The Kremlin’s Big Gamble

Can Vladimir Putin's simulated democracy survive another rigged election?


Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s announcement on Sept. 24, 2011, of a choreographed plan in which he would displace Dmitry Medvedev and return to the Russian presidency — for six, and possibly 12, more years – has evidently touched a raw nerve in Russian society.

In the five months since the Russian public was handed this fait accompli, Putin has been booed during an appearance at a mixed martial arts match, increasingly ridiculed on the Internet, and seen his party, United Russia, fail to win a majority in parliamentary elections last Dec. 4, despite extensive fraud in its favor. Large, peaceful protests across the country since those elections — including one this past Sunday in which demonstrators circled Moscow’s Ring Road — represent a clear indicator of the desire for change.

With Russian society now expressing its preference for accountable governance with increasing boldness, voters will return to the polls on March 4 for the country’s presidential election. But despite the obvious dissatisfaction with the status quo, Putin has decided to double down on the stagnant and corrosive model of rule created under his leadership.

The electoral framework put in place over the last decade leaves little to chance and allows no plausible alternative to the incumbent come voting day. As a consequence, Russia’s political system has reached a dead end.

We’ve seen all this before. In a similarly choreographed process four years ago, Putin installed then Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the presidency as a placeholder, while he took shelter temporarily in the prime minister’s office to get around violating a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms. Now, Putin is ready to reclaim his post and the Putin-Medvedev succession carousel is completing its long rotation.

While Putin’s determination to retain power has not changed, Russian society has. An increasingly restive population has had its fill of Putinism and is now unwilling to be steamrolled by the Kremlin’s plans. But will Russia’s leadership pursue genuine reforms to meet the country’s changing expectations?

Unfortunately, events since the December parliamentary elections suggest that the answer is no.

An early indicator was the Central Election Commission decision on Jan. 27 to disqualify prominent opposition figure Grigory Yavlinsky from running in the presidential race. This politically driven decision removed the strongest liberal-minded challenger from the race. It also means that observers from Yavlinsky’s Yabloko Party will not be permitted to monitor the voting and detect possible fraud.

The sole independent Russian election-monitoring organization, Golos, has been subjected to a media smear campaign and was forced to leave its main Moscow office on Feb. 15 in what is undoubtedly an attempt by Kremlin officials to disrupt its work before the election. Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission chairman, Vladimir Churov, who sanctified the fraudulent December elections, remains in place and is presumably ready to deliver whatever is needed when Putin comes calling on March 4.

Independent media has also been suppressed. Following a direct verbal attack by Putin in January, Ekho Moskvy, the Moscow-based radio station known for its hard-hitting journalism and commentary, finds itself under increasing pressure. The station’s state-owned controlling shareholder, Gazprom Media, moved on Feb. 14 to dissolve Ekho Moskvy’s board of directors in what could be the first step in circumscribing the outlet’s coverage of the election. Then, on Feb. 16, Russian prosecutors opened an investigation into the independent online television station, Dozhd TV, for its coverage of two major opposition rallies in Moscow late last year.

Meanwhile, state-dominated broadcast television, whose news and information reaches the largest segment of the Russian public, has held true to form. In the last several weeks, slavish, glowing coverage of Putin has been combined with attacks vilifying newly arrived U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul and independently minded Russian civil society. Anti-Americanism on state television news is reaching a fevered pitch. And on Monday, state television reported an assassination plot against Putin "uncovered" in Ukraine — news greeted with considerable skepticism among observers who suspect a last-minute effort to drum up sympathy for Putin.

It isn’t as though the authorities are entirely ignoring the reform issue. Putin, for his part, recently authored a number of high-profile articles touting the importance of reform. One of these, a front-page item published on Feb. 6 by the Russian daily Kommersant and titled "Democracy and the Quality of Governance," used the word "democracy" more than 20 times and cited the pressing need for changes, including improvements to the country’s judiciary, its environment for civil society, and its efforts to combat runaway corruption.

But such words from Putin ring hollow after his 12 years of hobbling democratic institutions. Freedom House findings chronicle a grim record of across-the-board decline during the Putin era, including in the areas of judicial independence, media freedom, anticorruption, and the election process.

Despite growing calls for a more open, consensual form of governance, Putin and the Kremlin are charging forward to secure another presidential term without any real plans for engaging disaffected citizens or implementing the reforms they seek. As one Russian analyst, Vladimir Frolov, recently observed, "Putin was built for one-way conversations."

As growing public demands for change run up against the system’s fundamental rigidity, the stakes are very high. Russia’s entire authoritarian infrastructure is under enormous pressure to hand Putin a first-round victory on March 4. But the usual bag of tricks may not be sufficient to cobble together more than 50 percent of the vote. Some independent polls are placing Putin below that level, and many of his critics are unifying behind an "anyone but Putin" movement.

Even if the system delivers the required results, clear evidence of rigging may lead voters to reject the election as unfair and illegitimate. Moreover, the authorities’ stifling of the Russian public’s voice runs the risk of creating an even more combustible environment in the period after March 4. The balloting, whatever its outcome, is therefore unlikely to extinguish the rising desire for real change. Unless and until that change is permitted, Putin’s continued pursuit of simulated democracy will fail to achieve even a simulation of stability.

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