Last Sunday (September 18), Russians went to the polls to elect the seventh State Duma in the post-Soviet history of their state. It is extremely difficult to say how many of them actually cast ballots because the official preliminary data on voter participation (47.8 percent, according to the Central Electoral Commission) is distorted by widespread and well-organized fraud that secured a confident victory for the United Russia party (TV Rain, Deutsche Welle, September 19). Pre-election opinion polls had registered a steady decline in popular support for this pseudo-party, which primarily unites the ruling bureaucracy. Moreover, surveys revealed that voters have little trust in the parliament as a state institution (Forbes.ru, September 5). The authorities invested remarkably little effort in boosting the popularity of “their” party; they sought instead to make the whole election campaign as dull and low on political content as possible (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 15). President Vladimir Putin held one evening meeting with the leadership of United Russia earlier this month and issued one short statement on the eve of the elections, but he devoted most of his time to foreign policy matters (Kremlin.ru, September 15; Vedomosti, September 1).
This deliberate demotivation was aimed not only at facilitating the manipulation of the results, but also—and primarily—it was designed to ensure political apathy among the electorate because any mobilization could backfire and supply a trigger for protests. Sociological research shows that only 10 percent of Russians express a willingness to participate in any protests. But popular discontent appeared even lower during the elections of December 2011, and yet those did produce mass demonstrations in Moscow—so the authorities are not taking any chances this year (Levada.ru, September 16). The disunited liberal opposition sought to make maximum use of the limited opportunities available to its candidates, arguing that every vote cast against the “party of power” counts toward a meaningful challenge that cannot be erased by falsifications, while abstention plays into fraudsters’ hands (Slon.ru, September 15; Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 16).
The new Duma may end up having a longer mandate than the life-cycle of the present regime, so it could become a key institution in the coming political crises (Novaya Gazeta, September 16). What makes such forecasts plausible is the chain of revelations of spectacular corruption in various branches of power. Even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, formally the leader of United Russia, had to issue denials of his ownership of a secret dacha erected for him by friendly oligarchs on the banks of the Volga River (Navalny.com, September 15). First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov had to explain the use of a private jet to transport his pets to dog shows; and Igor Sechin, the CEO of Rosneft and Putin’s close friend, complained in court about media attacks on his palaces and yachts built for his young wife (Moscow Echo, September 16). The most astounding exposures, however, came from an official investigation into corruption at the Ministry of Interior. Specifically, Colonel Mikhail Zakharchenko, appointed just two years ago to head Department T of the ministry’s Main Directorate for Economic Security and Countering Corruption, was found with $150 million in cash and 300 million euros in foreign bank accounts (Rosbalt.ru, September 14).
The shocking scale of this embezzlement, even by Russian standards, points not so much to a vast network of corruption but rather to the unprecedented intensity of squabbles between competing racketeering and money-laundering government agencies for dwindling resources (Navalny.com, September 14). In the words of Yekaterina Shulman, one of the sharpest Moscow analysts, it is the wars between competing clans in “power structures” that now constitute the main content of political processes in Russia (Moscow Echo, September 14). The leading driver and the apparent victor in these wars is the Federal Security Service (FSB), which executed the above-mentioned operation against the interior ministry, as well as the attack on the Investigations Committee, leading to the resignation of its chairman, Aleksandr Bastrykin, despite his personal ties with Putin (RBC, September 14). In late July, the FSB effectively decapitated the Federal Tax Service, making its director, Andrei Belyaninov, also a long-time Putin loyalist, instantly famous when all TV channels aired the search of his house. The footage showcased numerous shoeboxes stacked with hundred-dollar bills (Novaya Gazeta, July 28).
This multi-clan feud for controlling cash flows, camouflaged as a struggle against corruption, makes it possible for Putin to proceed with a massive elite reshuffling (Gazeta.ru, September 16). In the run-up to the elections, he sacrificed at least half a dozen old “comrades” who had become costly liabilities in the increasingly tight economic situation (Newsru,com, August 15). In parallel, high-profile investigations were launched against the business empires of several renowned “oligarchs,” for instance Victor Vekselberg, with the obvious aim of extracting hefty ransoms for the detained “hostages” (RBC, September 13). Neither the attempts to curtail the predatory appetites of over-grown law enforcement bureaucracies, nor the crude pressure put on business interests that lack political protection at the highest level can resolve the basic problem of shrinking incomes and irreducible expenditures in the federal budget (Polit.ru, September 13). This problem came to the fore in the government meeting on the key parameters of the 2025 Armament Program, which Putin called last week. And no amount of shouting could reconcile the “diametrically opposed” positions of the expansionist Ministry of Defense and stingy Ministry of Finance (Kommersant, September 17).
The struggle against Russian-style corruption pursues the poorly compatible parallel aims of disciplining the state bureaucracy and placating public opinion. In reality, it only stimulates the enforcers of various ranks to accumulate as much cash as possible, all the while irritating the public, anxious about falling incomes and insecure jobs, with scandalous revelations of government officials’ ill-gotten gains (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 16). Similarly, the manipulations of the elections were aimed at producing an entirely controllable parliament and at releasing some of the accumulated discontent. But the legitimacy of United Russia as the “ruling” party has actually sunk to a new low, and the public’s dissatisfaction with the corrupt workings of the political system remains undiminished. Unlike in December 2011, discontented Muscovites are not going to take to the streets after this weekend’s stolen elections, but a different set of unexpected consequences is in the making—particularly, as the lack of any positive perspective in the regime’s survival strategy becomes obvious. It is impossible to predict what new scandals and destabilizing developments emerge in the months ahead. But clearly, neither the self-serving political class nor the predatory police appear up to the task of protecting the enervated Putinist regime.