Following parliamentary elections in Russia on Sunday, protests broke out across the country this week amid allegations of voter fraud. The elections kept Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party in power, but revealed a drastic decline in support for the party and significantly decreased its number of seats in Parliament. We asked Harlow Robinson, Matthews Distinguished University Professor and an expert in Russian and Soviet cultural history, to analyze the situation.
How would you describe the political climate in Russia leading up to the parliamentary elections this week?
The political climate was marked by cynicism and disillusionment among most of the population. In Russia, the idea that ordinary citizens have the ability to influence the behavior of their government is still not firmly established. Most Russians do not believe they can influence what happens in the Kremlin, even 20 years now after the collapse of Communism. Especially given the recent maneuverings between President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, there is less trust than ever that honest, real elections can be held in Russia.
To what do you attribute the drastic loss of support for Putin and the United Russia party revealed in Sunday’s election?
What I hope is that the loss of support for Putin may finally signal that the Russian people are waking up to the fact that if his party wins, they face at least 12 more years of his rule, which means a continuation of corruption at the highest levels, and a lack of transparency in government. Perhaps also this signals that the younger generation of Russians, those who did not grow up under Communism, may be coming to greater consciousness and responsibility. Remember that Putin is entirely a creature of the Soviet system — he was previously a high-ranking KGB officer — and that he rules very much in that spirit. It will take a generational shift for the administration of government and the participation of citizens to truly change.
After protests broke out following allegations of vote fraud, the Russian government quickly banned unauthorized rallies and arrested opposition leaders. How will these fraud allegations affect the success of these elections, and what impact may they have on Russian society and the political climate going forward?
The actions by the Russian government will certainly call into question the success of the elections. I understand from Russian sources that military equipment has been posted around Moscow. These actions will certainly lead to a polarization of the political atmosphere in Russia — but they also could lead to positive change, in that the Putin/Medvedev administration is showing its true colors, and there can be no further question about its real intentions and tactics in holding on to power at all costs. Transitions have always been very difficult for Russian governments, going back to Tsarist times, and this seems a continuation of that historical tradition.