Reading the Russian election

Viewing the Russian election as a classical standoff between repression and liberty distorts more than it clarifies.

Inside Story - Putin for president?
Despite a nascent opposition movement, Putin is a popular figure in Russia [EPA]

Berkeley, CA – If the tropes peddled by the Western media are to be believed, the Kremlin is faced with unprecedented challenges, from plummeting popularity to grassroots middle-class revolt. A “Russian Spring” is in the air, with Putin on the verge of being swept away by the same upswell of Twittering youth that unseated his Arab counterparts Ben Ali and Mubarak (provided, of course, that he doesn’t imitate Assad by shelling his own people).

Maybe it’s a new perestroika. Or perhaps the right comparison is to the US civil rights movement, with the Russian middle class providing the moral clarity and drive that will inexorably undermine and topple Putinism.

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Overwhelmingly, commentary on the forthcoming presidential elections is filtered through the above narrative prisms. This is unsurprising, because a classical standoff between Repression and Liberty is both easily comprehensible, and ties in neatly with today’s – if, perhaps, not tomorrow’s – fashionable “springtime of peoples” narrative used to explain the Arab revolts. But forcing Russian politics onto this Procrustean bed distorts far more than it elucidates, because at its heart it is based on flawed – in many cases, I daresay mythical – foundations.

Teflon Putin and his silent majority

The first inconvenient truth, rarely mentioned, is that Putin is simply popular. Even most of his critics do not dispute that if free and fair elections were to be held tomorrow, he would win by a landslide. All the opinion pollsters give him a first-round win: state-owned VCIOM and FOM, and independent Levada, all predict a first-round victory with about 58 per cent to 60 per cent of the vote. He has a threefold lead over the Communists’ candidate Zyuganov, the perennial second-place man of Russian politics.

Nor are Putin’s ratings in freefall. They did slump to a “local minimum” in mid-December 2011, to use a mathematical term, but have since recovered, despite – or because of? – the protests.

Putin’s consistently high popularity may be unexpected, and attributed to nefarious factors like his control over the media – in reality, far more fictitious than real, as anyone who reads Russian newspapers or browses online will quickly find – but it shouldn’t be. Whether Putin, oil prices, natural recovery from the Soviet collapse, or some combination of all these factors is responsible, Russians undeniably live far better today than a decade ago: GDP (in purchasing power parity terms) has doubled, salaries have risen nearly tenfold (in US dollar terms) to $800 per month, and even many blue-collar workers can now afford the occasional holiday to Turkey or Thailand. Rightly or wrongly, Putin is associated with these improvements, and the stability that enabled it.

This largely rules out any useful comparison with countries such as Tunisia or Egypt, which were growing much more slowly in per capita terms, and from far lower starting bases. Furthermore, they are major grain importers, while Russia is a net exporter, so they are adversely affected by food price shocks to a much greater extent than Russia. (On a slight tangent, I suspect that Chinese adopting meatier diets played a greater role in the “Arab Spring” than any other factor). Needless to say, the late USSR isn’t a good comparison either, the word zastoi (“stagnation”) being practically synonymous with it.

Whereas pro-United Russia fraud in 2011 – probably on the scale of 5 percent to 7 percent – was what unleashed the protest genie in the first place, it did enable it to retain a slight Duma majority. In that case, there was at least a perverse logic to the falsifications. But since Putin is virtually assured of a first-round win, it becomes clear that the last person to benefit from falsifications would be Putin himself, because it would be a threat to his legitimacy. In contrast, truly clean and honest elections would at a single stroke remove the single issue keeping the disparate protest movement together.

It is not surprising, therefore, that these elections will be under heavy scrutiny – not only by official monitors, but also through a nationwide system of 200,000 web cameras, installed on Putin’s initiative in the past three months (you will be able to access video feeds from the polling station of your choice at The new measures will hopefully eliminate the most common type of fraud: massively inflated turnouts that exclusively benefit the pro-Kremlin party or candidate. 

That said, I think it is too much to hope for that a deep problem like election fraud, prevalent since at least 1996 – and with its own set of perverse incentives, as United Russia functionaries are rewarded for good electoral results, be they obtained by fair means or foul – will be completely solved in one election cycle. But I think its magnitude can be reasonably expected to decline.

Partisans and their crowd wars

Dismissing the conspiracy theories that all Russia’s opinion pollsters are controlled by the Kremlin, let us move on to a more sophisticated argument: Whereas Putin may have a stranglehold on the “silent majority”, it is apathetic, unprogressive, and hence fragile and historically doomed.

“You had bribes, blackmail, and buses,” the liberal critic says. “Yet even so, a mere 20,000 people went to your Anti-Orange Meeting, most of them state workers cajoled into coming by their bosses. Our Meetings For Fair Elections attract 100,000 to 200,000 people, including the best of Russia’s ‘creative class’. We grow stronger with every passing month. Come spring – Putler kaput!”

Many Russian liberals would agree with the above argument, invocation of Godwin’s Law included. It is also by and large the narrative that the Western media has adopted, if – at least in formal publications – with less invective. But that argument suffers from several basic flaws.

Whereas the opposition’s 100,000+ attendance figures are mostly taken at face value, the same favour is rarely extended to pro-Kremlin ones, on the few occasions they are mentioned at all. For instance, the Anti-Orange Meeting on February 4 at Poklonnaya had a densely packed crowd about 200-300 meters wide, and stretching more than half a kilometer into the distance; according to calculations by the geodesic engineer Nikolai Pomeshchenko, there were around 80,000 people there. But the most quoted figure in the Western press was 20,000, which Patrick Armstrong tracked down to a single AP article which was shamelessly copied by outlets as diverse as The Guardian, FOX, and Salon. Does this photo look like 20,000 to you? Who are you going to believe, AP or your lying eyes? (But I guess that’s still marginally better than Le Parisien, which tried to pass off Poklonnaya as an anti-Putin rally).

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In contrast, there is a distinct lack of any critical questioning of figures issued by the opposition. Again, let’s ask Pomeshchenko: Using spatio-mathematical methods, he estimated opposition protests of 60,000 on December 10 (at Bolotnaya), 56,000+ on December 24 (at Prospekt Sakharova), and 62,000 on February 4 (again, at Bolotnaya). They are intuitively reliable, being halfway between the estimates of the police and the opposition, both of which have a dog in the fight.

But what would be truly discouraging to an oppositionist looking at these figures is that they aren’t increasing over time. The stability of these figures is furthermore supported by opinion polls; more than half the people at the latest rally also said they participated in the previous two, which strongly implies that it is largely the same “hard core” that goes to each opposition meeting.

One can quibble with the precise attendance figures – there are huge margins of error – but it is clear that momentum is failing to build. At Prospekt Sakharova, opposition star Navalny promised a million protesters at the next rally; in the event, he overshot by more than 900,000. With none of these meetings drawing more than 1 per cent of Moscow’s population, an “Arab Spring”-type revolution would appear to be a distant prospect.

The last objection is that people are unwillingly bussed into pro-Putin protests. There are probably a few genuine cases, but again, it’s better to go by concrete numbers. How many buses were there in the photos from Poklonnaya? Forty. Let’s arbitrarily double it to eighty. Let’s assume all the passengers on them were coerced into going, i.e. that by definition, one simply cannot willingly step into a bus, and let’s also assume that they were all at their maximum capacity of 50 people. So even under patently unrealistic conditions, that’s 4,000 people, or no more than 5 per cent of the protesters at Poklonnaya.

This view of the rallies as evenly matched, with the pro-Putin ones perhaps enjoying a slight numerical edge, are backed by polling evidence. According to VCIOM, Putin has less electoral support in Moscow, at 44 per cent, than in the rest of Russia, at 59 per cent; in contrast, Prokhorov – whose electorate largely consists of aggrieved liberals who sympathise with the anti-Putin protests – has 17 per cent of Muscovites on his side, compared to 9 per cent of Russians. Add in a sprinkling of social democrats, Communists, and nationalists from the camps of the three other candidates, and it turns out that the pro-Putin and anti-Putin are, give or take, about evenly matched in Moscow (if not in the rest of Russia, where opposition protests have largely flopped). By Occam’s Razor, their respective rallies should also then be about evenly matched.

The lesson is, beware of the tricks partisans on all sides – liberals, pro-Kremlin, Western journalists – use to fight their “crowd wars”.

A disunited Russia (and why that isn’t a bad thing)

While thus far I have treated the opposition as monolithic, the reality is that – demands for fair elections excepted – it is not. They are composed of several distinct ideological currents: The Communists, who will support Zyuganov in these elections; the nationalists, who will support Zhirinovsky; the pro-Western liberals, who will support Prokhorov; and the social democrats, who will support Mironov.

The largest of these opposition blocs by far, with the support of about 20 per cent of Russia’s electorate, are the Communists. While the Western media tends to treat them as the only “real” opposition (whatever that is supposed to mean), the liberal bloc nationwide has no more than 10 percent at most, and is matched by anti-Putin social democrats and exceeded by the nationalists. The only part of the country where the liberals match the Communists in numbers is Moscow.

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This is likely due to Moscow being the traditional seat of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia, like the writer Boris Akunin and journalist Leonid Parfyonov. This intelligentsia has traditionally opposed power, be it Tsarist, Soviet, or Putinist; it is in its blood. That said, it should not be confused with the “creative classes”, who are more anti-Putin than the average Russian but are very far from exclusively so. For instance, the writer Sergey Lukyanenko, whom you may know from the movie adaptation of his “Night Watch” series – a work that is notable for its moral ambiguity – wrote about how ironically, it was the liberals themselves and what he perceived as their anti-democratic rhetoric that moved him to support Putin in these elections.

This is not a lone phenomenon. To the contrary, there are active arguments between liberal and pro-Putin intellectuals via LJ blogs, Twitter, and the wider Runet that have received a big stimulus from the recent charging of the political atmosphere. To the extent that culture wars like this – fought through words and cyberspace, not prisons and repressions – are integral parts of liberal democracies, Russia isn’t doing too bad on this score.

Apart from this intensified discussion, another good point about the outburst of protest activity is that it has forced Putin to up his game. He wrote seven very detailed articles on his proposed policies, as opposed to just one in 2000; unlike in previous elections, this time he campaigned actively, and addressed a crowd of 75,000 supporters in Luzhniki Stadium. There is pending legislation to substantially liberalise the political space, such as reducing the entry barrier into the Duma from 7 per cent to 5 per cent, restoring direct elections of governors,  and reducing the amount of signatures needed for party registration.

These, however, probably shouldn’t be interpreted as concessions to the liberal opposition, but as a restoration that would have happened in any case. That is because the original rollbacks were responses to the general crisis of the Russian state by the late 1990s which have now largely receded. Furthermore, at the time these rollbacks had broad support; ironically, what the liberals of today now decry, and blame Putin for, many of them once supported. Case in point: there is a video of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition activist today, essentially arguing that Russia needs a Tsar while serving under Yeltsin in 1997. And there is another video in which Putin argues the precise opposite way back in 1996, while serving under the liberal St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

So who is the liberal here? Neither and both. Politics is a dynamic process, and it is very rare that you get clear demarcations between black and white. Certainly not in Russia, at any rate. This I consider one of the most important points to bear in mind when reading Russia’s forthcoming elections.

Anatoly Karlin is finishing a degree in Political Economy at University of California-Berkeley. He runs the blog Sublime Oblivion about Russia, geopolitics, and peak oil.