With the results for the Russian parliamentary election almost all counted, it is clear that Vladimir Putin and his party United Russia have received both another landslide victory and a bruising defeat.
Preliminary results indicate United Russia has secured just about 50% of the vote. But they also show that despite thousands of recorded cases of electoral fraud and deeply suspicious 90% of the vote in much of the North Caucasus, the party has lost the 2/3 super-majority that allowed it to edit the constitution single-handily and may lose more than 70 seats. Above all, the result has cost Putin and his party their image of electoral invincibility.
This outcome bodes ill for Putin’s plan to return to the Kremlin in elections next March, possibly until 2024. During his first two terms as President, Putin led a resurgent Russia – now if he wants to remain popular, he will have to reinvent himself as a leader of a country which is widely perceived to be on a path of stagnation.
This may prove impossible. The last time Russia went to the polls to elect deputies for the Duma, in December 2007, Putin incarnated a vision of Russia “rising from its knees.” United Russia was as result rewarded by the electorate with 64% of the vote. Though the election was neither free nor fair, this figure reflected the buoyancy of pre-crisis Russia: with 8.5% GDP growth rates in 2007 and oil-prices soaring, many believed their country was rising with China and an emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economic giant.
Fast forward to 2011. Russia’s BRIC dreams have not come true. Instead, Russia suffered the worst recession in the G20 in 2009 and hopes of “resurgence” have been eclipsed by fears of stagnation or “Brezhnevization.”
Its 2011 GDP growth rates have been shaved to just 4%, projected to fall to 3.7% in 2012. This is better than the EU – but not enough to keep pace with China or India.
Slower growth has exposed many of the weaknesses of Russia's system which were previously hidden behind glowing GDP figures: Putin has done little to improve governance in Russia. A series of televised disasters since the crisis have exposed this governance crisis to the public. Exploding dams, forest fires engulfing the capital or large-scale race riots under the Kremlin walls all showed the government struggling or unable to contain these catastrophes.
Polls now show that a majority of Russians feel that the country is more corrupt than in the 1990s – a major setback for Putin who portrays himself as Russia's rescuer from the “wild 1990s.” Without deep – but unlikely – systemic reforms the governance crisis will start to constrain Russia’s future economic growth.
As a result the economic crisis has seen Russia lose the optimism of the BRICs and come to share the pessimism of the West. This has spilled over into a fall in support for Putin and his party. As President, Dmitry Medvedev had crafted a narrative to deal with the economic crisis in Russia, suggesting the country needed modernization.
But instead of modernising, Russia in 2010 was as corrupt as Papua New Guinea, had the property rights of Kenya and was as competitive as Sri Lanka. Earlier in September, Putin announced his return to presidency, de facto demoting Medvedev. The decision has angered many Russians – while they did not expect the next year's presidential elections to be fair, they did not expect that they would de facto happen already in September either.
Putin is returning to presidency, but he is going to preside over a different Russia. As we have argued in our new report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Russia is now post-BRIC, facing political and economic stagnation.
United Russia’s popularity has sunk: popularly labelled as the “party of crooks and thieves” it is now seen as little more than a career vehicle for hopeful bureaucrats. Although his popularity ratings are still at 61% – figures to die for in a Western democracy – they are unnerving for Putin's “managed democracy” because they represent a fall from the pre-crisis figures of 80% and show growing disillusionment with the regime that is able to offer little more than 'stability.'
The danger for the system is that the real winners of the 2000s economic boom, the new middle classes, many in the Moscow oligarchy and the local businessmen of Russia's provincial hubs are growing tired of the way Russia works. For them 'stability' means the system standing still and not being able to provide them with the other social goods, such as protection of their property vis-a-vis the unwieldy and often corrupt courts. For them, Putin now incarnates “stagnation.”
The outcome of the Sunday's elections should not be mistaken for imminent change. Authoritarian regimes can survive decades of unpopularity, especially if they are also among the world's largest oil and gas producers.
The real question hanging over Russia now is how Putin can adapt himself to slowly eroding support in a country which is no longer seen as a rising BRIC.
If the current erosion of public support, especially in the most active parts of the population, continues until Putin's certain victory at the March presidential elections, Putin will have to respond.
Having both exhausted the 'stability leader' label and failed to re-invent himself as a moderniser, he may resort to rally nationalism or a clampdown. Cyber-attacks on many of Russia’s independent-minded news websites and the harassment of the anti-electoral fraud NGO Golos in the run-up to the most recent elections might pre-figure a nastier turn – but also expose how the Kremlin is failing to manage the mood of a more restless Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.