This was a test. This was only a test. Don't be alarmed.
That appears to be the message the Russian political establishment is feeding to the public as it spins the results
of local elections on March 1 and 15.
Here's what President Dmitry Medvedev had to say:
The elections proved that the political system is completely stable in its operations. It is not devoid of problems, but it does work. This was a banner season. The parties represented in the State Duma were the most active ones in these elections. This is an indication that our political system is taking shape and becoming more mature.
And then there was this from State Duma Deputy and pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov:
The fact that people are voting for representatives of the large establishment parties illustrates the stability of the political system. There is an element of rallying round the flag. In other words, the population believes the ruling party can do much to save the country from crisis. President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have the support of the population in their battle with the crisis.
Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, widely seen as the elite's chief ideologist simply said: "The system works. [It will cope with the crisis and ride it out."
OK. We get it. The Kremlin thinks the system is "completely stable" (Medvedev), the results illustrate "the stability of the political system" (Markov), and "the system works" (Surkov).
What were they expecting? A complete breakdown? Why all the (feigned) relief?
These were some indications in the run-up to the election that the ruling elite was indeed getting jittery
about holding an election in the midst of an economic crisis.
But as fellow Power Verticalista Robert Coalson
noted in an earlier post, the Kremlin did not appear to be micro-managing this year's elections as much as they had in past. "It could even be argued that the latest polls were used as a test run to see how strong the local Unified Russia branches were," he wrote.
I think there is probably something to this. And even without micromanagement, Unified Russia secured majorities
in all nine of the regional legislatures being contested. Local Unified Russia party organizations have plenty of "administrative resources" at their disposal and are capable of making a vote go their way, it appears, even when the Kremlin isn't holding their hands.
There were some embarrassments in the second round, most notably in Murmansk
, where Sergei Subbotin defeated Unified Russia's candidate for mayor, the incumbent Mikhail Savchenko. But this only happened because of intra-elite squabbles in the region: Governor Yury Yevdokimov, a Unified Russia member, backed Subbotin against the wishes of the party. Unified Russia's candidate also lost the mayor's race in Smolensk.
Nevertheless, if we can surmise that the establishment has passed its test, then what happens next?
For weeks the Kremlin has been sending signals
that a major overhaul of the bureaucracy and political elite is on the way. And writing in Gazeta.ru
on March 17, political commentator Gleb Cherkasov suggests that this purge is now imminent:
In order to preserve the reserve of durability that it has, the system needs to sacrifice two or three nomenklatura detachments,
distancing them from participation in real politics and the distribution of material resources.
How will it be decided who the losers are?The simplest explanation is dispatch to the trash can of history clans and individual players who are linked in one way or another to the last years of Boris Yeltsin's rule. These could be the so-called 'strong governors,' whom Putin barely touched, and economic entities linked to the remains of the Yeltsin clan, and individual officials who have embedded themselves in the state apparatus.
One such "strong governor," Orel Oblast's Yegor Stroyev, has already been ousted
Moreover, the State Duma is now considering a bill
that would allow regional governors to sack mayors -- provided that they get the approval of two-thirds of the city legislature. Most city legislatures are controlled by Unified Russia.
So it appears that Russia's political system is about to undergo another overhaul. The question remains: can the elite pull off such a stunt amid an economic crisis and rising public discontent
? Perhaps, but it should prove to be a much harder test than the one they just endured.
-- Brian Whitmore