Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks in Moscow, on Dec. 8, 2011, during a meeting of Coordinating Committee of the Popular Front, a civic movement connected with Putin's United Russia party.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks in Moscow, on Dec. 8, 2011, during a meeting of Coordinating Committee of the Popular Front, a civic movement connected with Putin's United Russia party. Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images
Read Another Opinion On The Russian Elections
Leon Aron is resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
As far as the actual voting was concerned, the only real question in Russia's parliamentary election this week was the degree to which the "party of power," United Russia (or, as it is known by much of the public, partiya vorov i zhulikov, the party of thieves and swindlers) would win. Would it again receive around two-thirds of the votes or rather—despite ballot-stuffing, forced voting by state employees and students, manipulation of absentee ballots and, of course, the assistance of the Central Electoral Commission in tallying up the results—just miss the mark? (The answer: United Russia, although down, will end up with at least as many seats in the Duma as the other parties combined.)
But "elections" of this sort have never just been about the outcomes. They are also occasions for Russia's leaders to descend into the public arena and "send signals," as they used to say in Soviet days, about the country's direction. Stalin started the tradition with his February 1946 Bolshoi Theater speech, in which he prepared Russia's "voters" for the end of the wartime "liberalization," the tightening of the ideological straitjacket and, not even half a year after V.J. Day, the end of the war alliance with the West and the beginning of Cold War. By necessity or instinct, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly chosen the same mode of communication in order to display the same authoritarian inclinations.
Two weeks before the previous Duma "election" in 2007, at a nationally televised United Russia rally in Moscow's largest stadium, Putin compared pro-democracy opposition to "jackals" searching for "crumbs" near Western embassies. This time, he signaled the tightening of the screws by labeling "Judas" the only independent national election monitor watchdog, Golos, which receives grants from the Western governmental and non-governmental agencies —or as Putin put it, from those who "brief [Golos] on how to 'work' in order to influence the election campaign in our country."
Consistent with its domestic tenor, this election campaign has marked a definitive end to the Obama administration's pursuit of a "reset" with Moscow. Hopes had been high. Key among them were cooperation on isolating Iran; the removal or at least diminution of Russia's objections to European missile defense; and the start of meaningful negotiations on reducing Russia's tactical nukes, of which it has orders of magnitude more than all the other nuclear powers combined. Policymakers in Washington probably hoping that détente's momentum would bridge the ideological chasms separating the United States and Putin's Russia. It must have come as a shock to the White House to behold the ferocity with which the Kremlin has set about demolishing its cherished reset.
European missile defense is again Moscow's bête noir, with President Dmitry Medvedev now threatening to target missiles at Poland and Romania if they dare move ahead with its installation. Russia's envoy to NATO, meanwhile, has threatened to cut off the vital supply lines to the Western troops in Afghanistan. Moscow's recent statements on Iran have all but signaled the end of cooperation in the U.N.'s Security Council on sanctions, and it has also voted in the United Nations Human Rights Council against a resolution condemning Syria's "gross and systematic" crimes against the public. And no progress whatsoever seems imminent on tactical nukes. Moscow is even threatening to withdraw from what the reset's engineers considered its crowning achievement: the New START treaty.
Vladimir Mayakovsky once wrote of a "boat of love" that "smashed against reality." In this case, Washington's best hopes have broken against the "reality" of the domestic political imperatives of Putin's regime. Authoritarian governments are always in need of an external enemy.
All of this has been evident in the shamelessly manipulated "electoral" campaign. Golos called the vote "the most flawed" to date. Nine parties were banned from participating and there was not one charismatic leader among the five "opposition" parties that were allowed to run. Their canvassing, advertizing and access to television carefully rationed, only the non-threatening Communists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist "Liberal-Democratic" party (LDPR) and vaguely left-of-center Just Russia overcame the 7-percent barrier to the Duma: the Communists with 19 percent of the vote, Just Russia with 13 percent, and 12 percent for LDPR. Meanwhile, Youtube already has a video in which the chairman of the local electoral commission in a Moscow precinct is filling in the ballots. No doubt, more such posts are to come.
What the election brings into focus is the sustainability, or lack thereof, of the regime's legitimacy. All great revolutions of modernity began, in essence, with the search for dignity. Revolutionaries may articulate different issues—political, social, economic—at different times, but they are always ultimately inspired by a longing for respect. The Russian public is liable to soon rise up to defend its own claims to dignity. Its current government offers no political venues in which real political opinions can be expressed.
This latest cynical election was perhaps the greatest insult to the dignity of since Putin began his tenure in 2000. The injury to their dignity will be deeper still following Putin's "re-election" as president in March and self-coronation next May for the first of what is likely to be two six-year terms. If served out, they will bring Putin's years in power to 24, six more than Brezhnev (1964-1982) and only a year less than Stalin's (1928-1953). The injury is most deeply felt among Russia's political, social and economic vanguard, which knows that its potential is being mired in stagnation. This is the minority that everywhere and at all times sparks revolutions. How much more can it take before pouring into the streets en masse to create its own Tahrir squares?