Russia?s over-managed democracy

Putin?s grand plan may not yet be clear, but most of the likely variants now hinge on how he will use the mandate from Sunday?s election to stage-manage the next vote in March

Russia’s crucial elections on 2 December involved more than the simple erosion of democracy. Several important paradoxes emerge on closer inspection.

First, the elections reversed the traditional priorities of Russian politics. This time, the parliamentary elections in December are likely to be more important than the presidential vote in March. ‘Putin’s Plan’ (United Russia’s brilliantly anodyne campaign slogan) may not yet be clear, but most of the likely variants now hinge on how he will use the mandate from Sunday’s election to stage-manage the next vote in March. A second paradox is that the elections delivered apparently gave the Kremlin everything it wanted, but deeper problems of ‘over-managed democracy’ have been revealed.

The Results

First, the apparent successes. With United Russia’s victory a foregone conclusion, and with the real opposition harassed at every turn, and limited opportunities for a meaningful protest vote (including even the abolition of the old option of voting ‘against all’), the Kremlin was understandably nervous about turnout. However, according to the official figures, 63% of the electorate voted, up from 55% at the last Duma elections in 2003. In so-called ‘controlled regions’ turnout was much higher: 98% in Ingushetia, 99% in Chechnia, and 78% in Chukotka, where Roman Abramovich is governor. But nowhere did it fall below 50%. There were many reports of the ‘administrative methods’ used to farm the vote: including the widespread abuse of absentee ballots, the directed voting of ‘controlled populations’ (prisoners, etc), mass voting by bus, often as a ‘carousel’ (the same group being transported to vote repeatedly at different polling stations), ‘indicative’ voting at the work-place, pressure on students, even the revival of the Soviet practice of the sudden availability of food and drink at polling stations. With only 350 foreign observers and the main domestic election observation NGO ‘Golos’ (Voice) severely handicapped, the true extent of such practices could not be documented.

Pro-Kremlin parties dominated the actual vote.

Elections to the State Duma, 2 December 2007

United Russia             64.1%  315 seats
Communists              11.6%    57 seats
Liberal Democrats        8.2%    40 seats
Just Russia                 7.8%    38 seats

The main ‘party of power’, United Russia (UR), apparently triumphed, almost doubling its vote from 37.6% in 2003. Behind it came exactly the same troika, in the same order, as in 2003. The semi-oppositional, but long-tamed, Communists trod water (12.6% in 2003); Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s ‘Liberal Democrats’ were slightly down (11.4% in 2003); while the unreliable Rodina (9% in 2003) was reinvented as ‘Just Russia’ in a shotgun marriage with the Party of Life and Pensioners’ Party.
The old liberal opposition collapsed. Yabloko won only 1.6%; while the Union of Right Forces won only 1%, and suffered the humiliation of being outvoted by its ‘clone’, Civic Force, which won 1.1%.

However, UR’s apparent success depends on the benchmark used. UR won 315 seats, but it won 304 back in 2003. Its previous triumph came about because half of the 450 deputies elected in 2003 came from territorial constituencies, and most of these joined UR by various means. So this time UR at least won a similar number of seats more obviously in its own right, but the real balance of power in the Duma is little changed.

As previously, United Russia has a constitutional majority in the new parliament (more than two-thirds of the seats, 300 out of 450), but it just missed out on a two-thirds’ majority of the actual vote. Most importantly, it did not match the 71.2% Putin won in the last presidential election in 2004. (Putin’s total vote in 2004 was 49 million, this time it was 42 million). Nor did UR live up to the campaign’s more optimistic forecasts. According to the Levada Centre’s opinion polls, UR was already at 59% in August and 55% in September – before  Putin decided to head its election list on 1 October. The expected ‘Putin bounce’ turned out to be relatively small: an initial jump to 67% in mid-October, still at 67% in mid-November, and 64.1% on election day.

Political Technology and Multi-Tasking

Why? The Kremlin found its room for manoeuvre limited by the contradictions of attempting to turn a parliamentary election into a plebiscite. Once the United Russia juggernaut was launched with Putin at its head, it had to cope with four other realities of Russia’s ‘managed democracy’ or virtual politics system. First were the existing Duma parties, all loyal clients of the Kremlin to varying degrees. Second were the actual opposition parties. Third were the minor ‘clone’ or ‘spoiler’ parties set up to harass that opposition. Fourth was the raising of the barrier for representation in the Duma from 5% to 7%; which was originally designed to make life more difficult for the opposition, but now threatened some of the client parties as well.

Simply put, given those constraints, there were not enough votes to go round, and not enough flexibility in the system to allow the Kremlin to achieve every goal at once.

It seems to have been the case that the Kremlin cracked down harder on the real opposition once United Russia failed to soar as hoped. Every extra vote would help, and both Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces were sharply down on 2003, when they won 4.3% and 4% respectively. However, the same principle of scarce votes applied to the ‘spoiler’ parties. If the Kremlin deployed too many of these, their accumulated vote might come from UR and the client parties as well. They were therefore used more carefully than in 2003. This time, the more-or-less virtual Agrarians won 2.5% and the Patriots 0.9%, to trim the Communist vote. The Union of Right Forces was ‘man-marked’ by Civic Force (1.1%); but that was all.  The Kremlin had to use other ‘non-party’ methods for this election. A particular novelty was the use of internet ‘attack sites’ like, which was clearly designed to discredit the Union of Right Forces.

The Kremlin has also shown itself to be still committed to dramaturgiia – the artificial selling of politics as carefully-scripted drama. All politicians proclaim their achievements at election time’; but the tone, style and ubiquity of Russia’s many recent quarrels with its neighbours and many ways of showing that ‘Russia is back’ owe more to political technology than to normal politics.

Most bizarrely of all, UR was tempted to steal votes off its own creations. Plan A for the new Just Russia party was that it would serve as a second pillar in a new virtual two-party system, and in the regional elections this spring it duly leapfrogged into second place. In fact some thought it did too well. Fake competition, but equal competition, was not what they had in mind. Just Russia was also supposed to be vaguely left-wing, and United Russia vaguely right-wing; but it was never clear just how left Just Russia was supposed to be. It seemed to veer left in the summer, implying closer competition for the Communists. Its main raison d’être, however, that Just Russia was pro-Putin but against United Russia, was spectacularly undermined in October, once Putin decided to head the UR list.

One option was clearly to let the party sink. Ultimately, however, the Kremlin has found a place not just for Just Russia but for all the client parties (Just Russia mainly represents the Sechin group). Putin’s biggest fear at this stage is elite disunity, so his tent has remained broad. But this has necessarily limited UR’s advance. All three Duma client parties are slightly down on 2003, but all were safely clear of 7%.

The biggest problem, however, is with ‘Putin’s plan’. It makes perfect sense that we do not yet know what this is. Putin clearly hopes to keep elites loyal by keeping his cards to his chest. Once the strategy is revealed, force majeure will hopefully keep everybody in line. But if ‘the plan’ is revealed too early, different interests may coalesce around different options. By placing himself at the head of the UR list, Putin has narrowed his options. He has committed himself to an election that was part-parliamentary, part-presidential, but above all plebiscitary. His ‘mandate’ is not overwhelming. If the plan is to move Putin to the premiership or some other position backed by the new parliamentary majority, then that plan can obviously go forward; but if a ‘technical’ presidential election is held in March, with the opposition now so weak, there will be a difficult line to tread. Putin will want to lend his popularity to the process, but he would not want a temporary or puppet replacement to outscore United Russia’s recent 64.1%.

Election Abuses

The Kremlin has also tightened the screws to prevent other options encroaching on its preferred scenario.  It has had to cut a lot of corners and risk yet more criticism of the quality of Russian democracy. Russia’s ‘managed democracy’ is now much more tightly managed, and there were plenty of issues of real and pressing concern in these elections for the EU.

The opposition claimed these were the ‘dirtiest elections since the Soviet era’. According to one poll by the Levada Centre for Radio Liberty, 66% of Russians themselves had no ‘confidence in the honesty of the elections’. There is every sign that the authorities have deliberately targeted what they see as having been the key triggers of Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. Indeed, there has been much open talk of Russia developing ‘counter-revolutionary technology’ since 2004. Many of these methods were first tested in Belarus in March 2006.

– The OSCE-ODIHR had to abandon its observer mission for the elections. Officially this was because of a delay in granting visas, but Russia had only promised visas to a delegation of seventy, as compared to 450 at the last elections. An eventual delegation of this size came mainly from the PACE, a number totally inadequate for a country of Russia’s size. Domestic monitoring organisations like Golos were kept away from polling stations, where only representatives of political parties could attend. 
– The Russian NGO sector in general has found its activities severely restricted by the law passed in January 2006.
– No election exit poll was conducted by the main independent polling organisation, the Levada Centre. Instead, polls were taken by a new group, ‘Nashi Vybory’ (Our Elections, implying foreign-backed polls are not to be trusted), allegedly linked by more than name to the controversial youth group ‘Nashi’, alongside the less than totally independent VTsIOM and FOM.
– The Russian mass media is far from pluralistic, and was overly dominated by uncritical and crudely mobilisational coverage of Putin and United Russia during the campaign. The media has also carried crude ‘black PR’ defaming the opposition. More subtly, the Kremlin was allegedly running special ‘web brigades’ in orchestrated campaigns to dominate internet traffic. The Union of Right Forces claims its relatively young, relatively urban electorate was the particular target of this campaign.
– The arrest of hundreds of participants in the ‘Marches of Dissent’ in Moscow and St. Petersburg a week before the elections, including leading opposition politicians like Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, sets a worrying precedent. There is a fine line between the right to assemble and the right to protest – arrests were supposedly made because marchers had permission to do the former but not the latter. The Russian authorities should allow both.
– The presence of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi in the background clearly implies the threat of counter-demonstrations if there is any public complaint at the authorities’ methods.
– In the relative absence of effective counterpoints, corrupt practices could flourish. The Council of Europe’s initial statement condemned the elections as ‘not fair’ and ‘not held on a level playing field’ due to ‘the merging of the state and a political party’ leading to an ‘extensive use of administrative resources – such as state infrastructure and personnel on the public payroll – on behalf of United Russia’.

Implications for the West

Putin’s baseline popularity is still impressive. He also cares about legitimacy, or he would have torn up the constitution and gone for a third term long ago. But he does not care enough. The regime is its own legitimacy’s worst enemy.

The elections have also ensured that a prickly Putin will be our main interlocutor for the foreseeable future. Putin ramped up his anti-Western rhetoric during the campaign, and may continue to do so through March. It remains to be seen whether he can return to a more pragmatic politics, given the atmosphere that has been created. In the past, Putin has perfected such a two-step, but he will most likely be a more awkward partner in the future.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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