Elections Without Change

March of the Millions, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ks2891/7149944683/ The March of the Millions in Moscow, May 6, 2012.
CREDIT: Sergey Kukota

Vladimir Putin's inauguration ceremony on May 7, 2012 took place amid a series of mass protests against the president. One of the largest protest events—the March of the Millions (Marsh millionov)—occurred on May 6. Although the protest did not live up to its name since it did not attract a million protesters, a record number of 100,000 people participated, according to the event organizers. Representing a wide spectrum of ideological views, protesters denounced the elections as fraudulent and demanded Putin's resignation. They chanted the slogans "Russia without Putin" and "Putin Must Go."

These protests came almost a decade after the so-called electoral revolutions in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), and Ukraine (2004), culminating in the resignation of the incumbent presidents or the electoral defeat of the president's handpicked successor. The fraud-tainted elections in Russia brought Putin back as president. (Putin previously served as president in 2000–2008. He was prime minister in 1999–2000, and again in 2008–2012.)

In response to the protests, the Russian government deployed a plethora of repressive methods. One of the first victims was the independent media. The websites of the newspaper Kommersant and the radio station Echo of Moscow were subject to DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service attacks), impeding citizens' access to information during the protest events. Another state countermove was the blockage of routes to the protest sites. Moreover, the Moscow draft board announced that any young men of draft age who were detained would receive a notice to serve in the army.

During the protest on May 6, the police arrested more than 400 people. As the riot police dispersed the anti-government protest by using tear gas and police batons, approximately 30,000 people peacefully attended a state-sanctioned rally announcing the formation of the All-Russian Popular Front to mobilize Putin's sympathizers. This recent episode in state-society relations at the very start of Putin's third presidential term illustrates the continuation of authoritarian practices under his presidency.

Indeed, there are several reasons for pessimism about Russia's movement toward democracy during Putin's latest term as president. First, the presence of old faces in the new cabinet dampens hopes for dramatic democratic reforms. The former KGB officers Sergei Ivanov and Nikolai Patrushev were reappointed as the chief of staff and the head of Russia's Security Council, respectively. In addition, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has recently spoken in defense of the Syrian government, and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov both kept their posts.

Second, the incumbent government appears to favor the notion of "facade democracy." In his last state-of-the-nation address, the outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev promised the provision of greater legal opportunities for political participation. Medvedev declared that Russia should return to the direct elections of governors, relax procedures for the registration of political parties and presidential candidates, and set up a public TV channel. Yet, the new laws passed by the Russian parliament barely change the terms of political competition.

According to the new law, the president still exercises a lot of power over the election of governors. Furthermore, the Russian parliament amended the law on political action, sharply increasing the size of fines for participation in unsanctioned protests. In accordance with the recent amendments, the maximum fine increased from 2,000 to 300,000 Russian rubles, or $9,000, which is a substantial amount of money in a country with a GDP per capita of $19,891 in 2010. It is widely believed that these amendments were hastily adopted to undercut the organization of the next March of the Millions, scheduled for June 12.

Another indicator of Russia's democratic regression is Putin's staunch support for dictators. On May 31, 2012, less than a month since his swearing-in as president, Putin made his first foreign visit to Belarus, widely known as Europe's last dictatorship, and pledged support for Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Russia promised to loan billions of dollars to the government of Belarus to salvage its ailing economy and strengthen Lukashenka's rule in the face of mounting international sanctions.

Moreover, Russia continues to support the Syrian government and resists international efforts to end gross human rights violations in the country. The Russian government, for example, opposed the UN resolution on Syria in the aftermath of the widely publicized massacre in the Houla area. This government action suggests Putin's fear of authoritarian breakdowns and his concern about the power of positive example.

Nevertheless, opinion polls suggest that the majority of Russians still favor Putin as the country's president. The Levada Center found that only one-fifth of Russians supported the slogan "Russia without Putin" in April 2012. Opinion polls further indicate that Putin remains the most popular Russian politician. Had elections been held in May 2012, 39 percent of Russians would have voted for Putin, while the second most popular option was "against all candidates." The lack of a viable alternative candidate diminishes the odds of political change.

Western governments should exert more political and economic pressure on the Russian government to reform. For example, Russia should be expelled from the G8. It does not live up to democratic standards and therefore does not belong in the club of the world's largest advanced industrial democracies. This May, President Putin declined to attend the G8 summit held in the United States, showing his disregard for the gathering of world leaders. In turn, President Obama "expressed his understanding of President Putin's decision" and his "commitment to enhance bilateral cooperation on the basis of mutual strategic interests." Western governments should not endorse Putin's regime by keeping Russia in the G8 and attending the 2014 summit in Skolkovo, Russia's poor imitation of America's Silicon Valley.

Moreover, the U.S. government should act as a stronger counterweight to Russia's belligerent foreign policy in the post-Soviet region. Putin declared that the creation of the Eurasian Union, composed of the former Soviet republics under Moscow's leadership, would be his top foreign policy priority. Western powers should not be passive observers of the reassertion of Russia's hegemony in the region, since the formation of the Eurasian Union would herald not only economic integration, but also the consolidation of authoritarianism in the post-communist world.

Carnegie Council provides an open forum for discussion of ethical questions in international affairs. For another view of President Putin, see For Putin Redux, Time Will Tell, and other Russia Bulletins.

Read More: Democracy, Global Governance, Human Rights, International Relations, Belarus, Russia, Syria

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