Russia’s parliamentary elections were on Sunday, and though you might be thinking, “Why do I give a shit about parliamentary elections in Russia?” they actually speak loudly to a number of issues in Russia, including corruption and current political climate, as well as Russia’s place in the world (i.e. with respect to you). I don’t want to exaggerate, but what happened in Russia on Sunday changes everything, and that includes you.
Before we get into what happened on Sunday, a little background on politics in Russia at this point (I’ll try to be brief). After the fall of the Soviet Union, the economy was terrible. Soul-crushingly, suicide-inducingly terrible. Boris Yeltsin was not effective in turning things around, and this is when Vladimir Putin entered the scene.
Before we get into Putin, a little background on the history of politics in Russia (seriously, I will be brief). Russia has a long history of great-and-terrible leaders, revered and reviled and revered and reviled in a confusing love-hate cycle. The Tsar Ivan IV is known as Ivan the Terrible in English, which is a direct sort-of translation from his Russian nickname, Ivan Grozny, which certainly means terrible but in a “formidable, awe-inspiring” sort of way. He did amazing things for Russia, politically, geographically, and socially, establishing Russia as a world power. He also oversaw the killing of perhaps 60,000 inhabitants of Novgorod and accidentally on purpose but accidentally murdered his son.
Wikipedia puts it quite well when it says that “historians developed different theories to better understand his reign, but independent of the perspective through which one chooses to approach this, it cannot be denied that Ivan the Terrible changed Russian history and continues to live on in popular imagination.” He was terrible, and great, and this model proved to be quite popular in Russia. As a matter of fact, you can take that sentence and change “Ivan the Terrible” for any number of tsars, comrades, and presidents, and it remains true.
One more example of the great-and-terrible figure: Joseph Stalin. If you don’t know anything about Stalin, let me tell you unequivocally: he was terrible. Really, really monumentally terrible. When he spoke, his standing ovations were long and enthusiastic, because nobody wanted to be the first to sit down. He purged (read: murdered) the vast majority of those near to him so as to maintain power. He orchestrated famines in Ukraine where somewhere between 3 million and 10 million people starved to death in a year. At the same time, his 5-year-plans rocketed the country forward economically, and it was under Stalin that the USSR was transformed once again into a world power.
Do you see a pattern emerging?
Putin became president in 2000, and his effect on the economy was staggering. Some of his achievements: the GDP increased by 600%, real incomes doubled, and he increased the size of the middle class from 8 million people to 55 million.
There’s more, but I think the best way to illustrate this is the following chart:
He has done some really awful things, as well. His human rights record is abysmal, and journalists who are anti-Putin keep dying mysteriously. Amnesty International’s current report of Russia says:
Human rights defenders and independent journalists continued to face threats, harassment and attacks, and investigations yielded few concrete results. Freedom of assembly and expression continued to come under attack, including through the banning of demonstrations, their violent dispersal and the prosecution of individuals under anti-extremism legislation. The security situation in the North Caucasus remained volatile. Attacks by armed groups and persistent human rights violations, including killings, enforced disappearances and torture, continued to affect the region. Across Russia, there were frequent reports of torture and other ill-treatment by law enforcement officials.
Not good. Terrible, even.
And his popularity hovers around 80%.
Putin was president from 2000-2008. The Russian constitution forbids anybody being president for more than two terms in a row, so he pointed to Dmitri Medvedev as his successor, and has recently announced (to the shock of nobody) that he will be running again now that Medvedev’s term is almost up. There will be an “election,” and he will “win.” Actually, there will be an election, and he will win. People are willing to let a lot of things slip if a leader so explosively turns around the economy. Especially Russian people, for whom this Dr. Chuck Norris/Mr. Joseph Stalin routine is almost a clichÃ©.
So what does any of this have to do with Sunday’s elections?
On Sunday, the Duma (the parliament) was elected. It was A Big Deal. Not the Big Deal that the presidential election next spring will be, but A Big Deal nonetheless. Putin’s party, United Russia, was polling at about 41%, according to non-partisan polls. It was supposed to win 64%, in order to maintain its power. United Russia actually won about 50% of the vote.
This is mind-blowingly shocking.
It is shocking because it is such a huge loss for United Russia. With only 50% of the seats, they can’t just change the constitution willy-nilly.
It is shocking because that number is almost certainly inflated. Reports abound: ballot stuffing, observers being blocked from entering polling stations, an attack on the independent election monitoring group’s website, people voting more than once, etc. etc. etc. Nobody expected the election to be clean.
It is shocking because there are credible reports that employers and schools were pressuring employees and students to vote for United Russia. Even if every ballot was counted correctly and nobody cheated, the pressure to vote a certain way probably resulted in more actual votes for United Russia.
It is shocking because conventional wisdom says that Putin is king, and what he says goes. He said that his party should win, and instead, it lost a significant number of seats. Despite almost certainly using dirty tactics.
So what does this mean to you? Putin as the leader of Russia is a symbol of macho strength, a man who will wrestle a tiger with his bare hands, shirtless, while wearing sunglasses and maintaining the cool of an ex-KGB officer. He is a symbol of a country that will play by its own rules, disregarding the wishes of outsiders, acting in its own self-interest and always, always, always strong.
And Putin will still almost certainly win in the 2012 presidential election. But the fact that his party has lost so much ground in this election, and probably should have lost even more, is hugely significant. The people of Russia are looking at the figure of a great and terrible leader, and they aren’t sure that’s who they want in charge anymore. The Russia of Saturday afternoon is an entirely different place than the Russia of Monday morning. One-eighth of the world’s inhabitable land has gone through a huge change. This means that you have, too, even if you didn’t notice it.