Do Not Give Up On Russian Democracy
WASHINGTON – To no one’s surprise, Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia came nowhere close to challenging President Vladimir Putin’s regime. His United Russia party remains utterly dominant, and the only three other parties in the Duma will be the co-opted “systemic” opposition parties, such as the Communists. The “non-systemic” opponents of the regime will not be represented.
The Kremlin tried to give the elections a veneer of openness and fairness by organizing primaries, changing the head of the electoral commission, and reintroducing single-member districts for half of the seats. But these were cosmetic changes rather than real improvements in what remains a fundamentally undemocratic system.
More importantly, the regime simultaneously stepped up its harassment of genuine opposition parties, as well as of civil society and independent organizations, labeled as “foreign agents.” As in previous elections, the playing field was nowhere near level. The electoral process remains rigged, even if it is now in more subtle ways — like the gerrymandering of electoral districts to break up clusters of potential opposition voters. On polling day, the vote was once again marred by the manipulations at which the Kremlin has long been adept.
In short, there is no sign of improvement in Russian democracy. If anything, the prospect of real political change seems further away than ever.
During the 2011–12 parliamentary-presidential electoral cycle, a large protest movement surprised the authorities and spurred a subsequent crackdown; today no one expects a similar popular outburst. A substantially lower turnout suggests public apathy. However, even if Sunday’s undemocratic elections are met with opposition resignation in the short term, they could still be followed by a period of political tension in Russia.
Putin is expected to seek and secure another term in the presidential election that will take place in early 2018. The months leading up to that contest (which Putin could move forward if he feels it is to his advantage) could be a delicate time for the regime, especially if the economic news remains bad. At the moment, there appears to be no risk of a serious popular challenge to Putin. But, this might start to change if the standard of living declines.
Even if Putin easily secures another term, uncertainty could still grow over whether he will seek another one in 2024 (regardless of the constitutional terms limit), install a successor, attempt another “job swap” (as he did when he became prime minister, and Dimitry Medvedev became president from 2008 to 2012), or look for yet another new way of staying in ultimate control. Meanwhile, other regime figures will inevitably start to think about life after Putin, creating more uncertainty.
Even as the possibility of political turbulence grows, Europe and the United States seem to have given up on trying to support democracy in Russia. Focused on Russia’s behavior abroad from Syria to Ukraine, European and U.S. leaders do not seem to be thinking very much about what they could or should do to improve its domestic political situation. For many years, there has been only little and intermittent European and American efforts at the senior diplomatic level to push for democratization in Russia. Occasional criticism of Putin and his system has come and gone with little substance to back it.
For those in U.S. and EU policy circles who call for supporting democracy in Russia, there are serious questions as to whether it is still possible to do anything, given that Putin’s regime has spent more than a decade building ever stronger defenses against external influence. Western government agencies and NGOs have been slowly squeezed out of Russia. Some still persevere – increasingly through online and offshore channels and by working with the growing diaspora – so as to keep at least some connection with democratic actors and civil society inside Russia and provide them with a lifeline.
Right now it is hard to be very optimistic about the impact of such efforts in the short or medium term. Yet they are necessary and deserve to be supported by Western governments. The prospects for democracy and democracy promotion in Russia might seem bleak right now. But, the regime built by and around Putin will at some point come under challenge and face a crisis, which could be very destabilizing for the Euro-Atlantic community. However hard and thankless the task may appear today, European and U.S. policymakers would still do well to keep investing in long-term efforts to help ensure that, when the time arrives, the country’s democratic actors are in a position to influence what kind of Russia will come next.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.