Russia is changing, the mood of the electorate is changing, the way the people view the government is changing but the way the political class conducts the business of the state hasn't changed.
The results of last Sunday's parliamentary election in Russia underscore that democracy springs surprises when least expected. And the genie once out of the bottle can never be put back sans mayhem. Equally, democracy is doubtless gaining traction in Russia, and the leadership has probably allowed the political space for people to express their discontent in an open election more than at any time before.
The ruling United Russia (UR) suffered a severe setback, securing “only” 50 per cent vote, as against a whopping 64 per cent in 2007. It translates into a drop of 72 seats but the UR will now have to settle for a “mere” 238 seats in the 450-member Parliament. Why “only,” why “mere”? But then, this is Russia. The UR lacks the two-thirds majority needed for making constitutional amendments. In sum, the next government that was expected to be led by Dmitry Medvedev — that is, as things stood yesterday — will have to function in a more accountable legislative and political setting. But consensus building also needs a certain political culture that Russia may not yet possess. Coalition building surely becomes the judicious political course. The Russian Parliament gets a historic opportunity to get out of the trough into which Boris Yeltsin tragically dispatched it 20 years ago when he ordered tanks to open fire at it. But that is simplifying matters. The fact of the matter is that in the steeply vertical post-Soviet power pyramid, Parliament never quite figured out its rightful role.
The UR's political base continues to be the conservative section of the electorate. The nearest one can compare it would be with Gaullism seen in France in the 1960s — a strange cocktail of the left and the right of the ideological spectrum, statism, nationalism and so on. Interestingly, the “protest votes” have gone to bolster the left parties — the Communist Party (CP) in particular, which now emerges as the main opposition with 92 seats, securing almost 20 per cent of the total vote. Even more important is that the CP is spreading its wings. It got around 25 per cent of the votes in Siberia and the Far East. To quote Itar-Tass, “now one could say that the ‘red belt' has extended to the Asian part of Russia.” The UR lost ground in the Karelia, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Sverdlovsk and Yaroslavl regions. Russia's vast “peripheries” seem to be swinging to the left.
Why are people “protesting” in Russia? Obviously, the ruling party that held power during the economic crisis suffers the “anti-incumbency” factor. The UR campaign was run by Dmitry Medvedev, whom Vladimir Putin had named Prime Minister in a new government headed by him if he won the presidential poll in March next. And Mr. Medvedev wasn't convincing enough in his new role as captain of the UR ship. Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev complemented each other through the past four years but once they publicly confessed in September that they were like Siamese twins, the so-called “tandem” lost its mystique, its élan. The highly literate Russian people apparently didn't like that they had been taken for granted by the political class. How the UR's defeat affects Mr. Medvedev's political future will make an interesting puzzle. He needs to reinvent himself.
Arrival of social networking
Without doubt, the internet and social networking have arrived in Russia as a catalyst of change. The western media are projecting the parliamentary election results as a “defeat” for Mr. Putin, but that is wishful thinking. A born fighter who grasps the meaning of the UR's alienation from people, he remains hugely popular. Mr. Putin admitted that the results were an accurate reflection of the mood in the country. So, the question remains: why this “protest” vote? The point is Russia is changing, the mood of the electorate is changing, the way the people view the government is changing, but the way the political class conducts the business of the state hasn't changed. For an outsider, this mood shift has been evident for quite some time and the only issue was how soon and in what form it was going to manifest.
Public corruption; an indifferent bureaucracy; a pervasive sense of ennui borne out of the feeling that the more things seem to change the more they remain the same; a sense of stagnation and helplessness triggering an overpowering longing for change (especially in the regions of Siberia and Far East which see Moscow as a “distant” capital); uncertainties of various kinds — the Russian economy depends critically on energy prices but Moscow has no control over the world energy market; economic difficulties — Russia relies on energy exports to meet 40 per cent of its budget and an average oil price of $126 a barrel is needed to balance its budget next year; an unfavourable external environment with the U.S.-Russia “reset” in abeyance till 2013 at least — all these seem to have combined in varying measures. However, the most important thing is that the UR hasn't been “defeated,” rather, it has been given a reprieve. It is not lying prostrate in the boxing ring dazed by a knockout punch, and at least half the audience is still clapping, wanting it to have a go at it no matter the bruises. Which also signals that the Russian people want political stability. Russia's political stability is not affected since it is only very seldom that the government may need to muster two-thirds support to moot a constitutional amendment or reverse a veto by the Upper House of Parliament. Even then, the UR can negotiate support of smaller parties case by case.
Tame show come alive
However, Russia's democratic landscape has changed beyond recognition. CP leader Gennady Zyuganov proposes to challenge Mr. Putin in the presidential poll. This was not unexpected but in the changed circumstances, the March election that was destined to be a tame show has suddenly come alive. The political discourse is changing. And the unthinkable is happening: Mr. Putin may have a fight on his hands to avoid a run-off, which would severely damage his political standing. Mr. Medvedev phoned Mr. Zyuganov and sought “constructive cooperation” as on past occasions. The big question is whether the communists will function as a “constructive” or unforgiving opposition. Mr. Zyuganov is an experienced politician and would sense that there is a continuing bedrock of support still among the Russian people for the ideology his party represents — and it could be growing.
On the other hand, Mr. Putin will feel the compulsion to respond to the growing leftist sentiments. Other than the CP, the left-of-centre A Just Russia also gained, increasing its seats to 64 from 38 in the outgoing parliament. It works closely with the UR. In sum, what is important is that it helps the ruling party that the main opposition is the communist party, rather than the liberals. A major deficiency of the Russian system is the absence of a “popular liberal party or a party of annoyed urban communities,” as the top Kremlin aide and mastermind on Russian politics, Vladislav Surkov, admitted in an interview with a popular radio host. But then, as the prominent Russian think-tanker, Sergei Mikheyev, promptly counterposed: “The election results have clearly shown that liberals are not popular in Russia. How can you create a liberal party if people do not vote for the liberals? And why is it that those who are unhappy with the authorities are not necessarily liberals?”
Good question. But Mr. Surkov offered a great explanation, too. “In closed systems disorder increases … It leads to even greater ‘closedness' and, as a result, greater chaos. Therefore, in order for the system to preserve itself and develop, it should be opened. New players should be let into it … We can't allow ourselves to wind up in the situation of ‘solux rex', the lonely king. There is more turbulence in an open system but however paradoxical it may be, more stability as well … It is wrong to act in 2011 in the same way as in 2001. This is as if a patient has been treated, treated successfully, he has recovered, but he is still being treated. It is enough to treat him. Everyone has been treated. It is time to let go.”
Suffice it to say, the upcoming presidential election is going to be a high-stakes affair for not only Russia but also world politics. The big powers are circling the wagons in an international environment fraught with great fluidity and a growing threat of war. How Russia goes about it, where indeed Russia stands, with whom Russia chooses to hold hands and in what circumstances — all these would largely depend on who leads the country in the formative period ahead. The March election, therefore, is not going to be Russia's exclusive indulgence in democracy.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)