Protesters crying foul, armoured vehicles in the streets -- is this what an election victory looks like in Putin's Russia?
On Monday night, 24 hours after the polls closed in Russia’s parliamentary elections and United Russia claimed victory with 49 percent of the vote, some 6,000 young Russians stood out in the cold rain in the park at Chistye Prudy voicing their dissatisfaction. "Putin is a thief!" and "Russia without United Russia!" they shouted, teasing the once-and-future president by calling him Mr. Botox.
When they started to march and the riot police attacked, they didn’t budge. They yelled "This is our city!" and "Shame on you!" and appealed to the police as fellow citizens. "Are you ashamed when you go home and take off that uniform?" one protester asked a helmeted cop. It was an exceptional sight in a city that rarely sees more than a few hundred elderly protestors at opposition rallies. Today, despite the controversy over the elections and rumors swirling about those detained last night and more protests later in the evening, the feeling of euphoria in Moscow is unmistakable, uplifting, and addictive.
But, even if this is the beginning of something big and civic and beautiful — a "Russian Tahrir" as one of the speakers at last night’s rally predicted — it’s still very much the beginning, and still very much a big "if." The opposition — a disorganized group of small organizations and unaffiliated well-wishers — will have an uphill battle to fight its way to power, or to get United Russia to concede an inch of ground. And this despite a rather embarrassing showing at the polls.
As the parliamentary vote approached, United Russia was slipping in public opinion polls and was being booed at public events. In May, one third of Russians polled agreed with the Internet meme created by blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny that it was "the party of crooks and thieves." By Sunday, election day, the figure had to be still higher. The Kremlin began to lash out, attacking the one independent election monitor in Russia, shuttering media sites popular with the young liberal intelligentsia, as well as LiveJournal, Russia’s main blogging platform with 13 million users.
On Sunday, when Russians went to the polls, reports of widespread fraud abounded. Lenta.ru‘s Ilya Azar reported on how he participated in a "carousel," a Russian electoral innovation wherein voters are bused around to various polling stations, voting for United Russia at each stop. I observed the ballot count in Yasenevo, in Moscow’s southwest, where suspiciously neat stacks of ballots — all for United Russia — appeared whenever a ballot box was cracked open and its contents counted. Of the voters I spoke to, many had come out for the first time in a decade just to cast a ballot in protest against United Russia’s monopoly on the political process. Of those that voted for them (and, to be fair, there were quite a few genuine, staunch supporters of Putin and United Russia) I met one young man who had asked the officials registering him to vote if they had any suggestions. "They told me, ‘If you vote for United Russia, you’ll have a surprise waiting for you,’" he explained outside the polling station near my apartment. When he got into the booth, there was a black plastic bag waiting for him. Inside was a bottle of vodka and some plastic cups.
And yet, despite all this, despite the impossible numbers in places like Chechnya — 99.5 percent voter turnout, 99.48 percent of whom voted for United Russia — the ruling party couldn’t even get 50 percent of the vote. By Monday morning, with most of the votes counted, United Russia’s share of the Duma stood at 49.5 percent. (Last time there was a parliamentary election, in 2007, United Russia got 64.3 percent.) The percentages of the so-called systemic opposition — the Communists, the nationalist LDPR, and the left-leaning Just Russia — for whom people were voting mostly in protest, doubled. In many regions, United Russia’s share of the vote hovered around one-third.
But the euphoria in liberal Moscow circles started on Sunday night, when the exit polls and preliminary results showed the first signs of United Russia being unable to break the 50 percent barrier. It really did feel like a crushing blow, all things — and carousels — considered: United Russia was denied its constitutional, monopolistic majority in the Duma — an important psychological, if not actually relevant, milestone. Moreover, the wires were full of statements by United Russia officials saying that the "new Duma" would be "a place for discussion." (United Russia party boss and Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov once famously, and unfortunately, said "the parliament is not a place for discussion.")
But by Monday, United Russia was digging in its heels, or at the very least, trying to spin the defeat. "This was a victory," Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, told me. "Not a protest. There are, of course, people who are less satisfied, but it is totally normal in a country that has gone through the hard years of an economic crisis. I wouldn’t blow it out of proportion." This was a common trope in the United Russia response to Sunday’s results was the difficulty presented by the economic crisis, a crisis we’ve only started hearing about after the election: Russia’s economy has grown by a pretty healthy four percent a year for the last two years. This was something Kremlin officials speaking at forums for international investors never ceased to remind us.
This was the reason that Robert Shlegel, a 26-year-old Duma deputy and commissar of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group, also gave me for the dampened results. Somehow, though, it was also the emergence of good things that explained the growing dissatisfaction with United Russia: The number of Internet users in Russia, for example, as well as the emergence of a middle class — things for which United Russia, in his view, deserves the credit. "And the quality of people’s demands in the towns has changed, from questions of how to survive to how to live," Shlegel said. "They have what to eat and what to drive, the question now is how to live with dignity and justice." People’s desire to go out on the street, according to Shlegel, comes not from the fact that dignity or justice are denied them, but because there is simply too much good stuff around. "There would be no corruption if there was no money in the system, if we weren’t building so much, if we didn’t have such fast development of Internet," he says. "Considering all these factors, I am satisfied by this result."
As for increased cooperation and real discussion in a Duma known to be Vladimir Putin’s rubber stamp, Peskov reminded me that United Russia still had a majority. "For questions of a constitutional character" — for which you need two-thirds of the vote — "we will need to work more thoroughly." Shlegel also echoed Peskov: "We’ll need coalition only to pass certain laws of a constitutional character. We still have a majority and we don’t need the support of other parties."
Here’s another reason for United Russia’s losses that will surprise you. Yuri Kotler, Gryzlov’s advisor and a member of the party’s younger, liberal wing, explained that the decreased numbers were due to the party’s shift in a more liberal, open direction. "We placed a bet on new mechanisms, on openness," he said. Did this imply that the old mechanisms were restrictive? That their removal now allowed people to vent an accumulation of, shall we say, bad feelings? The old mechanism, Kotler explained, "was a monopoly, and it was refurbished, but there was no political competition," Kotler said. "This isn’t United Russia’s problem: there were simply no worthy competitors."
This constant complaint from United Russia officials — that there is simply no one to talk to — rings a bit hollow coming from a party that was built up while the rest of the political field was systematically slashed and burned. If there are no worthy competitors, it is purely by design. Moreover, it’s curious to hear talk of United Russia cooperating or not cooperating with the three other parties that made it into the Duma, parties that, in one way or another and despite any isolated, regional herniations of independence, are curated, funded, and tightly controlled by Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Karl Rove. (His response to the election results, which appeared in an interview with an obscure Internet outlet, was the most sour: He asked liberals to "stop whining — it’s annoying.")
This was, it turns out, a very smart move, because all the protest votes went to these very parties: either the Communists, populated mostly by the embittered elderly; the stooge LDPR, meant to channel nationalist sentiment into a loyal vessel; and the left-leaning Just Russia, which Surkov created ahead of the 2007 Duma elections to weaken the Communists. This is why they are called the systemic opposition, because their very existence — and the lack of existence of others — is predicated on one simple thesis: loyalty to the Kremlin above all. So even if these parties come back to the Duma newly invigorated by voters, rather than by Surkov, they will be easily cowed or enticed into cooperation with United Russia. Any impulse of reform (which United Russia officials made sure to mention, if vaguely) will still not come from them.
And yet, even this small victory was enough to send crowds of liberals — usually content to share their disgruntlement on Twitter and Facebook — into the cold and rainy streets last night. However, by Tuesday morning there was no sign that the Kremlin was bowing to any pressure. Two thousand Nashi supporters were bused in for a rally by St. Basil’s Cathedral, and, perhaps for greater convenience, United Russia planned its own rally nearby, outside the Kremlin walls, called "Clean Victory!" The opposition sent people into Triumfalnaya Square, in central Moscow, where they were drowned out by thousands of Nashi and United Russia Molodaya Gvardia (Young Guard) activists banging on drums and screaming "Only Putin! Only victory!"
This morning, Moscow awoke to armored vehicles rumbling into town. The Interior Ministry confirmed the heightened security — 50,000 extra police and 11,500 Interior Ministry troops — "during the election period, through the end of the ballot count." Three hundred people, arrested Monday night’s demonstration, are sill in jail. Two hundred more joined them there tonight.
It took until Tuesday afternoon for Putin to concede some "losses." Once again, he blamed them on the economic crisis we haven’t heard about since 2009. "In today’s conditions," he said, "it’s a good result." Then he added something very telling, and vaguely eerie. "You and I know and see what happens not very long ago in countries with far more stable economies and social spheres, where millions of people come out into the streets," he said. If anyone wondered what the Kremlin was planning should that scenario happen in Russia, or why the Kremlin tripled army salaries this year, the events of the last few days — and the armored vehicles patrolling Moscow’s streets — should be explanation enough.