|Recent polls indicate that Putin's United Russia Party has become increasingly unpopular [EPA]
When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stepped into the ring to congratulate mixed martial arts champion Fedor Emelianenko last Sunday (November 20), he probably did not expect to hear hissing and booing from the crowd of Moscow spectators. It was an apparent show of public protest, just two weeks ahead of Russian parliament elections on December 4, and what many observers have called a watershed moment in the history of Putin's Russia.
The scene was broadcast live on Russian television but the director of the Olympisky stadium, which hosted the event, said the audience was reacting to Emelianenko's American opponent, Jeff Monson, leaving the ring.
The main news show on Russia's Channel One later tightly edited the speech, substituting the booing with a cheer from the crowd. But the uncensored broadcast made its way onto YouTube, provoking a storm of commentary and generating over three million views.
Blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny declared the booing incident "the end of an era", while the rest of the internet community has ridiculed the attempts of Putin's spokesperson to describe the booing as reaction to Monson's defeat.
"There is nothing and nobody to debate in the Duma."
- Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalisation Studies
But whatever did take place in the Olympisky arena, it is now clear that most Russians, at least in the country's febrile internet chatrooms, believe that Putin, who has ruled Russia for the last 12 years, was indeed booed in public. And that is a clear sign of the real challenge the former president and now prime minister faces, both ahead of presidential elections next March, and as he seeks to ensure the victory of the country's ruling United Russia party in next Sunday's parliamentary elections.
That vote is crucial for the Kremlin, which wants to keep control of the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma. United Russia's two-thirds majority has turned the Duma into a pure legislative appendix of the executive branch, allowing it to pass laws and make changes to the constitution virtually unopposed. The Duma Speaker, United Russia's Boris Gryzlov, even famously said that "parliament is no place for discussion". That "scandalous statement", writes the director of the Institute of Globalisation Studies, Boris Kagarlitsky, only expressed what everybody already knew: "There is nothing and nobody to debate in the Duma".
Yet it is critical for the Kremlin to win these elections to maintain the overall legitimacy of the power structure it has created over the past 12 years. It also needs to keep control of the Duma to push through some painful measures in the coming months. Under the rule of Putin's United Russia, economic growth has slowed, and most economists agree that the Kremlin will have to make some sacrifices to balance the budget, such as cutting social programmes and raising the pension age.
But ensuring that victory will not be a walk in the park for the Kremlin this time around. For the first time in the Putin era, the Kremlin finds itself unable to control the election results as it once did. In the last parliamentary elections, held in 2007, United Russia won 64 percent of the vote, which gave it a constitutional majority. But recent surveys suggest that the party has become so unpopular that on average it is only polling about 40 percent, just one week before the election. And only 29 per cent of Muscovites say they will vote for the party in power.
So while it is likely that United Russia will still gain the biggest number of seats in the next Duma, its popularity has fallen, and the Kremlin can no longer sit back and relax waiting for the results to come in. Although it controls Russia's three main television channels and uses them to propagate United Russia's successes, it's no longer a given that United Russia has won over the hearts and minds of Russian voters.
Disillusionment with United Russia
The public's growing disillusionment with United Russia is concentrated among the country's intellectual elites, young professionals, urbanites and internet users. Their grievances vary from the stifling of freedoms to Putin's growing authoritarianism and the calcification of Russia's political life. "Our votes have been stolen long time ago," writes former world chess champion and now opposition leader Garry Kasparov. "They've been stolen together with our freedom of choice and with our right to express a point of view that is different from the one promoted by the official media."
But a growing majority of Russians say they are unhappy with the ruling party because it has failed to lift their standard of living, despite years of high oil and gas prices, over which Putin presided. "Our pensions are still low and our roads are still bad," says one Moscow resident. "The party of power could have done so much more in the ten years it's been in power," says another. Low salaries, small pensions, soaring inflation, a crumbling infrastructure and unreliable healthcare - these are the main points of dissatisfaction for most Russians. As a result, opposition parties - such as Russia's Communist Party, the Liberal Democrats, and Just Russia - are continuously citing these grievances in their election ads.
But perhaps the biggest problem United Russia faces is its status itself: the status of the party in power. Like the Communist Party of the USSR, United Russia has increasingly become the party of choice for Russia's elites. It boasts over two million members and counts among its own the country's crème de la crème. It includes not only regional governors and major business owners, but also Olympic champions, film directors, pop stars and even a pair of famous lion tamers. Some joined because they genuinely saw United Russia as a party of patriots driven to restore the country's glory after the tumultuous years following the breakup of the Soviet Union. But others sought access to power, privileges and decision-making that came with party membership.
United Russia's status as the ruling party, though, has become a double-edged sword. Ordinary Russians increasingly resent those in power, seeing their wealth while themselves struggling to simply get by in the world of consumer pleasures that now surrounds them. As revelations of corruption emerge and Russians learn about the ways members of United Russia misuse public funds, the party is now called "Partiya Zhulikov i Vorov", or "The Party of Swindlers and Thieves".
It is against this background of falling ratings and increasing disillusionment and mistrust that United Russia is reverting to the use of the so-called administrative resource. In Russia, this means using official positions and government resources to campaign for a political party and influence election results. Human Rights Watch reports that, as in the previous election, United Russia is benefiting from disproportionately favourable media coverage and other abuses of government resources.
The internet is brimming with reports, transcripts and purported audio and video recordings of government officials all over the country pressuring local businessmen to ensure their employees vote for United Russia. Other reports claim that local officials are also pressuring state workers, who are usually poorly paid and dependent on government handouts, to cast their ballots for United Russia. Several student organisations have reported their deans instructing them where and how to vote - in favor of United Russia. Such violations have become so numerous that a US-funded civic watchdog called "Golos" (Vote) has even started a website called "Karta narushenyi", or "Map of violations", mapping where these incidents have occurred in Russia.
Putin's falling popularity
This shows the extent to which the ruling party is worried about its electoral prospects. So worried, in fact, that Putin himself spoke to United Russia party members on Thursday, warning that defeat at the polls could plunge the country into an economic crisis. "We managed to overcome the financial crisis to a significant degree, with minimal losses," he reminded lawmakers, "only because we were able to make the necessary decisions effectively and on time based on United Russia's majority in the Duma".
For Putin, the drop in his own popularity is perhaps more worrying than anything else. His approval rating is 61 per cent, his lowest rating since August 2000, when he was dogged by the sinking of the Kursk submarine, which killed all 118 crewmen aboard. Moreover, one in four Russians now believe that Putin has built a cult of personality, compared to only about one in ten in March 2006.
So, while hoping his party will still come in first, Vladimir Putin may have a few worries behind his usual mask of steely confidence and calm when Russians head to the polls next Sunday.