THE RUSSIAN ELECTORAL BALLET (1/19/12)

It is difficult to imagine what circumstances would compel thousands of protesters in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, to rally outdoors while enduring minus 20C temperature for over two hours. Despite the harsh winter climate, protesters from all around Russia took to the streets of cities from Moscow to Khabarovsk to protest the results of parliamentary elections to the Duma that took place on December 4th.

Prime Minister, former President, and Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, was expected to lose its parliamentary majority. Instead, United Russia managed to just barely hang onto a majority in the parliament with 238 MPs and 49.3% of the vote. These results are tainted by widespread allegations of ballot stuffing, vote purchasing, and forged electoral counts. Several liberal opposition parties also failed to clear the 7% vote threshold necessary to enter parliament.

The day after elections, December 5th, protesters in Moscow marched to the Lubyanka, the former headquarters of the KGB and current headquarters of the Federal Security Service, to protest perceived electoral fraud and vote tampering. Protests ramped up throughout the country culminating in large opposition rallies with over fifty-thousand attendees on December 10th and December 24th.

Outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev (who is seen as a subordinate to Putin) responded by offering token proposals to loosen election laws such as a return to the direct election of governors and mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg (elections which were originally rescinded by Putin). Putin, on the other hand, first mocked the protesters, then claimed the protests to be indicative of a healthy democracy under United Russia. So far Putin has sacked Vladislav Surkov (believed to have been the architect of Putin’s “managed democracy”) but has refused to abandon his bid for President. Meanwhile, protesters demand a redo of Duma elections (which Putin has outright rejected) and the freeing of political prisoners.

Symbolising the otherwise divided opposition bloc, political activist and rising personality Alexei Navalny has used his blog and social networks to expose corruption, but has decided not to oppose Putin as a presidential candidate. In his place on the ticket are several opposition candidates who barely stand a chance of beating Putin. The most highly-polled candidate against Putin is the Communist Party candidate at 11%. United Russia has also been caught forging signatures in order to place a Putin ally on the ballot as an insurance candidate should all the opposition candidates withdraw in protest. The most outspoken opposition candidate is metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov who favors a gradual moderate “evolution, not revolution” for Russia’s problematic problematic managed democracy.

Russians are dissatisfied with widespread corruption and the absence of rule of law. Unfortunately, the opposition is not unified enough to challenge United Russia. So Russia, unlike Mubarak’s Egypt or even Gorbachev’s USSR, is not a dictatorship but not quite a full-fledged democracy. Unless Russians shed the illusion of democracy and their political apathy, the planned rally on February 4th will likely not avert Putin’s coronation following the March 4th elections.