Putin expected more than narrow, tainted victory

By A Contributor

Dale R. Herspring Contributing Writer

Russia held an election Dec.. 4 that attracted considerable attention in Russians and beyond. That’s because it did not turn out like elections always have in Russia and the Soviet Union.

The party in power, whether it was the Communist Party or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, always prevailed. That was true regardless of what steps had to be taken, including stuffing ballot boxes and intimidation. Elections are a sham in Russia, which has what some people have called a “managed democracy.”

However, the Dec. 4 legislative election results came as a shock.  It was soon evident that something unheard of was happening.

The shock was that Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev’s party did not cruise to victory, winning just 49.3 percent of the vote. In 2007, by comparison, it won 64 percent.

Even more unusual were the widespread charges of fraud. Many instances of fraud were reported through Golos, Russia’s sole independent election watchdog. Unfortunately, the government and state-owned media attacked Golos because it has received Western assistance — grant money from the United States and the European Union.  The Russian government refused to provide Golos any assistance. During the campaign, Putin compared organizations like Golos to Judas Iscariot.

Putin kept up the attack after the election, arguing that other countries were “investing hundreds of millions of dollars” to influence politics in Russia.  “It’s unacceptable when financing is being provided to some domestic organizations that are believed to be national but in fact work for foreign money and perform under the music of a foreign country.”  Putin threatened legislation limiting the ability of outside organizations to assist Russian political organizations.  Nevertheless, widespread cheating was alleged; among claims were that ballot boxes were stuffed, voters were intimidated and votes against United Party were not reported.

From exchanges with Russian friends, what appears to have happened is that local bosses, hoping to please Moscow, did stuff ballot boxes.  It is not clear, however, that Putin and his allies were behind this.

The most important message, in my opinion, is that if Putin’s party could not win with all of the irregularities alleged, then it is in serious trouble.

My Russian friends also say Putin’s popularity has been slipping. The average Russian is getting tired of the widespread corruption. President Medvedev and Putin have admitted that 40 percent of the military budget is being ripped off.  In addition, the game of musical chairs that Putin and Medvedev are playing with the presidency and prime ministry is pushing things too far.  If Putin wins the presidential election next March, as is expected, he could rule for two six-year terms — until 2024!  Finally, to the regime’s credit, it permitted demonstrations, although individuals who broke the law were arrested.  Allowing demonstrations, while commendable from a democratic point of view, made life difficult for the police. Protesters were given a place to congregate, and police could not do anything unless protesters broke the law.

From the standpoint of diplomacy, the worst role was played by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She publicly called the elections “rigged.” She also said, “Russian voters deserve a full investigation of electoral fraud and manipulation.” Not only did she have no way of knowing that the elections were rigged, her comments irritated Russians, especially Putin.

Putin claimed she was at least partially behind the protests. He said her comments “gave a signal” to his opponents. “They heard this signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began their active work.”  Clinton toned her comments down at a NATO meeting on Dec. 8.  When she was asked about calls to annul the results and hold new elections, she said, “Those kinds of decisions will have to be left up to the citizens of Russia.”

As for the future, I am as confused as my Russian friends. Putin’s position is not as secure as it was just months ago.  I am not suggesting that he is on his way out, but the days of blind obedience appear over and Putin’s decision to remain in power has not endeared him to his countrymen. As is often the case, the United States cannot help but stick its nose into Russian matters and thereby make matters worse.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.

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