Politics Have Returned to Russia: Where Do They Go from Here?
December 16, 2011
Q1: What is the significance of the December 4 parliamentary elections and subsequent public demonstrations?
A1: The poor performance of the United Russia Party in the parliamentary elections marks the first major electoral setback for Vladimir Putin since he arrived on the national political stage as Boris Yeltsin’s designated successor 12 years ago. For at least the last 8 years, the Russian electorate has appeared apathetic and compliant with Putin’s unwritten social contract, which provided for increasing prosperity for many Russians and personal freedoms as long as they did not interfere in high politics. One can argue whether Putin was a talented politician or simply the lucky beneficiary of high oil and other global commodity prices, but the essence of his political capital was reflected in his high personal popularity rating. Obviously the situation has changed dramatically, and in my view, there is little likelihood that Putin can return to the political comfort zone he enjoyed in the past as president and prime minister. The election results—and the apparently massive fraud and falsification required for even the very mediocre performance of United Russia—finally catalyzed tens of thousands of Russian citizens to protest in the streets of Moscow and other large cities last Saturday. The large demonstration in Moscow, which the authorities numbered at 25,000 and the opposition at 80,000 to 150,000, was remarkable in two ways. First, whatever the actual number, this was the largest public demonstration in Moscow since the halcyon days of 1991; second, the demonstration proceeded with no incidence of unruliness or violence. These are not revolutionaries; more on that later.
Q2: What are the strategies of the opposition and the authorities in the days and weeks ahead?
A2: It is important to note that the opposition is not united behind any individual leader, organization, or party. But in contrast with the past, opposition figures and parties effectively coordinated their response in preparing the December 10 demonstration. Political figures of established parties, as well as younger emerging figures, have sought common cause in exposing fraud in the elections and calling for new elections, replacement of the Central Electoral Commission, and other measures. The next watershed will be December 24 when another major demonstration in Moscow is scheduled. The authorities have approved a public demonstration of up to 50,000 people—the opposition is calling for several hundred thousand to come out. For success, the opposition will need to at least match the numbers and enthusiasm on display last Saturday. Subsequently, unless the authorities meet their demands for new Duma elections, which is extremely unlikely, the opposition will have to maintain and increase the public pressure on the streets of Moscow and elsewhere for the coming weeks and months.
The authorities’ strategy appears to be based on hope that the combination of winter weather and the holiday period will dissipate the enthusiasm of protesters. Judging by Putin’s remarks in his lengthy call-in show on December 15 and by statements of other leaders, the authorities certainly want to avoid any serious review of the results of the parliamentary elections. But the insulting tone and and content of some of Putin’s comments will likely inspire more Russians to take to the streets on December 24. Yesterday we saw the resignation of United Russia Party leader Boris Gryzlov, not only from his leadership role but from the Duma entirely. This will have virtually no impact on the opposition, and if their demands are not more seriously addressed, I expect they will be able to maintain large numbers coming out in protest into the new year, especially as public attention becomes focused on the presidential elections scheduled for March 4.
Q3: What should we expect for the Russian presidential elections?
A3: The conventional wisdom is that Vladimir Putin will win the election and return for a third term. That may well be true, but there is a lot more uncertainty and nuance involved. It is clear that this will be a more competitive presidential election than we have seen in Russia since 1996 when Boris Yeltsin eked out reelection amidst tremendous controversy. Putin’s goal is to be elected with a majority in the first round, avoiding the need for a runoff; all the opposition parties and leaders seek to prevent that.
The political technologists in the Kremlin are scratching their heads about the advisability of more or less candidates. Should, for example, Yabloko’s leader Grigorii Yavlinsky—assuming he is nominated at the Yabloko Congress this coming weekend (it is possible, if unlikely, that Yavlinsky could step aside for a younger candidate to emerge)—or the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov be allowed to garner the 2 million signatures around the country to qualify for registration by January 19, with the hope that more opposition candidates will split the vote? Or does the Kremlin prefer a more limited pool of standard candidates like the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhironovsky, Just Russia Party leader Sergei Mironov, and a few others?
What is certain is that Vladimir Putin will have to run more of a campaign and provide more of a plan for his next term if he is to mobilize voters. He has never really had to do that and has always made his disdain for “politicking” clear. He will thus probably have to step outside his comfort zone, which is risky for any politician. This is especially true for Putin, since the last time he appeared in public—at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium for a mixed martial arts event last month—he was raucously booed for the first time ever. More events where he is publically embarrassed could be catastrophic for Putin’s credibility as a leader, especially because he cultivates the image of an authoritarian tough guy. In sum, both Putin and the opposition have important strategic decisions to make about how they will approach the presidential campaign—a novel situation of uncertainty with potentially very consequential outcomes. Betting money is on Putin to prevail and avoid the fate of his Italian friend Silvio Berlusconi. But even if he does win, his political capital will be diminished and his aura as Russia’s “National Leader” will likely be a thing of the past. For a political analyst of Russia and someone who believes that competitive democracy is the most effective political system, these developments are very refreshing and heartening.
Q4: Are we turning the page on a political era in Russia?
A4: I do not believe we are witnessing a revolution. I see this as the mobilization of latent political forces who want to see the more fulsome realization of the market-democratic revolution that took place in Russia 20 years ago this month. The majority of Russians who took to the streets this past week are not the disenfranchised and economically impoverished; rather, they are the emerging Russian middle and even upper-middle class with less experience with the Soviet past, more familiarity with new communications technologies and networking, and a growing confidence about their capacity to define their future. Russians are simply too wealthy, too well educated, and too European to tolerate this anachronistic political system much longer.
As a friend said to me this week, unlike 20 years ago when much of the energy was “against” something, what we are seeing now is people mobilizing “for” something—and that something boils down to better governance of Russia by and for the people, not embarrassing and miserable governance by and for one man and his cronies. 2012 is unlikely to be the end of the story; instead, it is likely the beginning of a new chapter—although at this point uncertainty is the watchword. I remember thinking and writing 20 years ago that the Russian transformation was probably going to be a two-generation project with ups and downs, zigs and zags. Political change does not tend to happen in linear fashion—and like 20 years ago, we may be entering another nonlinear moment for Russia.
Andrew C. Kuchins is senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He is currently in Moscow conducting interviews and research.
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