Let me try to write up some thoughts about the recent parliamentary elections. I am sitting in the restaurant of a hotel in Esto-Sadok, the village most close to the ski resorts that will host part of the competitions in the 2014 winter Olympics. The protests in Moscow are far away. I can follow the events on twitter, but I have my sincere doubts the protests will lead to much. A few thousand is nothing. Arrests are usual business. Having spend some time in Russia over the past 9 days, I can say that there will be no revolution. Evolution on the other hand is clearly visible.
First, on an election day in Russia one can observe at least two games. Of course there is the actual voting and the vote count by which people elect their representatives in the Duma. In addition there is a game in which factory owners, hospital directors and school directors try to display their clout. Schools, hospitals etc. are all places where people vote and each of these voting stations aim to attract the attention of the local authorities by attracting a high turnout. By getting on the radar of the authorities, they expect to get financial and administrative help in the coming years. Teachers for example ask the parents of their pupils to vote at their school specifically. Often parents need to apply for an absentee ballot to do so, which explains the large need for these pieces of paper. I have seen reports of voting stations being out of absentee ballots, even though their number is increased with every elections.
People with absentee ballots can still vote as they want, but the ice by then has become somewhat slippery. If I am not only voting for the government, but also for the school of my children, why not play safe and vote for United Russia? What would the authorities think when the school will get a high turnout, but the majority of votes has gone to opposition parties?
Another tactic to increase the turnout is the organization of lotteries. In the Krasnodar region besides monetary prices 7 houses and 7 cars were allotted. This again is fine, if it were not so that you would have to provide proof of your voting at booths manned by volunteers of United Russia’s youth movements. They can’t actually see for which party you voted, but still. This fusion of the organization of the elections with the party of power is commonplace. To degree this is unavoidable in a country where almost all the governors and mayors belong to one party. On the other hand, there are cases in which these opportunities were clearly exploited by the party of power. Most notable were the ‘general’ election posters calling upon people to vote. Such posters which were funded by the election committee, but featured mostly United Russia politicians. Billboards featuring other politicians looked so similar to the ones promoting United Russia, that uniformed people may very well have been misinformed.
These so called administrative resources may have yielded United Russia an extra 10 to 15% of the vote. On the other hand it was obvious that the arrogance employed in the United Russia campaign offended a large group of voters and prompted them to make a calculated opposition vote. Not because they think the opposition parties had better programs or politicians, but because they want to show United Russia that this party does not control their vote. It’s guesswork, but if we would put that protest vote on 5 to 10%, the questionable percentage of votes received by United Russia is about 5 to 10%.
This brings me to my second point. We may question the size of United Russia’s victory, but its victory is real. The largest part of the able and experienced politicians and bureaucrats are members of this party. This means that there are simply to few opposition politicians in places of power for voters to be able to predict what would happen if other parties came to power. During the campaign there was much talk of a modern and fashionable argument to vote for the communists in protest, but I think you can feel the awkwardness in this argument. With hindsight we can see that a large part of this protest has gone to Fair Russia, but also in the case of Fair Russia people know that local victories of Fair Russia in the 2007 – 2008 years did not yield examples of good governance. Many voters who expressed their support for incumbent politicians they like voted for United Russia. You would be blind not to notice that living standards have improved greatly over the past decade.
In general I will also note that a slight majority (in seats) for Russia has been the preferred and expected outcome for quite some time. Further monopolization of politics by United Russia could have lead to a real revolution, so could a strong defeat. A revolution is something only very, very few people want. And to be completely honest: I don’t hold people getting excited by revolutions in very high regard.
Improved living standards however is one side of the story, the style of governance is another. This brings me to my third point. With the risk of overgeneralisation we may divide the Russian population in a part that prefers a semi-autocratic or patriarchal rule, while the other part desires a more liberal type of governance, promoting personal responsibility of individual citizens. Putin’s choice for Medvedev as his successor was clearly the result of the political calculation that the latter group was growing in size. The Medvedev presidency however was neither a failure nor much of success. Medvedev did not have a separate resource of power he could bring to the table, like Yeltsin did with the army in 1992 and the oligarchs in 1996 and the support Putin had in the siloviki and the rest of the expanding bureaucracy. Medvedev relied on the people to support his reforms, for example by offering the internet audience the option to comment on law proposals for police reform. That support however remained isolated, passive and skeptical.
Much however has changed over the past years. People’s awareness of their rights is increasing rapidly, not the least because of the internet and the traditional media picking up on the theme, but up until these elections there had not been a significant shared experience of these sentiments, a collective event signifying the change in mentality.
The lack of visible support for Medvedev or the liberal reforms he could have enacted, when having received more support to do so, must have been one of main reasons for Putin to decide to run for the presidency once again. He must have calculated that the part of the population in need of a patriarchal rule was still the larger one.
This perhaps ill advised decision may very well have been the tipping point that aroused that part of the population desiring a different style of leadership. The arrogance with which the decision was forced upon them has prompted many people to make a protest vote in these parliamentary elections, thereby creating that shared experience of a desire for change that did not manifest itself in the previous years.
As a result something unexpected happened. When Putin and Medvedev came out together to comment on the election results, it was Medvedev who looked most confident. The current president accepted the (calculated) loss of seats in a very relaxed manner. Congratulating the party whose list he headed with a worthy campaign, Medvedev spoke of a future in which many more victories could be attained. People in the audience reacted with relieve, applauding with smiles and open eyes. Putin on the other hand appeared as a grumpy old man. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but the audience (accredited United Russia members) stiffened and looked at their shoes.
This of course was just one moment. A Mevedev play against Putin cannot be expected. Still, these elections have shown the decision makers that they may have underestimated the Russian population and may very well have made the wrong choice with regard to the next presidency. During his new presidency Putin may increasingly lean on the more liberal Medvedev. The establishment simply has no other option than the symbol of the more modern and relaxed Medvedev to show that they recognize the changes in society. Politics after all reflects the aspirations of the people and not the other way around. Russia is changing, not by revolution, but by evolution.
A final remark concerns the efforts of Russia’s own election monitor group Golos. You may have read about the nonsensical counteraccustions in the media and reports of monitors being barred from access to the voting stations. The real virtue of the organization however was a website crowd sourcing people’s notes of the exploitation of administrative resources during the campaign. By gathering people’s impressions and opinions from all over the country, Golos greatly contributed to a shared experience, a collective realization that people desire more political competition and an election committee that can act more independently from the party in power.
This is the voice of the internet generation. They don’t want a revolution. All they want is their opinions to to be heard. Now they know that they’re not alone.
Having spent 9 days in Russia and not only in city centers I am certain of one thing: Putin’s return to the presidency will be an anomaly in a evolving Russia, not a token of a stagnating Russia.