Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party received just shy of 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections for Russia’s lower house in parliament, an unexpected blow to the once extremely popular ruler. Amid accusations of ballot stuffing and voter fraud, thousands of Russians have taken to the street to protest. In a continuation of the lively conversations in their new book, Change or Decay, Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood discuss the elections and what they signify about the strength of the Russian regime.

Andrew: The Duma elections seem to me to have taken us a further step toward the “decay” end of the spectrum we identified in our book. At least half of the Russian electorate believed, according to the polls before the voting on December 4, that the results would be rigged. Now the official electoral commission, which can spot with eagle and infallible eye the slightest fault in a comma of the registration list of a party that the Kremlin wishes to ban, refuses even to countenance the possibility that the widespread documented claims of crude falsification of the vote ought to be investigated. And the authorities have flooded the streets of Moscow to prevent even a relatively small number of voters protesting at the declared results of the election. That too looks in its way like an acknowledgement of guilt. The perception that the new Duma is flawed will have increased, surely?

Lilia: The recent Duma elections were one of the dirtiest in the new Russian history, and confirm our earlier conclusion that from now on elections in Russian will only de-legitimize the authority of the regime. During the previous elections in 2004–2005 and in 2007–2008, Russians knew that they were not free and fair. But they did not care much because the economic situation was getting better and, as the Kremlin drummed into our heads, “Russia was getting up from her knees.”

Today the situation has changed dramatically: the economy is losing momentum, people have lost faith that Russia is changing for the better, and the corrupted state is viewed as a major threat. Russians have lost respect for Putin and his team. In fact, there are signs that many Russians are fed up with them. It is unsurprising that only 31 percent of Russians said that they would vote for Putin if the elections were held now, according to a poll taken at the end of November. The last stage of Putin’s saga has begun. We have confirmation that our diagnosis of the decay of the Russian regime is right.

Andrew: The sheer scale of the operation, not least in sensitive and sophisticated places like Moscow, believed to have taken place—and it is the belief that matters here as much as anything—to get United Russia to reach even just under half of the vote is almost incredible. I can see why the government has no intention of revisiting the result. If fraud on this scale were verified, the end result would be a meltdown for United Russia. But clinging to the declared outcome will not convince Russians. There must be considerable numbers of people who know the truth. And even considerable intervention failed to prevent United Russia going into decline.

Obviously, there is an important link here to the presidential election due next March. It wasn’t too hard for us to predict in our book that Putin would seek to return to office in 2012, but even so Dmitri Medvedev’s announcement in September that he would not run for reelection was a striking confirmation that the regime has run out of space in which to maneuver. A return to Putin means that it cannot renew itself as an institution—it’s stuck. And the September announcement had the air of another rushed job, suggesting a certain lack of confidence.

Lilia: In terms of Putin’s plan to return to the presidency, it just shows that Putin never really left the driver’s seat. And the Russian ruling cabal will try to defend the status quo. I only wonder why so many people in Russia and outside have been trying to argue that Medvedev had a real chance to retain the presidency or to pursue his “modernization.”

Andrew: It seems to me that the 2011–2012 electoral cycle confirms what seemed obvious to us when we wrote our book, that the priority for the present ruling group is to remain in control, with the question of what to do with that control very much a secondary one. At any rate both the Duma and the presidential electoral campaigns have so far been empty of real content. There have been plenty of promises but no indication of how they might be realized and plenty of budget money scattered around, but some of it in impracticable ways. For instance, pension hikes were promised but the necessary addition to that, raising the retirement age, has been ruled out. A lot was promised to the military—too much I thought—and for the security forces in general. But is the defense industry ready to answer the call? And why so little for health or education? Or housing? It all seems hand to mouth, incoherent.

Lilia: Elections always (and not only in Russia) trigger the “promise rain.” This time Putin’s team saw their diminishing support (Putin’s approval rating declined from 70 percent several years ago to 44 percent  today with United Russia, according to the opinion polls but not of course the declared result of voting on December 4 at only 32 percent approval) and promised Eldorado to everyone! However, the Kremlin is not confident they can succeed in luring society back. The structure of the Russian budget for the next several years proves that the Kremlin fears that it will be confronted by a tide of dissatisfaction. That is why 33 percent of the budget through 2014 will go to siloviki (politicians from the military and law enforcement). The expenses for the national economy, education, and health care will decrease by 10 percent. It shows that Putin is returning to a “besieged fortress” mentality.

Andrew: Putting a disputed Duma in place will make the sorts of reform that forward looking Russians would like and outside optimists still hope for all the more difficult. And though it remains a reasonable assumption that no effective rival to Putin will emerge, or be allowed to emerge, between now and next March the shadow over his return will not go away. The room available to the next president to push meaningful change without putting the present system in danger is anyway small. Let’s imagine that Medvedev, Putin, and the wider team have listened to the groups that have suggested ways to revive the Russian economy—and there have been quite a number of them. I said let’s imagine! Wouldn’t you have thought that if the next administration intended to make significant reforms then the Russian public would have been given some notice of what they might be? After all, real changes are going to be difficult, and if you do not prepare the ground then the shock can be all the greater. A lot of Western optimists, and maybe some Russians—I do not know how many if any—suppose that once the changeover is complete then the new prime minister (perhaps the self-proclaimed liberal Medvedev or perhaps not) will go forward with “modernization.”

Lilia: You are right! The “dreamers” who recently sang their mantra about “Medvedev the Modernizer” today with the same enthusiasm have started to chant “Putin the Reformer.” They argue that Russia is in a dead end and that Putin will be forced to start liberalization. However, political reform means political competition, which means the possibility of losing power. Meanwhile, Putin’s team is looking for means to guarantee its power forever. Medvedev openly said, “We can’t give away power for the next ten-fifteen years.” What kind of modernization could we anticipate from the team that has made corruption a systemic element of the system, erased opposition, changed the rule of law to a “dictatorship” of their laws? One has to admit that all the hopes for a liberal Russian “tsar” mean only one thing: the desire to be incorporated into the system and at the same time look decent and civilized. Western hopes for Russian liberalization from the top are a good excuse for pragmatic trade-offs with the Russian regime.

Andrew: I thought you might say something like that. But let’s go on with the thought experiment and ask how far the new team could go in making changes without putting their control of the country at risk. I don’t think they could do much beyond some changes in taxation, for instance, or more budgetary restraint and similar adjustments of that nature. How do you see the limits, or is there a way to make better haste slowly?

Lilia: The Kremlin cabal includes shrewd people and quite a few liberal economists. The current regime would have never survived without their guidance and participation. Several teams of professionals are desperately trying to find a new economic agenda that will prolong the life of the system and regime. One could expect that Putin by the end of 2012 will try to cut back on his populist promises and solve the crisis of the pension fund. But all these measures will be cosmetic. One can’t reenergize the economy without guaranteeing private property rights and the rule of law. Hopes for a gradualist approach to economic reform are the new mythology. The “gradualists” can’t explain how they will introduce reforms “one step at a time,” first in specially designed zones and only then in other areas of life? That means that the Kremlin will allow the rule of law and competition in these “gated communities” for the select people who will live there. That was Medvedev’s plan for Skolkovo. However, all Russian Potemkin’s villages have always ended with the same disaster.

Andrew: You also have to ask yourself about how structural reforms might be managed. The way the machinery of government has been drained and corrupted so that too many of its agencies and people have twisted it into a means of extortion instead of protection or efficient administration surely makes it questionable whether the bureaucracy could manage significant reform if instructed to do so, and if it were kept under effective and continuous pressure from the top to do it too. You cannot just sign a law, however elegant it might look, and sit back and wait for paradise to come. So it seems to me that this is a problem too.

Lilia: People view the state and state bureaucracy as a menace. I have to admit that here we can observe the old Russian stereotype: people are suspicious of the state apparatus and try to appeal to the tsar. All attempts to reform the Russian bureaucracy have so far failed. The reason is obvious: these reforms lacked several key components: free media, an independent parliament, and an autonomous judiciary. None of these are part of the regime’s vision.

Andrew: So, just to emerge from the supposition bit I think we agree that in practice the new administration will not want to choose a new and more liberal approach and that while some small changes will no doubt be seen by some in the West as encouraging no fundamental reforms are in the cards. And provided that the eurozone does not meltdown in the meantime, and the Russian economy is reasonably stable—for the next couple of years at any rate—then the government’s hand may not be forced right away. So my bet is that they will do as little as possible and hope for a predictable future. More of the same while they can.

Lilia: Recently an economist close to the government, with acerbic irony, accused me of being an optimist. I said that the Russian system and the current regime could not survive through the next Putin presidency, which is theoretically until 2018. The economist countered that “everything will start to unravel much sooner!” Putin’s return to the Kremlin and his colleagues’ determination to stay in power for the next twelve years (two consecutive presidential terms) means only one thing: that pressure from the outside—revolution—is the only game changer. Russia will continue its path of rot while the Kremlin gradually loses control over the situation or the process speeds up and the system begins to implode. In both cases Russia faces the threat of fragmentation. Today’s calm is deceptive.

Andrew: The trouble with moving slowly is that the problems will not go away and the system will be more vulnerable to shocks. There was a fleeting moment in November when Putin was cat-called at a wrestling match, and looked for a time to be at a loss. Hard to blame him and forgivable, but it was a reminder of the power of the unexpected, even trivial. He looked surprised at the scale of United Russia’s losses on December 4 too. One has to wonder how in touch the leadership as a whole really is. And there have been regional and not so regional incidents in Russia which could have a cumulative effect as they continue. The habit of obedience is not eternal. The Caucasus and oil prices are matters that no doubt trouble the authorities, but both are beyond Moscow’s control. As the legitimacy of the system is undermined—and neither the Duma nor the presidential elections have helped or will help cover the existing cracks—the risks ahead may well become more threatening.

Lilia: The political cycles in Russia are starting to be compressed. It took seventy years for Communism to collapse. It may take twenty-five years for the Russian post-Communist personalized power structure to implode. True, there are still a lot of factors helping the Russian system stay afloat: atomization of society, fear of revolutions, great power complexes, lack of political alternatives, ability to survive, and so on. But we also see quite a few factors at work that accelerate the degradation of the system. Among them, paramount is the unchanging leader and his team. A lot of Russians are getting increasingly impatient and fed-up seeing the same faces every day on state television, for instance. Boredom is political acid, too. The recent Duma elections underlined this reality and will not help Putin pull off a convincing win in March 2012. The authorities may well have to manipulate even more to get him triumphantly back into the Kremlin, let alone to reestablish him as a fully legitimate leader.
Andrew: The West has a duty and an interest in remembering its moral values in dealing with Russia. That is all the more the case given the risks ahead for that country and the poor prospects of its developing adequate channels for addressing them. The reset has had tactical value but is not and cannot be a game changer. Russia suffers from a false sense of being a “great power” and that its proper analogue is the United States. The EU is in trouble, but in real terms it is Russia’s links with the rest of Europe that are the key to the country’s effective integration into the global system. It seems to me that the West’s first duty is to come to a realistic view of Russia’s likely path and not to rely on lazy hope that it will be a comfortable one.

Lilia: I agree. I believe that the “collective” West must urgently understand that Russia continues to be a factor that influences not only Western (and especially) European security, but also the principles on which the West is based. Jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was right when he said that Russia is an exporter of commodities and corruption. The Russian authorities that try to legitimize themselves through aggressive fraud, harassing the opposition, and discrediting democratic mechanisms—as the recent Duma elections show—only push Russia further into the blind valley which makes revolution the only exit solution. Putin’s Russia, frustrated and angry, could become a serious global challenge for the West.

Andrew: No one’s vision of the future is infallible, and neither of us would claim to know what will happen over the next six years, let alone the next twelve years, but we need to consider the possibility of things going badly wrong for Russia in that timescale. We are particularly struck by the fact that this fear is so much stronger in Russia than it is in the West.