Contrary to the prevailing opinion, the elections last week to Russia’s State Duma mark the beginning, not the end, of systemic changes in that country. Each key actor on the political scene was given a go signal – each of a different nature.
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First, the political system itself passed a key stress test. The Kremlin now has a mandate to enact almost any kind of change it wants. Presidential elections can be moved up to 2017, the government can be completely reshuffled (although Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will probably survive), a dozen or so governors may lose their jobs, and there could be a wholesale overhaul of the administrative apparatus.
It was no coincidence that the day after the elections, unconfirmed reports surfaced about a radical reform of the security services – the so-called siloviki – that would create a supersized Ministry of State Security. Russia would thus replace its current secret service, the FSB, with a new MGB (but not KGB).
The ruling United Russia party is now firmly established as the main interface between the Kremlin and the population and the primary channel for political recruitment. Deputies from the new single-member districts can lobby to their heart’s content for the regional governors and special interests who are their patrons.
Other political parties represented in the State Duma – Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats and Sergey Mironov’s Just Russia – will keep their comfortable seats in the legislative cartel. No influence and no responsibility – in short, a dream job.
The opposition has proven so ineffectual that even its own supporters no longer take it seriously
The genuine opposition, from the radical right to the democratic middle and the extreme left, can simply vegetate. Opposition leaders and candidates have proven so feeble and ineffectual that even their own supporters no longer take them seriously. That makes personnel and organizational changes inevitable.
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has already decided not to run in the upcoming presidential election. That old warhorse of the liberal opposition, Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party, for the first time in its history failed to clear the 3 percent threshold, losing the state funding that had been its sole financial lifeline. Yabloko certainly will not survive in its present form. Whatever emerges from its wreckage will take a long time doing so.
Disillusioned political activists, who were the driving force behind the street protests in 2011-2012, are free to stay angry. On Facebook, primarily. Stripped of their already negligible representation, they have ceased to pose any threat to political stability.
Most ordinary Russians have also been given a free hand – to focus on their daily routines, calculate how to survive, and distance themselves from the political process as best they can. For the first time in post-Soviet Russia, the election campaign was deliberately sluggish, as neither the government nor the opposition tried to mobilize support. Turnout was 47.8 percent, a record low, as 12.6 million fewer people bothered to vote than in 2011.
It appears that the government and the people have entered a new social contract, not about the mutual exchange of services (as in the early 2000s) or even about mutual nonaggression (as in the late 2000s), but rather about mutually ignoring each other.
Foreign countries have also received their own carte blanche, of a very specific kind. They will be free to observe and comment upon whatever happens in Russia. Only one thing will be missing – the ability to exert any real influence over events.