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Nothing Has Changed And Everything Has Changed

Workers attach an election poster in the southern city of Krasnodar featuring Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appealing to people to vote for United Russia
Workers attach an election poster in the southern city of Krasnodar featuring Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appealing to people to vote for United Russia
In many ways, The December 4 election result changes nothing at all.

Sure, United Russia has lost its two-thirds supermajority in the State Duma that allows it to amend the constitution unfettered. But was this really such a big deal to begin with? In reality, the ruling elite very rarely needs a supermajority. And when they do they can always count on Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- who despite his nationalist bluster and clownish antics -- consistently supports the Kremlin on the big issues.

Moreover, Vladimir Putin will easily be elected president in March. Despite the growing and very real public disillusionment with his rule, Putin remains the most popular politician in the country. And in the time between now and March, the Kremlin will -- no doubt learning from this experience -- become more adept at using its administrative resources more effectively to make sure there are no similar embarrassments in the presidential election.

So United Russia is still top dog in the Duma and Putin will soon be back in the Kremlin. Nothing has changed, right? Well, not so fast.

In many other ways, everything has changed -- and changed decisively.

The air of omnipotence that Putin has enjoyed -- and counted on --for the past decade is gone. Watching his joint appearance with Medvedev on Sunday night, he looked shaken, vulnerable, and very very mortal.

As Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told me today, Putin has suddenly found himself in uncharted waters. In the past, he has been able to control his public image, driving his Lada around the Far East, going fishing and hunting shirtless in Siberia, and scuba diving for hidden treasure in the Black Sea. But what happens when the once adoring masses start booing you at sporting events?

"He doesn't know how to act in this situation and he is beginning to get frightened," Oreshkin said. "He is backing away from public meetings. He doesn't like anything that isn't rehearsed. He wants everything to be set up so he is asked scripted questions and he gives pithy and funny answers. He is now in a situation that he cannot rehearse and he has a very big problem."

Also gone is the reservoir of nearly unconditional support most Russians had, not just for Putin, but for the authoritarian system he painstakingly built over the past decade. That system, at least in the popular mythology, brought stability and prosperity after the chaos and poverty of the 1990s. But for many Russians, the bad old days -- the modern Time of Troubles -- are a fading memory and the economy is looking less and less robust. And for the Russian elite, the prosperity Putin presided over is a double-edged sword. As any political scientist will tell you, rising living standards in authoritarian countries usually lead to demands for political rights. This is happening in Russia as we speak, as a young generation with no memory of the Soviet period or the deprivation that followed it comes of age.

As I blogged last week, the ruling elite is suffering from a legitimacy crisis that is not going away anytime soon. Russian civil society is engaged and active in ways I have not seen since the Perestroika period -- and this time around, activists have the ability to spread viral videos on YouTube. This was on full display during the Duma vote as electoral observers, opposition figures, and ordinary citizens documented abuses like carrousel voting for all the world to see.

Was this election more fraudulent that previous ones on Putin's watch? Probably not. But this time it was filmed, documented, and posted online.

The unity of the broader elite, so vital for the smooth functioning of Putin's power vertical, is also gone. This became clear following the United Russia congress on September 24, when President Dmitry Medvedev's supporters could barely hide their disappointment and dismay at his "decision" to stand aside and let Putin return to the Kremlin. It was evident when Aleksei Kudrin went rogue, publicly criticizing the government's spending plans and then being forced to resign as finance minister. And it was evident with the remarkable political death and resurrection of Sergei Mironov, whose A Just Russia party has fared far better as an opposition force than it ever did as a pro-Kremlin satellite.

This is new for the Putin period. The last time I saw the elite this divided was in the late 1990s, just before Putin's rise to power.

I'll no doubt have more to add in the coming days. But for now, this is my initial takeaway from the December 4 election. Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

-- 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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