The ongoing parliamentary election campaign in Russia reminds me of an electric fireplace. Everything seems to be there: firewood, flames, and heat. But there is no fire. Likewise, the Duma campaign – now in its final stretch – has all the attributes of a real political happening. The streets of Russian cities are decorated with election paraphernalia. TV and radio debates are in full swing -- and, in contrast to previous campaigns, even the United Russia party is participating. Complaints of election law violations – the perennial feature of every Russian election – keep mounting. But there is no fire.
The announcement that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is returning to the presidency next spring has deprived the current electoral cycle of its major intrigue and has brought a sense of finality in the mindset of the country’s elites. An unintended – however, hardly unanticipated – result of this development has been a precipitous drop in public interest in the next composition of the State Duma, a government body that many Russians consider a rubberstamp to the all-powerful executive. (A recent Vedomosti editorial called the Duma a “Ministry of Approvals.”)
Interestingly, this lack of enthusiasm peacefully coexists with a growing sense that the election results may not be “as usual.” The long-predicted decline in public support for the ruling United Russia party is finally taking place, and even the top party officials have grudgingly accepted the fact that United Russia is not likely to repeat its 2007 success – a constitutional majority in the Duma.
Given United Russia’s obvious vulnerability, one would expect that its major opponents – the communists (KPRF) and the liberal democrats (LDPR) – will intensify their attacks on their bleeding rival. This hasn’t happened. It would appear that both KPRF and LDPR are intentionally conducting low-key election campaigns, giving United Russia a chance to lose a “referendum” with the Russian voters. Messrs. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky believe – and not without reason – that any United Russia loss will be their win in terms of additional Duma seats.
True, United Russia still possesses enough of the notorious “administrative resource” to buttress its election numbers. The problem is that this may backfire. A recent report by the Center of Strategic Development has concluded that should United Russia receive 60-70 percent of the vote – a target that many believe the Kremlin has set for the party – the majority of Russians will consider the result as evidence of election fraud, not of the party’s high popularity with voters. The report goes as far as to claim that no more than 25-30 percent of the vote collected by United Russia will be accepted by the voters as a legitimate outcome.
This clear lack of trust in the legitimacy of the election process seems to be only part of a general trend: a growing sense of alienation of ordinary citizens from the country’s powers-that-be. A Levada Center poll released on Nov. 17 indicates that 68 percent of Russians (a 6 percent increase since 2007) believe that the “authorities” pursue interests that are different from those of the society at large. 85 percent of the respondents (an 8 percent increase since 2008) think that the majority of government officials systematically violate state laws. The same percentage of responders is also convinced that when engaged in political activities, Russian politicians follow only their personal financial interests.
However troubling the Levada findings might be, they do provide a glimpse of hope for the future of Russia’s democratic institutions. For example, although a whopping 82 percent of Russians believe that they can’t influence political processes in the country, 14 percent feel they can – a 6 percent increase since 2008. A third of responders also say that they are ready to participate in political actions, even if at the local level. However timid, these indications of the growing maturity of the Russian civil society seem to reflect the emergence of the middle class willing to take more responsibility for the situation in the country.
And this may pose serious systemic risks for the Kremlin. Public polls not only show the declining popularity of the current leaders; they reveal growing demand for a rotation in the upper echelons of power, a demand that the current “power vertical” – totally averse to real political competition – is unable to match. Besides, a recent study conducted by sociologists at the Moscow State University points to rapidly diminishing public appeal for “stability” so characteristic for the past ten years. The study suggests that as the first post-Soviet generation of young educated entrepreneurs comes of age, the prevailing sentiment is shifting from “stability” to “active development” mode.
By promising 12 years of more “stability,” Putin might be offering his compatriots a product that is not already in high demand. Like an electric fireplace in the middle of a hot summer.