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A Victory In Name Only

A woman votes at a polling station in Rostov na Donu.

A woman votes at a polling station in Rostov na Donu.

As they assessed the results of Sunday's elections, the authorities did their best to put on a brave face.

Even though voters "are tired and feel pressure," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said they ”continue to positively assess the government's actions and express hope by this vote that the situation will change."

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said the ""voters have supported United Russia. This is an assessment of the party's activities. It is support for the authorities, support for the president and for the leader of our party, [Vladimir] Putin."

"We won a fiercely competitive struggle," Andrei Vorobyov, the head of United Russia's executive committee told "Kommersant" in an interview. "This means that our programs are working. We are moving forward."

Upbeat words, to be sure. But few are convinced.

On the surface, Putin, Gryzlov, and Vorobyov's buoyant assessments seems justified. United Russia, after all, hung onto its majorities in all 12 regional legislatures where elections were held.

But take a peek under the hood and the situation looks less rosy for the longtime ruling party. And according to "Vedomosti," they knew it even before the polls closed.

"By yesterday afternoon (March 13), it had become clear that United Russia would hardly be satisfied with the election results," the daily wrote. "The party leadership did not release the results of exit polls and they cancelled their election night press conference."

As reported today, United Russia failed to clear 40 percent in the Tver and Kirov oblasts, where they won 39.7 percent and 36.5 percent, respectively.

In the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast they won just 43 percent, in Kursk 44.8 percent, and in Khanty-Mansiysk 44.5. In Kaliningrad, electoral officials say the ruling party won just under 50 percent. They won an outright majority in just two regions, Dagestan (66.8 percent) and Chukotka (71.2 percent) -- where allegations of fraud were especially pronounced.

This is quite a fall from the bigwins the party boasted in the October 2009 regional elections, to say nothing of their crushing 64 percent victory in the December 2007 State Duma vote.

And if you assume, as you must in Russian elections, that United Russia's totals are wildly inflated by the extensive use of administrative resources and fraud, then the authorities have very little to smile about today.

"The elections, of course, were rigged, but they could not be faked all the way to the very core. Somewhere, under a thick layer of chocolate, there is always the truth," Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told "," adding that if people get the idea that they can change things through the ballot box, then "no amount of resources in the hands of the authorities" can thwart them.

Sunday's vote was the unofficial kick-off of the coming political season, with elections to the State Duma and the presidency scheduled for December 2011 and March 2012 respectively.

The question now is what lessons the authorities will take away from the results. Will they crank the administrative resources and voter fraud "up to eleven" to try to prevent losses in the Duma in December?

I suspect they will try for one simple reason. The Duma elections in December come just months before the presidential election. And whatever the ruling tandem decides it wants to do in that poll -- whether Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev will stand for president -- the Kremlin wants it to be a highly choreographed affair.

Moreover, Putin is clearly trying to turn the ruling party into a vehicle for his continued dominance of Russian politics, regardless of which official state post he occupies.

An embarrassment for United Russia at the polls in December would severely hinder both of these goals.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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