Russia's parliamentary elections conform to well-established patterns of arbitrary exclusion of opposition candidates and intimidation and manipulation of opposition forces. Given the exclusion, cooptation, and intimidation of oppositionists in Russia, many people who might be inclined to compete for office in more open polities simply do not choose to do so in Russia. Thus, we cannot know for sure who would have contested these elections if Russia had a more open system.
What is more, given Vladimir Putin's control over the Central Electoral Commission and the exclusion of independent observers from participation in monitoring voting and vote tabulation, it is exceedingly difficult to assess the degree of falsification in the election. Some analysts who conducted exit polls-even though most of those analysts work for government-sponsored organizations-detected a gap between the official results and those they found in their exit polling. Disparities were particularly large in Moscow, the Volga district, and the North Caucasus district. Some exit polls showed Putin's party, United Russia, receiving only about a quarter of the vote in Moscow, while the party received nearly half of the vote in Moscow according to the official tally. Still, absent independent verification, it is very difficult to assess the extent of fraud. I believe Putin and the current president, Dmitrii Medvedev, decided in advance that United Russia would not be allowed to fall below the 50-percent mark in the official tally and that the full arsenal of techniques of falsification would be deployed to achieve that result if necessary. My hunch is that, in Russia as a whole, United Russia received about 40 percent of the vote in actual fact and that fraud was used to pull that number up to 50 percent. Parties that pose as opponents of Putin but on which Putin can count for support in practice, such as the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by Vladimir Zhirinovskii, may also have benefited from falsification-though again, it is very hard to know if they did, and if so, by how much.
The same pattern is likely to repeat itself in the upcoming presidential elections. Potentially strong opposition candidates may decline to run against Putin for fear of being ignored by the state media, subjected to pressure by the state security services, and denied any recourse to redress through the electoral commission or the courts in the event of suspected fraud. Instead of a fair contest between Putin and real opponents, carried out on a level playing field, we will see Putin's stooges who have little popular support, such as Mikhail Prokhorov, the oligarch who owes his immense fortune largely to his close ties with Putin, enter the race in order to create the appearance of pluralism and crowd out authentic oppositionists. Since Putin will undoubtedly continue his long-established practice-in violation of Russian law-of drawing on the limitless resources of the state to finance his election campaign, and since real oppositionists will face resource constraints and will be either ignored or smeared in the state-controlled media, the chances for a level playing field during the campaign are slim. These circumstances, combined with the dangers that genuine oppositionists and their supporters face, particularly in far-flung provinces outside the gaze of the global media, may ensure that Putin gets what he wants: a thumping popular endorsement for his return to the presidency in a race that includes the appearance of some pluralism and competition.
Yet there are also reasons to suspect that Putin may not be able to pull off his scheme as smoothly as he would like. Putin has precious little experience doing what elected politicians normally must do, at least in democracies, which is bargaining, negotiating, charming, and cajoling in order to obtain an uncoerced, voluntary following among ordinary people. Putin was essentially appointed president; he had no experience running for elected office prior to his elevation to the presidency when Boris Yeltsin resigned at the end of 1999. Since then Putin has been able to rely on the resources of the state, including the secret police, and the good fortune of skyrocketing oil prices to maintain his grip on power and his popularity.
Now that the economy has slowed down and Putin faces popular backlash against his theft of elections and state assets, he faces the need to act like a real politician. Yet there's little evidence that he has the inclination or ability to do so. A man who believes-as Putin genuinely does-that nefarious external forces such as Hillary Clinton must be behind the demonstrations against him is not prepared to deal with real opposition. His rigidity and obsessive suspiciousness might have served him well at moments in the past, but these traits are liabilities now.
What makes the challenge to Putin so potent is that it is so reasonable. The demonstrators on the streets of Russian cities are not demanding "revolution," "justice," "democracy," "freedom," or any other such extravagant abstraction. They are calling for a halt to fraud in elections and theft of state assets by Putin and his cronies. Yet, as reasonable and uncontroversial as such demands are, Putin cannot readily grant them. Truly free presidential elections would subject Putin to the risk of failing to receive the overwhelming majority that he regards as his right. Since the rules require a runoff between the top two candidates if no one receives more than half of the vote, a genuinely open contest might even force Putin to face a second round, which he would regard as an insufferable affront to his honor, dignity, and authority. A major reduction in theft of state assets would require Putin not only to trim his own voracious appetite for lucre, but also to remove his hands from the assets he uses to keep his cronies loyal.
One thing we know for sure: Putin is neither politically nor psychologically equipped to grapple with a mass political awakening. He is stumped and stunned. In Putin's own mind, nothing like this was supposed to happen. And none of his formidable skills as a spy, manipulator, detective, prevaricator, and assassin-all of which have served his ends in power until now-will enable him skillfully to manage peaceful multitudes braving frigid temperatures to chant in unison, "free elections, Putin out!"