The results of this weekend’s parliamentary elections in Russia are already being denounced by some observers both in Russia and abroad. There is ample reason for gloom, and there is no shortage of people willing to declare the end of Russian democracy. This is too pessimistic, but Sunday’s vote is no cause for optimism, either. What did the elections mean? And what do they mean for us? Americans hardly pay attention to their own off-year congressional races, much less anyone else’s, but yesterday’s balloting in the Russian Federation could have a significant impact on Russia’s relations with the United States.
First, the bad news. Although foreign observers admit that the balloting itself on election day was fair and adhered to proper procedure, that in itself says little. The real problem was everything that happened before the election. The Kremlin’s slow strangulation of the free press, and particularly the electronic media, meant that Russian television was essentially a vehicle for Vladimir Putin’s preferred party, United Russia. It does little good to have completely fair elections while having utterly unfair election campaigns, and in this sense there is no way to interpret what happened on Sunday as anything other than a blow to Russian democracy.
There was also an ugly surprise hiding in the ballot box: Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The man who had once spoken of Russian soldiers washing their boots in the Indian Ocean, who had once kicked off a campaign by claming his party was a meek virgin with whom the voters should have group sex, and who has been in numerous brawls (including one on the floor of the parliament that involved him punching a female deputy), made a dramatic comeback on Sunday after years of dwindling poll numbers. His astonishingly misnamed Liberal Democratic party snagged some 12 percent of the vote, a solid win by Russian standards. Zhirinovsky, for all his rhetoric–and to see him in a televised debate is like watching the political version of a wrestling smackdown–has been a loyal supporter of the Kremlin. That voters have returned to him at all is one of the many dead canaries in the current Russian coalmine.
And now the worst news. When the numbers of United Russia, the Liberal Democratic party, and the new and hawkish Motherland party (which took nine percent) are combined, this nationalist-statist bloc will control 310 seats in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. That’s ten more than needed to amend the Russian constitution–which, as currently written, would prohibit Putin from running again in 2008, among other things. If the end comes for Russian democracy, it will come with the whimper of carefully written tweaks to the constitution, not with the bang of a sudden authoritarian crackdown.
For Americans, this is worrisome news. The emergence of significant nationalism was inevitable in Russia; the real surprise is that it took this long. Although few want to return to the Soviet past, the 1991 collapse and the subsequent events–including an American foreign policy that demanded great concessions from the Russians but offered little in return–left many Russians longing for some sense of the national greatness and international respect they felt as part of the USSR. Russia’s relationship with its former adversary, the United States, will be part of how that greatness will be defined, however, and we should expect to hear demands from the Russian parliament that Moscow take a stronger hand in dealing with Washington. Still, this new and potentially more hawkish Duma supermajority is now beholden to Putin. They will have to take their lead from him, and not vice versa. This is a small comfort, but since Putin has shown little inclination to move to a more adversarial foreign policy, his power over the parliamentary majority may be a moderating factor.
There is some good news, however. First, United Russia polled about 35 percent, and a good chunk of that support got taken from the Communists, who saw their numbers cut in half on Sunday. While there is reason to be skeptical, and even concerned, about United Russia, it is long past time to move the Soviet-era retread Communists (who control the Duma and its speakership for now) off the political stage. Although the democratic parties were also trounced, it is important to recall that they always get trounced. Since the Soviet collapse, Russia’s democrats of various stripes have been lackluster campaigners, with a considerable streak of arrogance toward ordinary voters who don’t care to be lectured on the finer points of macroeconomics. (David Remnick once described liberal economist Egor Gaidar running for office as if he were campaigning to become head of the math department.)
Also, this was not a referendum on democracy. Russians were not voting for a return to the totalitarian past, although they may have voted for a more authoritarian future, intentionally or otherwise. Mostly, they want order in a country they rightly see as bezpredel, without limits. In a country that has been plagued by the results of 70 years of catastrophic Soviet policies, this is understandable. Unfortunately, they are willing (unwisely) to sacrifice some, but clearly not all, of their civil liberties to get it. So far, however, they seem disinclined to simply trash their democratic institutions or to mortgage away their fundamental human rights, including the right to vote, demonstrate, speak, worship, associate freely, and many others.
In truth, the most worrisome voters are the ones who didn’t go to the polls: Many of them are young people with the most to lose, but they believe that politics is all a farce, and they’re willing to put up with the state’s misbehavior as long as they and their money and jobs are left alone. If Russia’s ten-year experiment with democracy finally comes to a halt in the near future, it will be too late for them to start caring.
As of this writing, United Russia has not made significant comment on Sunday’s victory. When it does, we should pay close attention.
–Tom Nichols is chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, and the author of Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from The Cold War. The views expressed are the author’s and not of any agency of the U.S. government.