A Happy Defeat for the Kremlin

Putin's party loses seats, drops in the polls, gets caught out in election violations. So why is this spokesman grinning?

РИА Новости. Алексей Никольский
РИА Новости. Алексей Никольский

As polls in 76 of Russia’s 83 regions were beginning to close on March 14, Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the Russian parliament and the No. 2 member of the ruling United Russia party (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is head honcho), opened an evening press conference. It seemed like it should be a grim night for the UR spokesman. The elections were the first since blatant fraud during the Oct. 11 regional vote triggered a major political crisis, causing even the token opposition to walk out of the federal parliament for a week and forcing President Dmitry Medvedev to address the deeply rotten resources-distribution trough that, in Russia, is usually referred to as the "electoral system."

Worse for Gryzlov, this time the scam seemed to be failing. Despite continual reports of polling-place fraud, it seemed that months of sporadic but well-attended protests around the country had made a dent in United Russia’s hegemony. For the first time ever, the party failed to lock up results that once regularly topped the two-thirds mark. In Boris Yeltsin’s home region of Sverdlovsk, United Russia walked away with only 39 percent of the vote (the last time Sverdlovsk voted, in 2007, UR pulled in 59 percent). Irkutsk elected a Communist mayor with over 62 percent.

But Gryzlov looked rested, cheerful, as if he wasn’t standing in front of a crowd of reporters waiting to grill him on the upset. Most bizarrely, unlike the be-suited party notables flanking him on the dais, Gryzlov was wearing a thick sweater whose shade of opulent ivory implied visits to Courchevel and half-finished glasses of mulled wine.

Surprised, a reporter from a state wire asked Gryzlov if he thought wearing a sweater to an elections press conference was appropriate.

Gryzlov chuckled and said that it was, because this was in fact his lucky sweater. "I only wear this sweater on election day," he explained. "It’s a tradition that began many years ago, and we always win." The sweater, he added, "symbolizes our victory."

Gryzlov’s sweater wasn’t just for show: Sunday’s elections were actually a major victory for his party. Yes, there were UR violations — tales of vodka drinking at the polling places in Tula, bused-in factory workers in Yekaterinburg — though, United Russia hastened to add, the opposition committed infractions, too. Yes, United Russia had suffered electoral setbacks, gaining its usual stratospheric figures only in the oil-and-gas-rich Arctic wasteland of Yamalo-Nenets autonomous okrug, with 65 percent of the vote. Yes, the Communists had doubled their showings in certain places, and yes, even Yabloko, the liberal party of the also-rans, had done well, garnering an unprecedented 11.4 percent of the vote in Tula.

But after October’s debacle, Sunday was exactly what United Russia needed: The elections got minimal press, the vote was relatively clean, and those who needed to be fed got their piece of the pie. The shrewd party decision to give up some local votes allows the Kremlin-engineered system of plunder to carry on with only very minor adjustments.

In understanding the Kremlin’s strategy over the last few months, it’s hard to overstate the impact of October. The vote-rigging was beyond blatant. There was compulsory voting, forgery and vote-buying, intimidation and physical violence, and carouseling (taking a bus of loyal voters around to various polling stations so they can vote more than once). And even though everyone, including employees of the Russian Central Election Commission, understands that the vote will always be doctored in United Russia’s favor, the unnecessary brazenness in the regional elections shocked even the loyal, token opposition, which lost way too many seats to stay quiet. Unexpectedly, they stormed out of the federal Duma and refused to come back until they met with the president. It took all the Kremlin’s men — and prizes — to bring them back again.

Since then, the climate has been risky for the Kremlin for other reasons, as the touted post-crisis recovery fails to materialize for most Russians. Unemployment continues to creep upwards (it is officially around 10 percent, but many think it is actually much higher), and 300 or so "mono-towns" — one-industry cities — are still bankrupt, hooked up to a tenuous trickle of Kremlin bailout.

In the meantime, the number of Russian billionaires has doubled, and Moscow-appointed governors have been pursuing unpopular policies like raising utility fees and import tariffs in a confused attempt to please the capital. And though Russians will rarely take to the streets over vague abstractions like "democracy," you’d be surprised how many will show up when you take away their cars. When Kaliningrad raised car-import duties in January, for instance, an unprecedented 12,000 people turned out to demonstrate, and what started as a bread-and-butter protest quickly turned political as protesters began to demand Putin’s removal. (A follow-up protest planned for this weekend was canceled after the movement’s leader was convincingly threatened by the Russian government.)

Since then, dozens of protests have followed, drawing thousands in Arkhangelsk, Samara, Penza, Voronezh, and culminating in a protest in the far eastern region of Primorye, where 2,000 people — in a town of 15,000 — rallied for clean air on the eve of the election.

The Kremlin is careful about managing such things, as the social contract in Russia stipulates that the public must be fed if the top is to eat more. So the top responded, but not exactly in the way protesters had envisioned.

The process was on full display in Irkutsk. The region had a defunct paper mill that polluted Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. Putin allowed the mill, which was the town’s main employer, to be reopened and operated at a loss for the town’s benefit, which pleased some people and irked others. Along came a rogue UR candidate for mayor who ran against the plant — that is, against Putin. United Russia quickly disqualified him but allowed the Communist candidate to win without ramming another of its own candidates down Irkutsk’s throat.

In the end, everyone was happy. The opposition got to score a major victory against United Russia (the Communists seemed to gather the most "protest" anti-United Russia votes this election), United Russia bypassed the chance of a truly political protest, and yet nothing was really in danger. The day after the elections, a United Russia official announced his party would closely supervise the newly elected mayor: After all, they still have 33 of the 35 seats in the local parliament.

And the Russian public appears to be, if not happy, at least satisfied with Sunday’s elections. Mainstream press coverage has been minimal and largely positive, and the state prosecutor’s office quickly wrapped up any loose ends by announcing that any violations had had no impact on the election results. Two days later, the official opposition seems appeased as well. Now that everyone got their pieces of the pie, just as Medvedev suggested they should back in November, the days after the vote have passed quietly, a quiet that smacks of a deep and pleasant satisfaction.

Observers, on the other hand, noted that little had changed since the contentious fall vote. "It was the same as October, no better, no worse," says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, an election-monitoring NGO. The only difference, he noted, was there were fewer observers and no elections in Moscow, where there is a high concentration of journalists and monitors and such fraud would have been easily noticed. "No journalist is going to go to God knows where, and the local press will only write good news, or write nothing at all," he added. Expecting the expected, only the U.S. Embassy sent an observer.

Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, calls the elections "a manipulative succes." "The parties don’t represent the people’s interest, but they have their own interests," she says. The situation in October threatened the delicate system of Kremlin control by bringing the loyal opposition into conflict with the Kremlin itself, and "this was a self-correcting maneuver," Lipman adds. "Apparently, it’s possible." (On Tuesday, the Russian business daily Vedomosti confirmed that this had been the case. According to an unnamed Kremlin source, the Kremlin had purposely refrained from overinflating the vote in order to avoid a repeat of October.)

No wonder Gryzlov was the picture of contentment, delighted with the hat trick his bosses had pulled off. "This says something about the system, that it works well," he told the journalists. "The opposition is important to us," he added, as if describing the hired help. "Even losses are important."

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