United Russia, the ruling party in Russia, has lost a good chunk of its support base in the past four years – its rating fell from 64.3% in 2007 to 49.5% in 2011. Add to this the low voter turnout (50%) this year, and you will see something observers warned about a long time ago: Russian society has grown weary of seeing the same people as leaders of the country. The Soviets had a similar experience close to the end of the Brezhnev era. The more often the Secretary General appeared on television, the more he was ridiculed. In contrast, Vladimir Putin rose to power precisely through TV propaganda. But 10 years later, the Internet is turning into a mass medium whose freedom of censorship is becoming a headache for the government. Prior to the Duma election, Runet was transformed into a huge informational platform. Videos with detailed explanations about why people needed to cast their votes (to prevent the ruling party from snatching them) and the proper ways to register violations attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers. At the same time, sneering at the “party of fraudsters and thieves” (a popular description of United Russia generated, again, by internet users) reached an even greater scale. Thousands of samples of photoshopping, videos and simply jokes were created by both opposition supporters and ordinary enthusiasts who do not really care what they mock. Various demotivators that circulated before the parliamentary election in Russia can, very roughly, be divided into three main groups.
First — items that target United Russia, as well as Putin and Dmitry Medvedev personally. Second — the unfair election in which no real opposition party was allowed to participate is exposed. Third — mocking of the entire political system of Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”
“THEY GOT TOO MUCH FOR THEMSELVES”
While one of the key problems faced by governments in traditional democracies is the gap between the haves and have-nots, riches in the post-Soviet landscape are acquired through not so much through entrepreneurship as through proximity to power, i.e., the government. And Russians are perfectly aware of the fact.
“VOTE OR NOT”
Stalin’s unforgettable maxim – “The main thing is not how they vote, but how votes are counted” – is as relevant in contemporary Russia as it was in the USSR in the 1930s. Even though United Russia lost its overwhelming majority in the Duma, even its modest result raised doubts among critically-minded voters. In scientific terms, this is called losing legitimacy in the eyes of citizens. From a strategic standpoint, this distrust may find expression in ways much more serious than another batch of cartoons.
PUTIN OR THE APOCALYPSE
The idiocy of a system that leads to an “election without choice” is fertile ground for people to exercise their creative faculties. There is one barb that may hurt Ukrainians: Russian mockers view the current Ukrainian government as essentially the same as its Russian counterpart, only inferior. But there is really no reason to deny that.
The euphoria that has now diffused through the Russian parliamentary opposition is easy to understand. The ruling party lost the constitutional majority it previously had in the Duma by collecting less than 50% of the votes. (And even that was possible only after some districts reported above 100% turnout.) Now, some people think it will have to negotiate with other political forces and share offices. But this euphoria will soon evaporate. Ukrainian voters know first-hand how a pro-government party with 25-30% of votes can secure a monopoly in parliament. True, the Russian nonparliamentary opposition prevented the dominant party from obtaining more than half of the votes. However, the beneficiaries are the political forces that are represented in the Duma, either those that were set up with United Russia’s facilitation or the ones with which it has long-lasting close cooperation links. The anti-Putin opposition has no parliamentary representation as of today, no common ideology and no common leader. Against the background of a weakened United Russia, the communists have clearly improved their standings. A strong communist faction in the Duma and the coming presidential election mean that the Russian government will take (and is already taking) a number of populist steps that will badly hurt the federal budget.
Finally, there is a clear territorial division in electoral preferences. United Russia polled the highest in “national” regions (Chukotka, Yamalo-Nenets Autotomous Okrug, the Tyva Republic, Tatarstan, Mordovia and the Caucasus), while garnering the least in Russian ethnic areas (Sverdlovsk, Kostroma, Moscow, Yaroslavl and Archangelsk regions). In order to avoid a similar vote distribution in the presidential election, the Kremlin will likely pay even more attention to ethnic Russian voters. This means that Russian nationalism may be promoted with renewed vigor. It would not be surprising to see Moscow please average Russians with new “small victorious wars,” at least information wars, against the Baltic states, Georgia or Ukraine.
RUSSIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION RESULTS
United Russia – 49.54%
Communist Party – 19.6%
A Just Russia – 13.22%
LDPR – 11.66%
Yabloko – 3.3%
Patriots of Russia – 0.97%
Right Cause – 0.59%
Parties that crossed the 7% threshold will receive seats in parliament.