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What Russia’s Election Was Really About

As far as the actual voting was concerned, the only real question in Russia’s parliamentary election this week was the winning margin of the “party of power,” United Russia (or, as it is known by much of the public, partiya vorov i zhulikov, the party of thieves and swindlers). Would it again receive around two-thirds of the votes or rather—despite ballot-stuffing, forced voting by state employees and students, manipulation of absentee ballots and, of course, the assistance of the Central Electoral Commission in tallying up the results—just miss the mark? (The answer: United Russia, although down, will end up with at least as many seats in the Duma as the other parties combined.)

But “elections” of this sort are never just been about the outcomes. They are also occasions for Russia’s leaders to descend into the public arena and “send signals,” as they used to say in Soviet days, about the country’s direction. Stalin started the tradition with his February 1946 Bolshoi Theater speech, in which he prepared Russia’s “voters” for the end of the wartime “liberalization,” the tightening of the ideological straitjacket and, not even half a year after V.J. Day, the end of the war alliance with the West and the beginning of Cold War. By necessity or instinct, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly chosen the same mode of communication in order to display the same authoritarian inclinations.

Two weeks before the previous Duma “election” in 2007, at a nationally televised United Russia rally in Moscow’s largest stadium, Putin compared pro-democracy opposition to “jackals” searching for “crumbs” near Western embassies. This time, he signaled the tightening of the screws by labeling “Judas” the only independent national election monitor watchdog, Golos, which receives grants from the Western governmental and non-governmental agencies —or as Putin put it, from those who “brief [Golos] on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the election campaign in our country.”

Consistent with its domestic tenor, this election campaign has effectively ended the Obama administration’s pursuit of a “reset” with Moscow. Hopes had been high. Key among them were cooperation on isolating Iran; the removal or at least diminution of Russia’s objections to European missile defense; and the start of meaningful negotiations on reducing Russia’s tactical nukes, of which it has orders of magnitude more than all the other nuclear powers combined. Policymakers in Washington probably had hoped that détente’s momentum would bridge the ideological chasms separating the United States and Putin’s Russia. It must have come as a shock to the White House to behold the ferocity with which the Kremlin has set about demolishing the reset's most cherished dreams.

European missile defense is again Moscow’s bête noir, with President Dmitry Medvedev now threatening to target missiles at Poland and Romania if they dare move ahead with its installation. Russia’s envoy to NATO, meanwhile, has threatened to cut off the vital supply lines to the Western troops in Afghanistan. Moscow’s recent statements on Iran have all but signaled the end of cooperation in the U.N.’s Security Council on sanctions, and it has also voted in the United Nations Human Rights Council against a resolution condemning Syria’s “gross and systematic” crimes against the public. And no progress whatsoever seems even remotely possible on tactical nukes. Moscow is even threatening to withdraw from what the reset’s engineers considered its crowning achievement: the New START treaty.

Vladimir Mayakovsky once wrote of a “boat of love” that “smashed against reality.” In this case, Washington’s best hopes have broken against the “reality” of the domestic political imperatives of an authoritarian regime, one in need of an external enemy. 

All of these signals were framed by the shamelessly manipulated “electoral” campaign. Golos called the vote “the most flawed” to date. Nine parties were banned from participating and there was not one charismatic leader among the five “opposition” parties that were allowed to run. Their canvassing, advertizing and access to television carefully rationed, only the non-threatening Communists, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist “Liberal-Democratic” party (LDPR) and vaguely left-of-center Just Russia were allowed to overcome the 7-percent barrier to the Duma: the Communists with 19 percent of the vote, Just Russia with 13 percent, and 12 percent for  LDPR.  Meanwhile, Youtube already has a video in which the chairman of the local electoral commission in a Moscow precinct is filling in the ballots. No doubt, more such posts are to come.

Yet the overarching issue raised by this election is its impact on the regime's legitimacy. All great revolutions of modernity began, in essence, with the search for dignity. How it was understood and in what ways—political, social, economic—it was to be implemented were only means to an end. This election was perhaps the greatest insult to the dignity of Russia's political, social, and economic vanguard since Putin began his tenure in 2000. How much more can these men and women take before pouring into their own Tahrir squares?

The insult will be greater still following Putin’s “re-election” as president in March and self-coronation next May for the first of what is likely to be two six-year terms. If served out, they will bring Putin’s years in power (counting the last four years as "Regent" to Medvedev's "Dauphin") to 24, six more than Brezhnev (1964-1982) and only a year less than Stalin’s (1928-1953).

Yes, this is Russia, the country caricatured as loving the “strong arm” and longing for the whip on its back. But it also is a very well-educated 21st century country, millions of whose citizens travel abroad. It is reported to have more internet users, 51 million, than any other country in Europe. And it is a country that, in its first parliamentary election in March 1906, gave the plurality of votes to liberal Constitutional Democrats (the Kadets) and which turned out by the hundreds of thousand in each of its major cities to defend liberty in August 1991.

However much it has clarified about the intentions of Putin’s regime, Russia’s recent election has also raised the most important question of all: How much longer? How much longer can all these offenses to dignity be tolerated? This question will loom, like a giant watermark, over increasingly meaningless Potemkin “politics” and will grow darker with each month. That the answer is not yet known doesn’t diminish by an iota the urgency and the fatefulness of the query.

Leon Aron is resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His book, Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution 1987-1991, will be published by Yale University Press in June.