Feature

Russia: The beginning of the end of Putin?

Putin's United Russia party won the parliamentary election and will keep control of the State Duma, but it lost the two-thirds majority that allows it to change the constitution at will.

What a farce, said the London Times in an editorial. The “manipulation, corruption, and fraud” that characterized Russia’s parliamentary election this week were as blatant as in Soviet days. The Kremlin used every trick in the book to ensure that United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, kept control of the State Duma. The only serious opposition party was banned, and state media aired nonstop propaganda for candidates supporting the policies of Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev. State workers were ordered to support Putin’s party, and “clergy were ordered to instruct their congregations” on how to vote. The ever-popular “none of the above” ballot option, a way for voters to express a protest vote, was eliminated. As a final touch, in the run-up to the vote, some 15,000 members of Nashi (Ours), the “sinister Kremlin youth movement,” were deployed in major cities “to reinforce the thuggish message to anyone daring to stand up to the Putin line.” And right after the vote, when the independent election monitoring group documented thousands of instances of ballot-box stuffing, its leader was arrested and its website closed.

Yet despite all that pressure, Russians dared to make their true voice heard, said Yulia Latynina in The Moscow Times. United Russia did keep a majority of seats—how could it not?—but it lost the two-thirds majority that allows it to change the constitution at will. Apparently, even with near-total control of the media, “there are some things you can drive into people’s heads and some things you cannot.” For example, you can convince people “that the West is out to destroy Russia” and that Putin is a paragon of strength and virtue. “But you cannot convince people that Russia is building new roads, hospitals, or schools, that the authorities are reducing corruption, or that people’s democratic rights are being protected.” Russians know that their system does not serve them. Most had no illusions that any other party they might vote for would be better—but they sent a signal that they don’t like the one in charge. “Putin’s system is disintegrating with frightening speed.”

Don’t underestimate Putin, said Mikhail Rostovsky in Moskovsky Komsomolets. He has lost nothing by allowing United Russia to give up some of its Duma seats—in fact, it could be a “masterful political maneuver.” By showing the Russian people that their votes mattered, he may have “thrown them a juicy bone” and defused much of the discontent. Still, the trend is against him. Many Russians were left grumbling after Putin and Medvedev announced that they plan to switch places next year, setting Putin up for two more six-year terms with no pretense of a real democratic contest. We could see “a gradual erosion in the legitimacy of the authorities.” And that could lead to unrest, said the Moscow Vedomosti. “A lot will depend on whether the authorities take this election as a signal to begin dialogue with society—or as a pretext to dig in.”

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