Sunday’s Duma elections were dubbed by some experts to be the most boring in Russian history. Low turnout was expected, and received, with a historic figure of roughly 48%. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s United Russia party won in a major landslide, now controlling about 76% of the Duma, enough for a constitutional majority if such a thing even mattered in Russian politics. And as the savvy Russia watcher no doubt suspected, there were plenty of reports of election rigging via the usual methods- ballot stuffing, carousel voting, etc.
The thing that gets me is why they even bothered to engage in rigging this vote. United Russia was already projected to win big, and so far those alleging that the vote was rigged say that United Russia should have 40 fewer seats- this still leaves 65 seats that they would have picked up anyway without any manipulation. Off the top of my head I can’t say if that would still give them the mandate to change the constitution, but anyone who knows Russian politics understands that if the constitution needs to be changed, it will be changed, period. Hell, most of the time the state ignores it anyway, particularly those parts that say there is no censorship, that the state is completely secular, etc.
The usual expert chatter suggests that this election is about gauging popular opinion toward the government (which is much lower than Putin’s approval ratings, because apparently Putin’s such a great leader he has no idea what his own government does), and that if anything it might signify a change in the Kremlin’s domestic policies (HINT: this tends to be negative) or a reorganization of the elites. My position is to wait and see, but I think by so stacking the Duma with loyal United Russia deputies, Putin might have seriously undercut a very important narrative that helped sustain his relations with the outside world.
Putin has long played the role of a moderate, willing to do business with the West. United Russia’s main opponent have always been the “Liberal Democratic” party and the “Communist” party, both very inappropriately named. The message is really obvious. “Deal with me, otherwise you’ll get this Communist Zyuganov who will nationalize everything including your investment! Or you might end up with this raving nationalist Zhirinovsky, who’ll launch a nuclear war to build a new Russian empire, or something.”
Now before I point out how Sunday’s elections has undermined this claim I must digress and point out that yes, Putin has a succession problem. If Putin either died or was incapacitated, someone from United Russia would most likely take his place, and you could write pages about that problem alone. Now if Putin and all of United Russia suddenly disappeared then yes, the next in line would be the “Communists.” But whether Putin is followed by right-wing nationalists or, well, right-wing Communists, the bottom line is that Russia faces this devil’s bargain because of Putin, or more accurately his servant Surkov. When someone challenges with “who, if not Putin,” they are tacitly admitting that Russia has failed to produce more than one leader capable of running the country in nearly two decades. And who, exactly was in charge during that time? Oh right- Putin.
Having got that out of the way, Putin already started chipping away at this pillar of support in 2014, if not earlier. I have to be honest and say that even I believed the Putin-as-moderate lie as late as 2013. In fact earlier, when there were protests in the streets of Moscow, I couldn’t understand why the “Communists” were not leading the movement, nor why they would later back down. After all, they were the ones who stood the most to gain from fair elections. In 2014, no competent person could hold onto the delusion that these parties represent any opposition to Putin. In fact, on one occasion Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nominal presidential opponent of Putin, publicly called for the end of elections in Russia and for Putin to be made “Supreme Commander.” Could you imagine Romney saying this about Obama in 2012?
Now, not only has the curtain dropped so that more outsiders realize it’s Putin pulling the strings, but Putin’s party holds a constitutional majority in the Duma. This means that Putin can’t possibly use the “opposition” to excuse his behavior. Whatever Russia does can now be attributed to Putin and his party even by those who still naively entertain the notion that the other parties in the Duma are actually opposed to the president’s whims. In other words, the charade is over.
It kind of reminds me of the transformation of Russian state media that occurred in 2013-2014. Prior to that, you could actually find Russian state-owned media outlets that were quite balanced, even favoring real opposition viewpoints. Rather than hold onto these outlets as a way to counter Western claims that all Russian state media is nothing but pro-Kremlin propaganda, they decided to liquidate them and turn the whole state media into a propaganda bullhorn. And then they throw a tantrum when people call them propagandists, even though they willingly became propagandists of their own accord.
Typical Kremlin decision process here. Decide that your opponent does the thing that you want to do, without questioning whether this is actually true. Do the thing you wanted to do in the first place. Throw a fit when you get called out. Repeat.
So it is with this election. They decided that the strong majority they had in the Duma was not enough, so they artificially increased it even though they were already projected to gain seats. Now more observers will be even more justified in calling the Duma a rubber-stamp parliament, and naturally Duma deputies and various Russian politicians will screech about these accusations even though they were the ones that made the Duma what it is.
UPDATE: I recently ran across this on Twitter:
Basically Putin gave his “opponent” Zhirinovsky an award, and in response Zhirinovsky recites the old Russian imperial anthem “God Save the Tsar.” Yes, this guy is an opponent of Putin. Without Putin and the United Russia majority, this guy would totally take over and nuke Europe. That’s a plausible scenario, which is why we must support Putin and his party at all costs, even if they resort to election fraud.
And to anyone (including myself a few years ago) who asks why foreign media often passes up these “opposition” parties to focus on non-systemic opposition figures who have minuscule support, there’s a very simple answer. First of all, there’s little reason to cover opposition parties that don’t oppose the regime in any meaningful way. Politics is supposed to be about conflict, at least in a functioning democracy.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Western journalists focused more on these “radical” parties and the antics of their leaders, the pro-Kremlin “information warriors” would all scream about how the Western media is panicking about the empty threats and bombastic rhetoric of opposition parties who are not in power and have little to no influence, and thank God for Putin to keep them in check. In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.