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Understanding Putin's Setback

Interviewee: Maria Lipman, Moscow Center, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 6, 2011

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The ruling United Russia Party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, suffered a serious setback in Sunday's elections (RFE/RL) to the Russian parliament (Duma), gaining only a simple majority instead of the two-thirds majority needed to push through constitutional changes. The results reflect public frustration with Putin's decision to run again for upcoming presidential elections in March after having served two terms in office, says Maria Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal. This, she says, added to public discontent with government corruption and latest abuses in the run-up to the parliamentary election, "pushed people to a vote of defiance." However, more opposition members in parliament will not bring greater political openness or influence Russia's foreign policy, she adds.

With the ruling party in Russia, United Russia, barely maintaining a majority in the next parliament, is this turning out to be a historic election?

I wouldn't call it historic but it's an important one after a series of elections under the rule of Vladimir Putin, former president, now prime minister, and self-designated president-to-be next year. In polls, people were not at all shy in describing the regime as corrupt and government officials as self-promoting; they complained about the abuse of authority by government officials and police.

In the past, the people still preferred to adjust rather than to opt for change. This time around I'm not sure that will change, but the support has clearly weakened. Especially during the last days of the campaign, the most advanced urban constituencies suddenly grew much more active than they had been, and there was a real rush to the polls to do anything to express their disgruntlement and to try and undermine United Russia.

What are the latest results? Did United Russia get over 50 percent?

The results have not changed significantly for many hours now so they are likely to remain the way they were reported, which is just under or just over 50 percent. This is still a majority for United Russia but a significant drop from a constitutional majority that it enjoyed in the current Duma (it held 70 percent of the seats), which meant the ability to change the constitution if they needed.

When you think of policymakers, it is the Kremlin and first and foremost, Putin. He is shaping foreign policy just as he does other policies.

This also gave Putin a virtual monopoly on decision-making, the ability to ignore the opposition in any of his decisions. The two-thirds majority in the Duma enabled United Russia--which is not a real party, but basically an arm of the Kremlin--to rubber stamp any decision that Kremlin would want to make. So with a constitutional majority for this party in the Duma, the Kremlin could easily push through any decision it wanted to make.

And now it doesn't have that constitutional majority?

No, it seems to have only a majority of just beyond 50 percent if that. It signals that the system is weakening and this is also weakening Putin's position, even if he is reelected as is expected in three months as president again for a new six-year term.

I was in Moscow in October for a brief visit and met a few newspaper editors. I was struck by how cynical they were at President Dmitry Medvedev's announcement that he would become prime minister and allow Putin, to run as president again. Did such irritation carry over into this election?

Yes. The disgruntlement has been there for a while. If you look at the polls one or two years ago, you will see a vast majority, way over 60 percent saying that civil servants in Russia do not live by the law or that abuse by the police is routine. However, it looks like people were ready to adjust to it and put up with it until it came to this election in which the obvious discontent was precipitated by exactly the factor that you mentioned, Putin's comeback as president after two terms in office. This sense of "Oh no, not for another twelve years" indicated the obvious fatigue that had accumulated. People may have expected him to run again, yet when it was eventually announced the reaction was that of frustration.

Also, the public was insulted by the way the two leaders traded places without even pretending that somehow public participation was involved. They decided it between the two of them and only presented it to the public as a fait accompli. Putin and Medvedev worsened the discontent and frustration that had already been there.

What the press is lacking is an accountability role in which the public can hold the government to account.

Finally what happened in this election was the shameless manipulation and fraud that was evident during the campaign; the harassment of activists, leading websites were under severe cyber attacks, and administrators blatantly abused their authority in order to deliver the desired result of the vote. These sort of shameless violations pushed people to a vote of defiance, in which they would do anything that would undermine the showing of United Russia.

Which parties benefit from this?

The Russian Duma has four parties; the United Russia, Communist, the Liberal Democrat Party, and "A Just Russia." All three opposition parties benefited and all three gained quite significantly. The Communists went from 8 percent to around 20 percent. The party "A Just Russia" which had 7 percent in the previous election now gained 13 percent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's [Liberal Democrat] party went up to 11 percent.

Does this have an impact on U.S. relations with Russia or is this strictly a domestic issue?

Foreign policy is shaped by Putin. This is not something for the parliament to do. Also, all these terms like parliament, elections, parties, do not mean the same thing as they do in the United States. The Duma is not like the Congress of the United States that can oppose the incumbent president and impede the positions he wants to take. The opposition parties that are represented in the Duma today are not exactly opposition; they are tame and were not seen as an obstacle to the Kremlin and certainly they were not policymakers.

When you think of policymakers, it is the Kremlin and first and foremost, Putin. He is shaping foreign policy just as he does other policies. So the relations with the United States will depend from the Russian side on what he regards as best serving his goals. [However], he certainly looks weaker after this failure of United Russia because he happens to be the formal leader of this party.

He is still the prime minister until the presidential election in March, yes?

Yes indeed. He is technically prime minister but everyone regards him as the number one person in Russia, the most powerful person and certainly the leader, which he has never stopped being throughout Medvedev's presidency. Now this is even more so because after Medvedev abdicated in late September, it's even hard for people to remember that Medvedev is still the president of the country.

I was struck looking at some of the Russian newspaper web sites (Moscow Times); several papers were reporting on corruption and ballot fixing. It seems there were no constraints on media. Is this also on television or just in the press?

Back in 2004, I wrote a piece that Russian media constraints are irrelevant; television will be constrained and those media outlets that pursue independent editorial lines have largely remained irrelevant as far as policymaking is concerned because the government could easily ignore what they are reporting.

Those political forces that care about issues such as democracy and checks and balances and such, are not in the Duma.

However, the freedom of expression is relatively broad. Especially lately, you saw all sorts of exposures of abuse of authority as well as critical analysis and angry opinions and political satire. These publications are anything but loyal [to government] and we are talking here about not just "papers," because every newspaper has a website. Also radio, and a little bit as it emerges, internet television are speaking out.

What the press is lacking is an accountability role in which the public can hold the government to account. The ability to write, the ability to express your views, or publish your repertoires is not so much constrained.

So what's really lacking is a strong opposition in the political sphere that can force change.

Indeed. Of course in any country whenever the media reports something relevant politically there should be an opposition to pick it up and then to use it as a public issue. Media alone cannot do this, but in Russia, political opposition in the Duma has been mostly tame. Even if it [were not] so, the vast majority for the pro-Kremlin force in the Duma made opposition inconsequential.

Now that the opposition parties have nearly a 50 percent in the lower house, will their voices be heard or are they still going to be rather tame?

This is not genuine opposition; these are parties that have existed at the Kremlin's discretion all these years and depend on the Kremlin for their financing. Now their bargaining power has grown somewhat, but it's not conceivable that they would form a kind of opposition that would bring the missing political openness to the Russian scene.

Those political forces that care about issues such as democracy and checks and balances and such, are not in the Duma. They are beyond the political realm and the Kremlin has controlled the political field at least up until now quite tightly, so that no undesired or unwelcomed forces or figures would be able to enter it.

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