Tens of thousands of Russians took to the street last weekend in protest over voter fraud allegations in the country’s parliamentary elections. Carnegie Moscow Center experts analyze the election results and what the public response might mean for the country’s future.

Dmitri Trenin

Following the Duma elections on December 4, 2011, the political situation in Russia has changed. The current Russian political system, which I call authoritarianism with the consent of the governed, can run only as long as that consent is granted. This was the case in 2007 and in 2003. This was not the case in 2011. Even according to the official count, which is disputed by the opposition, the ruling party received just under one-half of the votes. Even though Vladimir Putin remains the country’s most popular politician by far, his Teflon coating has visibly cracked.

The main reason for this is that the Russian people have stirred. Having spent the last decade focused on their private lives, they are beginning to turn to the public sphere. Moscow and St. Petersburg have seen the biggest rallies since the 1990s. With many people more affluent than ever before in the entire history of Russia, the level of popular tolerance has changed. The authorities’ traditionally cavalier behavior, acceptable even a few years ago, is suddenly inviting resistance. The Putin-Medvedev position swap, announced in September, was taken as an insult. Dmitry Medvedev has since been dismissed as irrelevant; Putin was booed.

This change of mood does not mean regime change—yet. What it promises is livelier politics. Parties and politicians will be judged according to how they manage to represent and articulate various popular demands, rather than on the basis of their proximity to the Kremlin’s masters of the game. These demands are very diverse and are sometimes hard to reconcile. Encompassing socialists, liberals, and conservatives; big, medium, and small businesses; major urban centers, small towns, and the countryside; ethnic Russian and non-Russian regions, including the very special case of the North Caucasus: Russia’s sociopolitical spectrum is as wide as the country itself.

The new situation is open-ended. Mr. Putin faces a choice between “hard” and “soft” lines. Either will be difficult; he has never ruled without overwhelming support or at least acquiescence, which is now slipping. He may try both: clamping down on some people, while co-opting others. A lot will depend on how these others—communists, nationalists, populists, and liberals—adjust to the new situation and develop their strategies and tactics. At best, the outcome may lead to a new Russian republic; at worst, Russia itself may become a mess.

The outside world has been watching Russia’s stirrings with a mixture of amazement, hope, and fear. There is a broad recognition that the Russian political system is up to the Russians themselves to fix or replace. There has also been criticism of the Russian government, for example, from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and there have been expressions of solidarity with the opposition. This reaction is immediately picked up by the Kremlin and used as evidence that Russia’s opposition is, in fact, a tool of the West. When two electoral campaigns coincide, they can resonate quite powerfully.

Maria Lipman

In Russia, the vote of defiance was followed by defiance in the streets. And though the protesters’ cause is vague, a new constituency of young and angry Russians has come forward with a political message: United Russia, the leadership, and Vladimir Putin are not wanted.

Egregious abuse of government and police authority, social injustice, lawlessness, and abominable corruption bred discontent over the past years, but this discontent remained a subject of nongovernment media coverage and a matter of angry exchange on the Web.

In the past, political action failed to attract people, and political rallies brought together mere hundreds. The government drew on less advanced or critically minded constituencies and bought their loyalties with generous social spending. The virtual political monopoly established by Putin and his elites enabled them to ignore media exposures of wrongdoing or voices of criticism and contempt. In the meantime, contempt ran deeper and broader than the government was ready to accept. United Russia, the chief pro-Kremlin force in the Russian legislature, was commonly branded “a party of swindlers and thieves”—a nickname launched by Alexey Navalny, a popular blogger and anticorruption activist. Today, Navalny is easily the single most popular figure among the informal opposition.

The political scene had been thoroughly cleansed from any unwelcome forces or figures, public participation was all but fully eliminated, and the government and the people lived under an informal, nonintrusive pact, or a divorce contract: the government made the decisions and the people minded their own business. As long as the government would not intrude, people accepted that they did not make a difference and engaged in their pursuits.

The election brought the “divorcees”—the state and the people—back closer together, forcing a vote of allegiance to the government that many had come to detest. 

The trading-places trick between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev roughly two months before the election further deepened the existing disgruntlement. We decided on this many years ago, Medvedev said, hardly trying even to pretend that the people had a say in how their leadership is chosen. Putin’s comeback—even if expected—came as a shock to many among the already discontented constituencies. “Oh no, not for another twelve years,” was a broadly shared perception. 

The government, aware of the quickly souring mood, rushed to get out the desired vote. In an attempt to deliver a higher turnout, administrators of various levels opted for shamelessly unlawful tricks. Activists and election observers were harassed and popular websites that joined the effort to expose the election fraud were cut off by cyber attacks that incapacitated them for the length of the election day. 

Combined, this generated unprecedented antigovernment mobilization. Suddenly, the generally depoliticized younger constituencies rushed to take part in the vote—with the sole purpose of undermining the party of swindlers and thieves. Anything went—taking the ballot home, tearing it up right there at the precinct, writing something funny or insulting on it as a way of making it invalid, or voting for any party included on the ballot regardless of what it stood for. In an amazing outbreak of civic responsibility, throngs of citizens volunteered to be election observers; many others reported instances of fraud and distributed this information on the Internet.

United Russia gained about 50 percent, down from 64 back in 2007. Numerous allegations of fraud strongly suggest that the real drop is more significant—some rough estimates have it at below 40 percent.

The protest rallies held during the days following the election in Moscow and other cities condemned the election fraud, but unlike the Orange revolution in Ukraine, Russian protesters’ message is vague. In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko was the real victor, and the crowd—much larger than in Russia—wanted him for president. In Russia, the protesters know who stole the election, but they do not have a party that they want or like. All they have is a bunch of informal leaders, with their marginal parties effectively barred by the Kremlin from the political field. None of these leaders has nationwide awareness, let alone support.

The postelection protest movement has gained momentum—tens of thousands took part in the rally in Moscow on Saturday, December 10. But Russia is not Tunisia or Egypt: it’s a vast country, large parts of it are forbiddingly cold in December; there’s still too little cohesion; and the disillusionment of the previous upheaval twenty years ago when the Soviet Union collapsed is still vivid.

But the December 2011 elections signal a shift: Putin’s charisma is dispelled, his power is weakened, and his political monopoly will continue to wane. Even more significant has been a shift in the public mindset: a sense—especially among the younger, previously apolitical “online” constituencies—that politics matter and a desire to make a difference.

Alexey Malashenko

What is the postelection suspense all about?

First, it convincingly showed the Russian authorities that people are fed up with them and do not expect anything good from them.

Second, it showed a shift in public protest from the passive to the semi-passive or semi-active stage. Although, despite the widespread public indignation, only a portion of 1 percent of disgruntled voters actually took to the streets.

Third, this election was seen by many as just an interim event, a kind of run-up to the more significant presidential election in March 2012. That election could become the real “hour X” for the authorities. In the coming spring, the ruling class will launch into battle its heaviest and final reserve: Vladimir Putin himself. If Putin loses—that is, if he demonstrates a lack of popularity—this would destabilize the elite and increase tension between the federal center and the regions, collapsing the already unsteady power vertical.

If Putin wins, if he confirms his authority and the hopes placed on him, the ruling class will breathe a sigh of relief—and will not want to work for the country’s good, will not want to change anything further, and will not want to change themselves, postponing all innovation and modernization for better days to come. Putin’s success would give them another respite and, from their point of view, show that political reform is unnecessary (for the elite). It is also impossible to count on the “old-new” president to launch innovations to restructure the country’s politics and economy. He is a politician already set in his ways and given to ever greater self-assurance that at times takes on shades of narcissism.

In this scenario, the state would sink even deeper into general stagnation and continue its road to nowhere.

Fourth, this explains the tactic chosen by the ruling class, above all Putin’s direct entourage, of assuring their man a genuinely high rating, lowering the protest mood among the public, and making people forget United Russia’s failures in the parliamentary election. This will require taking some action and some maneuvers, which is precisely what Putin’s entourage has started doing.

For example, it will be necessary to separate the unsuccessful United Russia party from its leader. The idea that Putin has some supposed program of his own (Where is it?) that differs somehow from that of United Russia has already been voiced. Some say that United Russia needs to be completely reformatted, though time has already run out for this. We thus cannot rule out the possibility that Putin might preside over the creation of some new and more attractive institution.

Talk has begun again of decentralizing more power and giving it to the regions. Concrete results in the fight against corruption will obviously be announced, along with the names of the main wrongdoers. The new cabinet will clearly not include politicians the public dislikes, and people from opposition parties within the system might even be invited to join it. Putin’s rhetoric will be adjusted to take voters’ moods into account, making a more leftist turn and probably gaining an air of nationalism, too.

Finally, the Kremlin spin doctors will have to come up with a couple of original and clever tricks to improve their client’s image; seeing him driving a Zhiguli and combine harvesters or retrieving amphora from the seabed no longer draws anything but laughs.

Along with their attempts to make the public like them, the authorities will be tougher in crushing any displays of opposition of the kind that have been bringing not hundreds but thousands of people into the streets in the postelection days. A tightening of controls in the information sphere is also likely.

At the same time, the authorities will step up their efforts to inculcate in people the image of Russia as a besieged fortress facing external threats that can be defended only if everyone consolidates firmly and without question around the government. This tendency was already emerging just before the election.

The high protest momentum will probably fade by the presidential election. Moscow’s Triumfalnaya, Manezhnaya, and Pushkinskaya Squares will not become Cairo’s Maidan Tahrir or Kiev’s plain old “maidan.” At the very least, keeping up the momentum would require effective organizational structures that do not exist at the moment. The opposition outside the system is weak, and as for the communists, or even more the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, they obviously prefer the parliamentary “bird in the hand” to the uncertain and risky “two in the bush.” A Just Russia is also unlikely to take to the streets.

No one doubts that Putin will become president again. But people are saying now that he will not win outright and that he, and all of us, will have to face a second round. Will Putin and his colleagues allow this to happen? That is the next bit of suspense.

Sergei Aleksashenko

Though the RTS Index fell the day after elections, I’m not ready to overestimate the influence of a) political developments on stock market—historically it is rather weak—or b) the stock market on the overall economic situation—the connection in Russia between the stock indexes and the economy is also very weak. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to Duma elections, as in modern Russia, parliament is not the organ that determines economic policy. Policy is determined by the government, and we don’t know yet what the new government will look like.

As a result of the Duma elections, nothing should change, in principle. The Duma is not going to be a counterbalance to the government even to a minor degree. If something does generate shifts in economic policy, it will be the composition of the government, while the new government may emerge next week, or in March, or even in May.

The crucial economic issue in Russia today is the poor investment climate—and that does not depend on the allocation of seats in the Duma. Everyone understands that the majority will belong to United Russia while the exact number of that majority is not important. The most important committees within the Duma will remain under the control of United Russia, and the party is going to retain a monopoly on power. It will not look for any changes in economic policy unless it receives the signal from the Kremlin.

Dmitri Trenin

For the first time in many years, investors have to factor in a significant amount of political risk. At this point, many people think the protests will be contained, and short-lived, but I wouldn't bank on that. There will be ebbs and flows, to be sure. However, while a “post-Putin Russia” has not been seen yet, and a “liberal Russia” remains a pipe dream, there will be no return to the relatively docile pre-December 4 situation.

In the run-up to the elections, Vladimir Putin will seek all the support he can marshal and will turn populist. Reforms, if he had them in mind, are likely to be postponed still further. There will be more government spending, in the short term, to curry favor with various sectors of the electorate. To get the funding for that, oil and gas sector companies, and metals producers, will probably be taxed more heavily. On the other hand, price hikes in electricity, communal services, and so on are likely to be reduced.

That said, in view of the sudden uncertainty, I would expect some of those that already have investments in Russia to look for the exit, and those on the way in to pause. 

Natalia Bubnova

It is still too early to say what the real results of the voting actually were. The copies of the voting protocols that the observers from parties received are still being calculated and the objective results are expected to become known this week. What is clear, however, is that the voting was manipulated on a massive scale and that the results can be considered a failure by United Russia. It will not be a defeat in a sense of Vladimir Putin losing power, but definitely in the sense that the ruling party, despite the manipulations, was not able to win even half of the votes.
According to experts’ estimates, the undistorted results of the elections are as follows: from 24 to 30 percent for United Russia; from 5 to 12 percent for Yabloko; around 14 percent for A Just Russia; and 24 to 25 percent for the Communist Party. They state that each of the “alternative” parties received several percentage points less than they would have if the election had been conducted fairly.

Experts also note that there might have been more manipulation with regard to Yabloko, the only of the above-mentioned parties of the “non-system opposition”—that is, not currently in the Duma or in any way associated with current authorities (Yabloko also used to be called the party of intelligensia). The authorities did not want Yabloko to get even 5 percent because that would have allowed the party’s leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, to run for the presidency without collecting the 2 million signatures that he will now need to appear on the ballot (his party received just over 3 percent of the votes according to the official tally). It is a pity though that many, especially young supporters of Yabloko connected through social networks, decided to follow the call of the prominent blogger and anticorruption activist Alexey Navalny to vote for any party but United Russia and refrained from voting for Yabloko for fear that their vote would be lost or “recalculated” in favor of the winners.
Although it is also too early to say whether the scope of manipulations during this election was higher than during previous ones, there are indications that the people’s impression that this was indeed the case is rooted in reality. An unprecedented number of absentee ballots, exceeding 2.6 million, had been distributed, which were used by ruling party activists to vote several times on one ballot. A member of the Central Election Committee’s supervision group for the use of the country’s automatic voting system, Kirill Serdyukov, refused to sign the resolution confirming that the elections took place according to the law because he found missing the accompanying information center’s documentation. It goes on and on. The whole of Russia’s social media is full of personal accounts, videos, and photographed documents attesting to fraud. So the information on vast manipulations was not only due to the fact that observers were better prepared—which they were—or that people had less tolerance to rigging and more technologies to spread information about it than during previous elections.
Some say that the authorities’ decision not to “stuff” the votes in favor of the United Russia party to an even greater degree might indicate their interest in having the responsibility shared when making future unpopular decisions under conditions of economic hardship. More likely, however, is that the authorities did not dare inflate United Russia’s figures even higher because, according to common perceptions, a more than 10–12 percent rate of falsification would make it harder to legitimize the elections (although modern mathematical model–based methods make it possible to spot even minor distortions). Besides, they may have figured that by now all the “constitutional” laws—that is, the most important ones, such as the law on the national emblem and hymn, or the extension of presidential and parliamentary terms—requiring the approval of the constitutional majority, 301 votes—have already been adopted. They will thus make do with a simple majority of 238, which they have as a result of the elections (the majority being 226 and above).
What will come out of the unfair elections and the public indignation remains to be seen. There will be no revolution. Nor do we need one. Yet the public’s activity, the lines to the voting stations, and the public outcry against the unfairness of the vote count are a step in the right direction, marking the nascence of a civil society.

Nikolay Petrov

The December 4 elections and subsequent protests by Russian citizens have fundamentally changed the political situation in Russia and the outlook for its further development. The political system built by Vladimir Putin has started to burst at the seams even before the government proceeds with unavoidable and unpopular socioeconomic reforms. The political initiative has slipped out of Putin’s hands, and he has found himself in a defensive position. He will still likely be able to win the presidency in the March 2012 election, but his power is diminishing and it is not likely that he will be able to keep it until the end of the next term.

I wouldn’t deem this last election dirtier but instead more scandalous than the one before it. The difference is in the sharply increased activity of the citizenry and the technical ease with which election violations were documented and widely disseminated, combined with the weakening of administrative resources stemming from the changing of governors and a decline in respect for the government at all levels. The authorities, it seems, conducted themselves normally, and even in a somewhat more reserved way than usual. However, citizens, including regular voters and low-level managers, were much more active than during past elections, resisting the pressure of their bosses and some representatives of the election commissions. It looks as though the social contract—the noninterference of citizens in politics in exchange for the noninterference of authorities in the citizens’ lives and the continued improvement of living standards—is disappearing. A generation after the explosion of civil activity witnessed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new surge has begun.

The new Duma will significantly differ from the previous one, not only because of a small alteration in the distribution of seats between the four Kremlin-controlled parties (the absolute majority retained by United Russia seems quite enough to exercise exclusive control over the lower house), but more so because the Duma will now unavoidably become a real forum for public policy. The fundamentally new situation is due to a downward trend for United Russia along with the rise of the remaining three parties. While United Russia will conduct itself more carefully, its competitors will behave more aggressively. The proposal regarding the allocation of committee chairmanships, according to which the opposition parties should receive half of the seats, can be considered as an initial indicator of this. It appears that United Russia’s Boris Gryzlov will not be able to handle the speakership of such a Duma. 

It is also difficult now to imagine the appointment of Dmitry Medvedev to head the government, as was announced in September. This role requires an effective manager, a real, not a formal figure, and Putin is not likely to want to play tandem-2 as a president.

The Duma elections were, as a result of a protest vote against the party in power, effectively a no-confidence vote. Its three junior partners in the lower house of parliament increased their presence, and because only three months remain before the presidential election, all party leaders of the “big four” have been placed in a difficult position. As in a Spanish Enserro—running of the bulls—the party leaders should start running quickly so as not to be trampled. They will be hurried by the public mood, as well as by interparty competition. Each party, especially A Just Russia, received a credit of trust, which could quickly disappear if it does not confirm its opposition stance.

The events of early December have significantly changed the presidential election paradigm. On the one hand, in accordance with existing legislation, only candidates of the four parties represented in the Duma may take part in the presidential election without collecting signatures, plus the political giants and fortunate ones who are lucky enough to collect 2 million signatures and convince the Central Election Commission of their authenticity. That seemingly implies that, besides the already nominated Vladimir Putin, Sergei Mironov, Gennady Zyuganov, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, only perhaps Grigory Yavlinsky could take part in the election, if only because the Kremlin is interested in his participation for the purpose of improving the elections’ image. On the other hand, the sharp postelection reduction in the Kremlin’s political resources will make it difficult for the authorities to disallow the admittance of a popular alternative candidate to the election, such as Alexey Navalny or Oksana Dmitrieva.

Vladimir Putin will also need to adjust his campaign model. It seems that he was counting on getting back into the Kremlin based on the wave of joy caused by his return, and consolidated by the accompanying gifts. Now he needs to break the new negative trend, change the agenda, and mobilize the electorate. How can this be done?

Even if plans for a mobilization were to be prepared, there is simply not enough time for the positive mobilization of voters. There is a possibility for the negative mobilization of voters, but that would also require some preparation. The West, which Putin has accused of being guilty of inciting postelection unrest, will be impossible to use as a threat against which to consolidate support around the national leader. What is left is nationalism. That is an extremely dangerous card, which is very risky to use. Yet it seems that Putin does not have much of a choice. For the first time in twelve years, he is in a situation where he does not hold the initiative and is being forced to act under the influence of external factors.

And lastly—if the authorities are lucky—the wave of current protest will come to naught, partly due to the cold and holidays. At the same time, returning to previous, manipulated elections will not happen. Active public control and transparency of elections will only increase, exacerbating the authorities’ already difficult situation. 

With that, massive protests still do not evidence a movement in the direction of democracy nor even a token of movement in that direction. In the tradition of delegative democracy, citizens unhappy with the once-elected “czar” are ready to replace him, but they are not ready to change the system as a whole, implement everyday control over the government, or take part in it.

Reactive modernization, about which many have spoken, has begun. It did not begin exactly when or exactly how it was expected to. The system has run into its first serious political crisis, and in order to get through it, it must become more complex and balanced.