Vladimir Putin may have discovered that there is nothing like a relatively free election to bring authoritarian rulers down to earth. The results of several exit polls for the 450-seat Duma elections suggest that his ruling United Russia party will get less than half the votes. Of course, that still gives Mr Putin’s party a formidable lead over his rivals. But the fact that United Russia’s lead has fallen from the substantial 64.3 per cent it received in the 2007 election must come as a reality check, since the elections to the lower house of Parliament were largely seen as a test of Mr Putin’s strength. The results may be doubly troubling for the former KGB officer – who has developed a global reputation for a resiliently thick-skinned political amorality and a curious predilection for physical sport – because he has thrown his hat in the ring for a third and potentially fourth term in the upcoming presidential elections in March. By doing so, Mr Putin has creatively circumvented the two-consecutive-term stricture on the Russian presidency by sitting out a term, appointing himself prime minister and establishing a proxy presidency via the amiable Dmitry Medvedev (indeed, as WikiLeaks famously revealed, US diplomats privately referred to Mr Putin as the Alpha Dog in the partnership).
There is nothing to suggest that Mr Putin will not potentially head Russia till 2024. But winning less than two-thirds of the seats means Mr Putin’s party will lose the majority that enabled it to amend the constitution at will. As Mr Medvedev explained in a press conference, the results suggest that United Russia will have to form a coalition with other parties on certain issues (including such critical ones as approving the impeachment of the president). Given the fact that the other parties do not purport to follow policies that are vastly different from United Russia’s, those of Russia’s 140 million-plus people who voted for change are unlikely to experience it in significant doses. For instance, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is unlikely to find himself freed from his Siberian fastness in a hurry.
Yet it is worth wondering whether Mr Putin will read the signals from this election right. In 2000, he was widely considered a refreshing contrast to the chaos of the Yeltsin years, but he leveraged that mandate to suppress dissenters, minorities like the Chechens and nurture the rise of state-sponsored oligarchs to corner Russia’s rich natural resources — the sole reason he was able to deliver seven per cent growth. Now, his 12-year direct and indirect rule has delivered little more than Stalinist repression (complete with assassinated journalists and thuggish supporters in factories and universities) and a steady deterioration of Russia’s human development indicators. Perhaps, Mr Putin may learn that an oligarchy is the wrong way to develop the kind of healthy market-driven system that can put Russia unambiguously in the ranks of developed nations.