All day long on December 7, as elections were underway across Russia’s eleven time-zones, the campaign offices of the two democratic parties waited tensely for preliminary voting results.
The press noted that Grigori Yavlinsky seemed optimistic, even telling the Vedomosti newspaper that Yabloko “is prepared to take full responsibility for the democratic forces in the next Duma.”
Yavlinsky had some grounds for optimisim: after getting 7% of the vote in the Russian Far East, Yabloko, according to Vremya Novostei, was seriously counting on not only making it into the Duma, but even increasing its numbers. Even in Moscow, exit polls showed that Yabloko could hope for no less than 6% (figures cited in Kommersant). Thus, Yabloko started celebrating early – but as it turned out, there was no reason to celebrate.
The Union of Right Forces (URF) was substantially more gloomy from the start: even in the first hours of voting, their figures didn’t look good. By Sunday afternoon, Anatoly Chubais was telling Vremya Novostei that democratic voters hadn’t fully realized how serious the situation is: “It could really happen – tomorrow we could wake up in a different country.”
Chubais got it right: on Monday morning the media reported that four parties had been elected to the Duma – and neither Yabloko nor the URF were among them. For the first time in the post-Soviet era, no room has been found in the Duma for a democratic opposition. As Kommersant observed, the URF’s failure to make it into the Duma “could put an end to the political prospects of the liberals.” And Yabloko, with its 4% of the vote, is unlikely to have any real influence in Russian politics.
What’s more, said Vedomosti, there is no doubt that the results of these elections will be “a heavy blow to Chubais’s legendary reputation” as a crisis manager.
Chubais was brought into the campaign in late summer, Vedomosti notes. Back then, the support ratings of the URF and Yabloko were hovering around 4-6%. It was believed that Chubais would rapidly expand the URF electorate, taking votes from the right wing of United Russia. However, this proved to be mission impossible.
In September, Chubais tried to win over the right-wing traditionalists with his idea of a “liberal empire.” But a month later, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested. Out of the whole business community, Chubais was the only one to publicly protest against the arrest. But when Putin ordered everyone to “stop the hysteria,” the URF could no longer be “one of the parties to which parts of the president’s charisma are extended.”
The next attempt to win votes took the form of a decision to cut electricity tariffs by 20% for domestic consumers in five regions that were important for the URF in the elections. However, by the end of November it became clear that this move hadn’t helped. As Gazeta observed, the consumers for whom a 20% cut really makes a difference usually vote for the Communists, not the URF.
Then, says Vedomosti, Chubais “played his last card.” Voters were told about the threat of “national-socialism” – according to the URF, this would be personified in the Duma by Dmitri Rogozin the “nationalist” and Sergei Glaziev the “socialist.”
Thanks to this extra and rather unexpected publicity boost, the Motherland bloc (Rodina) – much to the surprise of many observers – got 9% of the vote.
As for Chubais, according to Vedomosti the situation has been best described by Leonid Nevzlin, a YUKOS co-owner now abroad. In Nevzlin’s view, Chubais’s problem is that “his political activity happens only during election campaigns – and in the intervals between elections, he shows a certain distaste for politics.”
Actually, Vedomosti observes, this style of behavior is characteristic of big business as a whole in Russia: “The oligarchs have spent four years in hibernation, assuming that their individual pacts with the Kremlin would be cheaper than investing in civil society.” The result didn’t take long to make itself known: “Good morning, Russia!”
Meanwhile, the United Russia party fully succeeded in meeting its objectives, getting almost three times as many votes as its main rival, the Communist Party (CPRF).
After these elections, according to Vremya Novostei, the twelve-year battle with the Communist past in Russia may now be considered over. Vremya Novostei says this is only to be expected: it was simply impossible for CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov to sit on the fence. “His established electorate demanded movement in the direction of nationalist patriotism; but the CPRF’s incorporation into the existing system of political power entailed a more and more rapid transition to social-democrat slogans.”
In consequence, Vremya Novostei observes, some CPRF voters preferred to switch to Motherland, which presented itself as being “capable of roasting oligarchs.”
In fact, says observer Anatoly Kostiukov in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this time around all the campaign programs seemed like clones of each other. As evidence, Nezavisimaya Gazeta presents a selection of “representative points” from the policy programs of various parties. This is how they describe the political regime which has been established in Russia.
First point: “By means of treachery, bribery, and fraud, a thieving oligarchy has taken power in Russia.”
Second point: “Real power in Russia has been usurped by a cluster of greedy adventurers declaring themselves oligarchs, and their corrupt accomplices.”
Third point: “Our efforts will be aimed at demolishing the oligarchic system which has been formed in Russia.”
Fourth point: “Our objective is to prevent the expansion of state-controlled police and bureaucracy capitalism, to prevent Russia from becoming like Latin America.”
Kostiukov points out that contrary to first impressions, by no means all of these statements come from the Communists. In fact, the CPRF is only responsible for the first point. The second is taken from the manifesto of the Motherland bloc, while the other two come from the programs of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces.
The parties were just as unanimous in assessing the social situation in Russia as unsatisfactory (only United Russia showed some restraint here; as the Kremlin-backed party, it had to make “balanced” statements).
Of course, the chief social slogan for all parties was fighting poverty. Glaziev and Rogozin promised to “double real wages and pensions within three years.” United Russia assured voters that within four years family incomes would “rise by at least 50%.” The Communists and Yabloko promised to raise wages and pensions to the subsistence minimum.
Overall, says Kostiukov, it’s a shame that ballot papers have an “against all candidates” option but lack a “for all candidates” option. That would have made the situation much simpler: “Whoever you vote for, you’ll end up happy and the oligarchs will suffer. Whether you vote or not, Russia will be a paradise four years from now. There’s no alternative.”
Voters were understandably skeptical about the campaign promises of the parties. All opinion polls showed around a third of respondents saying they had no intention of voting at all. Actually, the real figure for those who stayed home turned out to be even higher – 44%, according to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), as cited in Vremya Novostei.
Another remarkable figure: in an ARPI poll done only a few days before the elections, 18% of respondents didn’t know when voting day was (poll results published in Novoe Vremya magazine).
But even among the 56% of respondents who said they definitely intended to vote, over one-third described the elections as “a fraudulent event” or “deceiving the people.”
Another 30% described their decision to vote as follows: “You have to vote for some party or other, after all.” And 23% said they had little or no knowledge of the policies of the party they had chosen to vote for.
In describing the third Duma, says Novoe Vremya, 62% of respondents said they had no confidence in it as an institution and a poor opinion of its performance. What’s more, the number of respondents expressing this lack of confidence has risen by 3% over the past year.
Only 6% of respondents were idealistic enough to describe Russian members of parliament as “the best people in the country.” Thirty-four percent took the healthy view that members of parliament are ordinary people, no better or worse than their voters. But the majority, 56%, said that “these are people who have gone into politics for their own gain.”
Given voter attitudes like these, Vremya Novostei observes, it’s not surprising that the anti-oligarch campaign unleashed before the elections didn’t win so many votes for “werewolf-hunter” Boris Gryzlov as it did for “the fringe nationalist forces, represented by Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the hand-tailored Motherland bloc.” These two formations got around 20% of the vote between them.
And although both parties are believed to be easily “tameable,” says Vremya Novostei, all we can do now is hope that the cost of victory over the Communists (both of these parties took away a great many communist votes) will not prove too high, and that “national-socialism, still on the fringes,” will not turn into a real force.
Sociologists believe there is some danger of that. The Argumenty i Fakty weekly quotes Lilia Ovcharova, research director at the Independent Institute of Social Policy (NISP): “After eight to ten years of poverty, people are no longer interested in parties, elections, or politics. This is a state of social degradation.”
The only party capable of attracting such voters is a “simple solutions party” with the old familiar slogans: take away and share around, put all the rich behind bars, send people from the Caucasus back to the Caucasus. And as social inequality grows, “the protest voters become more and more aggressive.”
Vyacheslav Kostikov says in Argumenty i Fakty that such “protesters” used to be “nurtured” by the CPRF. Now they have swung towards national socialism, national patriotism, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).
Komsomolskaya Pravda says: “One of the main conclusions to be drawn from these elections is that they have provided an accurate reflection of the current state of society.” Therefore, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda, it is pointless to talk of how much state support the winners had, or to say that the publicity effortsof the losers were clumsy and a waste of money. (According to Gazeta, the URF spent more on its campaign than any other party: 215 million rubles.) In a certain sense, says Komsomolskaya Pravda, the elections have turned out to be completely honest: “The winners were those who understood the nation more clearly than their rivals.”
Unwillingness to accept the existing situation may be described as the main feature of voter attitudes today.
As Komsomolskaya Pravda points out, voters were offered two models for resolving Russia’s problems: the evolutionary model presented by United Russia, and the revolutionary model from the Motherland bloc.
United Russia’s program was presumably meant for those who value stability above all, above any communist or democratic values. Motherland was the option for the impatient: especially for them, “a chunk of nationalism with socialist overtones was hacked away from the crumbling CPRF.”
As for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Komsomolskaya Pravda emphasizes that his voters are also protest voters. If the 11.6% of the vote secured by the LDPR is added to the 44% of voters who didn’t turn out at all, as well as the 5% who voted against all candidates, it turns out that over half of the electorate has no confidence in the current political system.
“The election results shouldn’t come as a surprise – they were entirely predictable,” says Lilia Shevtsova in Moskovskie Novosti. “Sooner or later, Russia was bound to have a totalitarian fit.” An indeterminate situation had gone on for too long, according to Shevtsova: “The miserable, tormented people, disillusioned with an underdeveloped, vulnerable democracy and corrupt, rotten capitalism, were bound to start wanting order and a strong hand that would promise to establish order.”
In Shevtsova’s view, those who voted for the LDPR and Motherland think Putin isn’t strong enough as a leader: “not a true patriot, not devoted enough to a strong state.” Thus, voting for the new party tandem essentially amounted to a vote of no confidence in the president.
The high percentages achieved by the new patriots came as a surprise to those parties themselves, says Shevtsova. But this “new wave” was even more of a surprise to its creators – the Kremlin’s political strategists: “Now they can’t imagine what to do with this creation that’s jumped out of its test-tube.”
Of course, as Moskovskie Novosti notes, neither Glaziev nor Rogozin – let alone Viktor Gerashchenko – “bear any resemblance at all to those brutish types who are dragging Russia towards dictatorship.” However, on the one hand, people frequently do come to represent certain trends, even against their will. And on the other hand, as Boris Nadezhdin of the URF observed to Gazeta, “Rogozin and Zhirinovsky are tame, but only as long as they don’t have much support. As soon as they get lots of Duma seats and voter support, they will cease to be tame.”
According to the Kommersant newspaper, the Kremlin can set the Motherland bloc loose in the Duma for a while: thanks to United Russia’s victory, the centrists have more than enough votes to pass any ordinary bill.
Kommersant says that nothing particularly bad will happen as a result of this; Glaziev’s people are likely to cooperate with the Communists. And the CPRF has a great interest in such cooperation: without external help, the Communist faction in the fourth Duma won’t even have enough votes to make yet another attempt at its favorite idea: moving a vote of no confidence in the government.
But the Kremlin is likely to want to retain some influence over Motherland. For example, no fewer than 300 votes will be required for the Duma to pass a constitutional law merging the Perm region with the Komi-Perm autonomous district. Kommersant predicts that the centrist will probably have to resist the temptation to take all the Duma’s leadership roles for themselves – so that in case anything happens, Motherland “would have something to lose besides its chains.”
Moreover, says Kommersant, it is also advantageous for the Kremlin to keep Motherland on a short leash because it could help the Kremlin’s political strategists achieve their long-standing ambition of transforming the CPRF into a modern social-democrat party of the Western type.
But even if that doesn’t happen – even if Rogozin pushes Glaziev into the background, as he did during television debates, and Motherland ends up taking a radical nationalist stance – even then, says Kommersant, this could prove useful for the Kremlin: “After all, against a backdrop of radicals calling for Chechens to be killed and oligarchs to be jailed, President Putin’s position would look extremely liberal.”
And the Vremya Novostei newspaper claims that the president, part of his administration, and the current Cabinet are now the “sole remaining upholders of right-wing liberal ideas in federal politics.” It might be said that we’ve returned to the days of Pushkin – when, as he put it, the government was “the only European” in the country.
In these terms, says Vremya Novostei, the president has no allies in parliament: “United Russia – in the near future, at least – will undoubtedly vote in favor of all bills submitted by the president, even the most liberal bills. However, a voting machine cannot be an ally, by definition – let alone an adviser.” So the president is seeking advisers elsewhere.
Vremya Novostei quotes Putin’s words, clearly directed at the right-wing parties: “We will make use of any ideas or personnel resources they make available to the nation’s leadership, the government, and society – everything that is aimed at finding positive solutions to the nation’s problems.”
Vedomosti assumes that the president was hinting at the possibility that some politicians from the right-wing parties could be offered places in the new Cabinet that will be formed after the presidential election. Vedomosti experts believe that the Kremlin might attempt to form a right-wing faction in the fourth Duma; besides Yabloko and URF candidates elected in single-mandate districts, this could include independent candidates, and even liberal members of United Russia delegated by that party to support the right-wing parties.
“It’s too soon to hold a funeral for the liberal project,” says Vedomosti. “A new right-wing party project will be launched anyway, fairly soon. Too many people would be disadvantaged by allowing the right wing to fade away.”
That would be disadvantageous for the Kremlin, which needs a “small but active democratic opposition” for the benefit of relations with the West.
It is also necessary for domestic politics – not only as a personnel reserve, but as a lightning conductor.
The absence of the democrats from federal politics would also be disadvantageous for the right wing of United Russia; it will be all alone in facing the “ex-KGB people” now that the URF has failed in the elections.
However, in order to make a comeback, URF members will need to revise their strategy, tactics, and personnel policies, “learning the lessons of Putin’s first term, which their predecessors spent without doing anything useful for democracy in Russia.” This lesson is harsh: “Instead of a liberal empire, there should be expansion within Russia. The party of the middle class must talk to its audience all the time, not just once every four years.” Moreover, the URF will have to forget about being polite in relations with the regime: “Speak the truth, and nothing but the truth.” In that sense, it could at least follow the example of Motherland, which went into the election campaign with its own version of the truth rather than vague statements about supporting the president “on certain points.” And so on.
Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Merkator Group, says in Moskovskie Novosti: “The most painful blow to the democratic camp could have been struck by giving Yabloko an extra half a million votes or so. Then Yabloko would just scrape past 5%, thus creating a semblance of a democratic presence in parliament. The West would be reassured about Russia’s fate; and the URF, after such a blow to its vanity, would never rise again.”
But now the democratic parties will have to work hard to save themselves from a permanent place among the marginal political formations. Dmitri Oreshkin believes the main issue is accountability among the democratic politicians: “They need to understand that the opposition field in its present form has been trampled – and they are directly responsible for that, in part.” It’s time to make way for a new generation; so the current leaders should leave the political stage as soon as possible, preferably of their own volition.
But if it turns out that today’s right-wing stars – Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, Grigori Yavlinsky – can’t bring themselves to get off the stage, they will simply be shunted aside by new democratic leaders: “Younger and more progressive, less well-fed and bronzed.”
As Moskovskie Novosti told its readers, the outcome of the elections for the fourth Duma “has returned Russia to 1989”: the democratic movement in Russia has to start afresh.