The December 2 elections to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, predictably ended in a landslide victory for the ruling United Russia party, headed by President Vladimir Putin. Only one opposition party — the Communists — will be represented in the Duma with 57 seats out of the overall 450. United Russia took 315 seats; the rest went to smaller, pro-Kremlin parties: the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Justice Russia.
Independent observers and opposition parties have accused the authorities of widespread fraud and promised to file complaints, but all previous attempts to challenge fraudulent ballot results through the Russian legal system have been futile. The Russian courts do as the Kremlin says. Observers from the OSCE and the Council of Europe called the Duma elections unfair and undemocratic, quoting media bias in favor of pro-Kremlin parties, restrictive election laws, harassment of the opposition, and the lack of genuine separation among the branches of power. The Russian authorities have rejected the criticism as deliberately prearranged anti-Russian propaganda aimed at destabilizing the country (see EDM, RIA-Novosti December 3; Moscow Times, December 4).
By the standards of leading democracies, the elections did not come close to being transparent, but the outright fraud and the harassment of opposition groups were an obvious overkill by the Kremlin. United Russia likely would still win if the elections were more open and competitive, although by a somewhat reduced margin. Still, authoritarian regimes are inherently paranoid, and, indeed, the Kremlin today sees Western-lead conspiracies everywhere. During the campaign Putin called opposition leaders “jackals” who seek Western aid, and he promised to build up the Russian military until it is sufficient to keep foreigners from poking their “snotty noses” into Russia’s affairs (United Russia official website www.edinros.ru, November 21, 26).
On December 3 and 4 thousands of students were taken out of their classes and bussed from provincial cities to Moscow by the pro-Kremlin youth movements Nashi, Mestnye, and Molodaya Gvardia to demonstrate support for Putin and United Russia in the center of the capital. The pro-Kremlin activists were deployed in freezing weather, together with riot police, to prevent any opposition attempts to protest election fraud (www.lenta.ru, December 3). Apparently the Kremlin believed that an announcement by international observers that the elections were unfair and undemocratic was a prearranged signal for opposition forces to stage mass protests that would topple Putin and his cronies from power in a replay of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. During the election campaign Putin predicted that opposition forces were planning “revenge,” that they “have been trained by Western specialists” and “will take to the streets” to “stage provocations” (www.edinros.ru, November 21). It is increasingly apparent that this was not mere rhetoric; rather, the Kremlin actually prepared for confrontation.
The obvious unfairness of the elections and the Kremlin’s aggressive rhetoric will sour relations with the West. In addition, Moscow has announced that on December 13 Russia will stop obeying the terms of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Russian officials say that after CFE, Russia may withdraw from other arms limitation treaties (RIA-Novosti, November 30).
The presidential elections planned for next March may be even less democratic than the latest Duma balloting. Under the Russian constitution, Putin must leave office after a successor is elected on March 2, but he obviously plans to stay in power in some form and may, in the end, actually run for another term, pushing aside any legal obstacles.
Russia’s current isolation from democratic countries will only grow, although it is not easy to predict the speed of the deterioration and the future level of confrontation. Putin has stated that the Duma election landslide is a sign of trust in his rule. But internationally it only undermined the remaining legitimacy of the incumbent regime, and internally it did not add much to his already enormous authority.
As Russia grows more and more isolated, internal repression may rise. In that event the regime will need the full support of the military, the security services, and the police, but today their loyalty is not a given. Army and riot police officers get $500 to $600 a month, while contract solders get even less. The Russian economy is overheating, inflation is growing — around 11.5-12% this year — and those salaries cannot keep up.
Putin has announced that military personnel will get a 15% increase in pay this month and another 15% next September. The president acknowledged that these pay hikes “are not sufficient, taking into account growing inflation,” but he did not offer anything else (RIA-Novosti, November 20). The military is openly growing restive and demanding more. The official Defense Ministry website reported recently that the acting chief of the Russian Air Force, General Alexander Zelinin, told staff officers of the Far East Air Force and Air Defenses Command that military pay must be increased “substantially, not by ‘percentages’, but two to three times.” Zelinin asked, “Is it conceivable to pay an air mechanic that services a new $30 million Su-34 bomber [only] $240 a month?” (www.mil.ru, November 26). Growing military discontent may be a much more serious threat to the regime than alleged Western-led “Orange Revolution” plots.