In 2011, widespread fraud in a Russian parliamentary election led to massive demonstrations that surprised and shocked the regime of Vladimir Putin. For the past five years, the Kremlin has been focused on ensuring that no such uprising could happen again. Opposition leaders have been killed, jailed or forced into exile, and civil society organizations, including election monitors, have been severely restricted. Rules were changed to favor the ruling party, and a Praetorian guard created to defend the Kremlin. Putin even abruptly moved the election date from December to September, when many Russians have just returned from vacations, in an apparent attempt to depress turnout.
On Sunday, Putin appeared to get the result he wanted. This year’s parliamentary election produced a resounding victory for his United Russia party, and reports of fraud were more muted. Popular protests seemed unlikely. Rather than invest in the elections and their results, many Russians simply stayed home. Turnout was reported to be 48 percent, compared with an average of 60 percent in previous elections, and the figures dropped to a third or less in the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Putin expressed satisfaction Monday, even claiming that voters were responding to “outside attempts to destabilize Russia.” In fact, the real message of the election is that many Russians have retreated into passivity about politics, or quiet opposition to the regime – something familiar from Soviet times. The two-thirds majority that stayed away from the polls in the country’s two most important cities will not risk death or imprisonment to oppose Putin; but neither will they participate in his hollow institutions.
That doesn’t bode well for the long-term future of the autocratic system Putin has constructed. As it is, the Russian economy is moribund, headed into a third year of recession. The regime’s onetime dreams of stimulating industries other than energy and raw materials extraction, and creating a high-tech sector, are long dead. Middle-class Russians with skills are leaving the country en masse; more than 1 million citizens are reported to have emigrated since the 2011 elections.
Officially, Putin enjoys approval ratings above 80 percent, as Donald Trump likes to point out. But in practice, his regime relies more and more heavily on domestic repression. As the election results were coming out Monday, the Kommersant newspaper was reporting that a new State Security Ministry is in the works, combining existing domestic and foreign intelligence agencies in the manner of the former Soviet KGB.
Putin may reckon he will need that muscle to engineer his own reelection in 2018. For now, he looks likely to pull that off. But Russia’s reigning strongman is forgetting what the country’s modern history should have taught him: that economic stagnation, heavy state repression and the passive public resistance it produces are, in the long run, a recipe for systemic collapse.