What Has Happened to the Russian Elections?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 144

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a meeting with members of the Popular Front (Source: premier.gov.ru)

The parliamentary elections in Russia are some 18 weeks away, but the campaign that appeared lively earlier this year has all but exhausted itself. One of the three minor parliamentary parties, Spravedlivaya Rossiya, has been effectively dismantled by orders from the Kremlin, presumably because by its very name it has to focus upon the issue of social justice, which is too politically sensitive (www.lenta.ru, July 21). The Communist Party, which has traditionally tried to make a colorful show, this time around is barely going through the motions (Kommersant, July 26). Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who for two decades kept his one-man party alive by playing on nationalist issues, now treads very carefully over this minefield. A new electoral project launched by the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is struggling to get off the ground as he is instructed to steer his Pravoe Delo proto-party off the hot issues like corruption in the almighty bureaucracy (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 22).

The only pseudo-political activity that is going on with unmistakably Soviet falsity is the mobilization of the so-called Popular Front around the dominant United Russia party under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He now and again holds meetings with representatives of the general population in order to distribute money for resolving some local problems and to communicate his closeness to people’s needs while sitting in a circle of common workers on a rotating chair specially delivered from his Moscow office (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 19). This tactic works only to a degree as the generosity of gifts cannot begin to the cut into the mountain of accumulated neglect, first of all in communal infrastructure and transport (www.gazeta.ru, July 22). Even Mikhail Gorbachev, always careful with his words, argues that United Russia cannot be trusted because it pulls the country back, which suits Putin just fine (Ekho Moskvy, July 23). Only about one third of Muscovites are prepared to vote for this party, which about another third of Russians find fair to call a party of “swindlers and thieves” (www.levada.ru, July 25).

President Dmitry Medvedev prefers not to associate himself with this passé front-building, but cannot find a place for himself in this torpid campaign, which would decide his political future. He held a meeting with the “captains” of big business and came close to asking for their support for his program to secure a second presidential term; his message, however, remained elliptic, and the shrewd billionaires saw no reason to commit themselves (Vedomosti, July 13; www.forbes.ru, July 14). Hesitant voices from the liberal intelligentsia call for rallying around Medvedev’s banner of modernization, but skeptics – who are by no means embittered radicals – counter that Putin’s junior partner is perfectly aware that Putinism cannot be modernized (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 26). Analysts find good entertainment value in comparing the discourses of the two co-rulers, but the conclusion that neither has a clue about how to guide the country out of stagnation to a track of sustainable growth has turned from a heresy into a platitude (Novaya Gazeta, July 24).

The deep indifference in society to the elections is not a symptom of disappointment in democracy but a rational reaction to the fact that the ruling bureaucracy is not prepared to address the real issues that are revealed, or find a solution (www.gazeta.ru, July 15). Putin is staying on the message of stability and trickling-down prosperity, which is exactly what the self-serving bureaucracy wants to hear and the society finds easy and pleasant to digest. In both audiences, nevertheless, there is a growing feeling that “more-of-the-same” is not a sustainable strategy. The elites are not deaf to the persistent warnings from mainstream economists that the industrial base is too dilapidated, the petro-dependency too entrenched and that the pension system is plainly ruinous for the budget (Vedomosti, July 25). The public may be less attentive to expert alarmism, but feels the falling income and the deteriorating habitat, hence the very strong reaction to the Bulgaria tragedy, in which this old and overloaded ship became a symbol of a deeply troubled Russia (Kommersant-Vlast, July 18).

These unarticulated feelings create a latent demand for a new political force that would be able to break the constraints of political correctness Putin-style, and challenge the existing monopoly on power in a meaningful way. The Party of People’s Freedom (or PARNAS) is not quite able to tap into this demand but is nevertheless recognized as a threat and excluded from participating in the elections, though it is trying to reverse this ban in the courts (www.svobodanaroda.org, July 15).
What might help in expanding the space for new politics is the crude manipulation of the coming elections that will inevitably demonstrate the gross inadequacy of the Byzantine-court political system (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 26). There is probably a strong dose of wishful thinking in experts’ musing that a challenger-force must escape from the simplistic taxonomy of pro-Western or jingo-patriotic, but it is clear that this coalition of groups and networks would have to make its case outside the parliament, relying on a combination of street and blogosphere power (Vedomosti, July 26).

The key question in transforming the deep pool of discontent into a coherent political force is about new leaders who would step in front rather than elbow aside the too familiar faces from the 1990’s like Grigory Yavlinsky, Boris Nemtsov or Mikhail Kasyanov. Speculating about where such leaders might come from, Moscow commentators look to independent business, Western universities and, not least, Russian prisons, which provide a high education of a very particular kind (Vedomosti, July 22). An answer to this question could only come as a forceful surprise. It will make Putin’s efforts at reinvigorating his stale image by unleashing a fan-club of teenage girls and Medvedev’s attempts at demonstrating loyalty to his senior partner by causing a scene in Germany about the Quadriga scandal not just petty but ridiculously pathetic. After each political implosion, experts ponder how the ruling clique could be so blind to foster its own downfall; the Russian elections on December 2011 are shaping up as a case for such examination.