Russia’s Local Elections: Politics in Spite of Putin
Soviet leaders had a poor record of keeping their promises. Nikita Khrushchev’s pronouncement that Communism would be fully implemented by 1980, or Mikhail Gorbachev’s pledge to give every family its own apartment by 2000, only provided more fodder for political jokes. Dmitri Medvedev’s assertion, at a meeting with Western Kremlinologists in September 2009, that direct gubernatorial elections will not return “in a hundred years” was of the same order. The replacement of elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees—in a country whose Constitution still purports to be federal—was carried out by Vladimir Putin on the pretext of the “fight against terrorism” after the Beslan school siege in 2004, and was widely considered to be the last stroke in the construction of his authoritarian “power vertical.” In the final years of the Soviet Union, and during the short-lived democracy of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, it was the elected local leaders, with their own power base and legitimacy, who presented the most formidable challenge to the government in Moscow. By abolishing gubernatorial elections, Putin’s regime pursued two goals at once: imposing its top-down control over the country and eliminating the main source of potential opposition.
But Medvedev’s “hundred years” turned out to be shorter than anyone had anticipated. By December 2011, as tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Moscow in the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in two decades, the government was forced to retreat. The protests, which became known as the “Snow Revolution,” were triggered by widespread fraud in that month’s parliamentary elections, when some thirteen to fifteen million votes were reportedly “stolen” in favor of Putin’s United Russia party (its official result of forty-nine percent, though still embarrassing for a party of the self-proclaimed “national leader,” was much higher than the thirty to thirty-five percent estimated by independent observers).
The underlying cause of the protests was the “job swap” between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, announced to the public two months prior to the vote. The protesters were not backing any particular party or candidate, or even a particular political cause: their rallies, which brought together liberals, socialists, and nationalists, were about their dignity as citizens of their country. After a decade of Putin’s authoritarian consolidation, a very significant (and the most prominent) part of Russian society was no longer willing to tolerate the absence of a political voice. “We are not cattle” was one of the most popular slogans as some one hundred thousand demonstrators gathered on December 10th on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin walls, to demand free and fair elections, the legalization of opposition parties, and the release of political prisoners. Twelve days later, Medvedev announced a package of reforms that, although timid and half-hearted, represented the first political retreat by the regime in its more than a decade-long rule. The measures included a significant easing of the hurdles for establishing new political parties and gaining access to the ballot, as well as the reinstatement of direct popular elections for all of Russia’s eighty-three regional leaders.