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October 11 vs. March 14

A man leaves a ballot booth at a polling station in Khakassia on March 14.
A man leaves a ballot booth at a polling station in Khakassia on March 14.
So now we have two distinct models for fixing elections: the shameless shenanigans of October and the fake pluralism of March.

Back on October 11, the ruling United Russia so dominated regional elections, and the falsification was so flagrant, that the whole affair sparked a walk-out from the State Duma by the Communists, Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia.

On March 14, United Russia still dominated local elections, but not by nearly as wide a margin as they had in regional polls in the autumn. All three housebroken "opposition" parties were allowed to win enough to keep them satisfied (the Communists even won the Irkutsk mayor's race), but there is little doubt who remains in charge.

As I have blogged here, clan battles in the Kremlin, in the regions, and inside the United Russia hierarchy have damaged the party's standing in the elite and with the public and at the polls. The party's aura of invincibility is fading.

Writing in today's issue of "The Moscow Times," the Carnegie Center's Nikolai Petrov calls the situation "strangely reminiscent of the historic elections of 1989 and 1990 — the first multiparty elections in the Soviet Union — when people voted against candidates from the Communist Party as protest votes."

But as political analyst Oksana Goncharenko tells "Vremya novostei," it was also clear that the Kremlin changed its tactics in the March 14 vote. The administrative methods the authorities routinely deploy to secure the vote they want, she said, were "used with considerably less gusto in this election, and the opposition itself recognizes this."

Also speaking to "Vremya novostei," Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies makes a similar point:

There was a period when the strategy aimed at maximization of United Russia's presence in the corridors of power. It was carried out with such devotion that the paradigm blew up in October 2009. The most devoted opposition finally saw itself as an obstacle barring United Russia's way and promptly left the Duma. So, it is not a crisis of United Russia or decline of its popularity that we are witnessing. The referee is changing the rules of the game, that's all.

Petrov argues that this change of tactics represents a small -- but clear -- victory for Medvedev:

United Russia certainly lost face in the March 14 vote. The party’s drop in popularity reflects the logical trend under which voters lose confidence in the authorities and the 'party of power' during a crisis. At the same time, however, it was a small political victory for Medvedev, who made it clear after the embarrassing October electoral abuses that he would take steps against blatant administrative interference and manipulations.

Of course, Medvedev has made no moves to allow real opposition parties who might seriously challenge the status quo -- as opposed to the housebroken and obedient variety -- to be part of the process:

The Union of Right Forces has been long dead, and the Kremlin-created liberal party the Right Cause has not gone anywhere. And now, after the March elections, Yabloko has become the latest victim, losing all representation at the regional level. The result is that not only have these liberal parties been marginalized, but also large groups of voters have been deprived of politicians representing their interests. In the end, the political spectrum has become more narrow and primitive.

This disenfranchisement could come back to haunt the Kremlin if the economy continues to slide and the political situation destabilizes (but that is a subject for another post).

So which model -- October 11 or March 14 -- will the Kremlin attempt to deploy in Russia's next big vote, elections to the State Duma in December 2011?

According to Makarkin, that will depend on what function the Duma elections will serve for the ruling elite. If they are marketed as a referendum on the current authorities, or as a sort of "primary" for 2012 presidential election, then the temptation to go overboard with administrative methods will be great indeed. In this scenario, the October 11 model will dominate.

If they are treated as a "common parliamentary election," Makarkin says we can expect an outcome similar to the March 14 election. "Everything depends on what political decision is made," he said. "The political decision in its turn depends on who is on top of United Russia's ticket. And on what the election is supposed to accomplish, of course."

It also depends upon who is expected to lead the country after the 2011-12 election cycle.

In an online interview with, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said the Medvedev-Putin ruling tandem would remain in place after the 2012 presidential elections. "There can't be any contradictions in the Medvedev-Putin tandem by default," Gryzlov said. "That is why they will work in this tandem after 2012."

Does this mean that Medvedev will remain president and Putin premier? Gryzlov, of course, didn't say. This rather important detail is, in all likelihood, still being ironed out.

-- 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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