percent of the vote, down from the commanding 65 percent that enabled the party to change the constitution unimpeded four years ago. But the election results actually bode badly for those who hope for liberalization: Far from limiting a future Putin presidency, they will hand him more power than had United Russia done better.
Years of evidence shows it is highly unlikely the Russian authorities would allow voters to decide important national elections. This time, videos posted on YouTube showed stashes of fake ballots, while tallies amounted to more than 100 percent in at least one city, and United Russia won a Soviet-style 99 percent in Chechnya. No doubt that was the tip of an iceberg: Getting the right results is no easy task.
So why would Putin allow his own party to shed almost 15 percent of the vote? Partly because United Russia’s steady loss of popularity over the past year — especially after blogger Alexei Navalny’s brilliant campaign to brand it the party of “crooks and thieves” — means anything short of a significant loss of votes would have been hardly credible even by the Kremlin’s fantastic standards. The result is handy not only for letting off some steam of popular discontent but also for deflecting accusations of authoritarianism at home and abroad. Lest United Russia’s rebuke unduly embolden the opposition, police provided the reminder of who’s boss by arresting Navalny along with hundreds of others who protested vote-rigging on Monday.
Putin had distanced himself from United Russia well before the elections, including by creating a parallel, military-sounding Popular Front movement. It was the loyal President Dmitry Medvedev — soon to become prime minister, under a deal with Putin — who suffered real damage to his reputation by heading United Russia’s voting list.
That would seem to fit the supreme leader’s designs very nicely. Talk of any threat to Putin’s expected victory next year is moot since he has made sure no other candidate can possibly challenge him. If elected president again, Putin will suffer no real loss of power because he will retain the ability to ram any measure through parliament. Now, he simply would rely on support from other, no-less-pliant pro-Kremlin parties on top of United Russia’s. More important, the largest party’s weakened position in these uncertain times conveniently eliminates any possibility of providing a platform for potential rebellion by politicians from a majority group. Which gets to the real point: Undermining Russia’s “party of power” strengthens Putin’s probable presidency.
Four years ago, before Putin relinquished his vast presidential powers at the end of his term limit, he built up United Russia, together with his image of a bare-chested, horse-riding, gun-toting man of action. He needed to weaken the presidency to shore up his personal power. Pro-Kremlin officials even fanned rumors at the time of a switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government to guarantee that Medvedev, Putin’s designated placeholder, would never threaten Putin’s status as “national leader.” If needed, Putin could have used his position as majority leader to order the president impeached. Now that he is set to regain the president’s powers, Putin is interested in the opposite: undercutting the party and future prime minister. It’s no coincidence that United Russia’s boss is not even a member.
Putin is a virtuoso of governing through networks of cronies instead of institutions such as parliament, a very old Russian practice. The results of Sunday’s elections fit his decade-long project of expanding his personal power by destabilizing institutions and ensuring that the country’s elites don’t threaten his role as supreme arbiter. From his vantage, United Russia’s loss is canny politics as well as good public relations.
Gregory Feifer is writing a book about Russian society and behavior.