20 years under Putin: a timeline

There has long been talk about the Kremlin’s plans to dissolve the current State Duma and call early parliamentary elections—not only political analysts, but Duma members themselves have been discussing this possibility. The latest developments only confirm the likelihood of such a scenario. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza discusses who—the regime or the opposition—will benefit from early Duma elections.



In early 2012, shortly after the State Duma elections, a political consultant very close to the presidential administration advised the Kremlin that in order to ensure that Vladimir Putin has a relatively peaceful return to the presidency, he should “sacrifice” the lower house of Parliament. In the consultant's view, this would reduce the intensity of society’s protest sentiments, which, at that moment, were channeled almost exclusively into the demand that the results of the fraudulent 2011 parliamentary election be annulled. At that time, the regime did not heed the advice. But only the most unintelligent members of the ruling elite can actually believe their own propaganda, which keeps claiming the protest movement has been “stifled.” Opinion polls show not only that a critical mass of protesters remains, but also that the potential support base of the regime’s opponents is increasing. Thus, in January, according to a survey by the Levada Center, 41 percent of Russians supported the protest movement, while 21 percent expressed a willingness to personally participate in street rallies. The protests may resume at any moment—all that is needed is a catalyst. No one can tell today what that will be, but there is no doubt that one will arise; and the mass demonstrations may prove to be as much of a surprise for the Kremlin as the 100,000-strong rally on Bolotnaya Square was in December 2011. The regime’s more intelligent consultants understand this well, and they certainly have a scenario for such a contingency.

The State Duma is the most obvious “sacrificial lamb”—not only because it is illegitimate (all sessions of the lower house since 2003 were illegitimate; the last Duma election considered to be free and fair by OSCE observers was held in December 1999); but because all serious political players, including those on the regime’s side, realize and feel that it is illegitimate. It is not that easy to hide the theft of 13 to 15 million votes (according to various estimates)—even with the help of loyal electoral commissions and censored television networks.

The regime and its propaganda squads are not too eager to improve the public perception of the current Duma.

This sense of illegitimacy is supported not only by United Russia’s inflated results, but also by the fact that other parties—that owe their Duma seats to the slogan “vote for any party, against the party of crooks and thieves”—are diligently serving as United Russia’s satellites. The most vivid example of this, without doubt, is A Just Russia party, which was the main beneficiary of the protest vote in December 2011. The party leadership brazenly purged those members who were genuinely in opposition, and has offered to cooperate with Putin’s “Popular Front.” It is hardly surprising that, according to the same Levada Center, 61 percent of Russian citizens have an unfavorable view of the current Duma.

The latest developments show that the regime and its propaganda squads are not too eager to improve the public perception of the current Duma. The scandals surrounding the undeclared assets of United Russia legislators were reported not only on pro-opposition websites, but also on national television, which, needless to say, would not be possible without a nod “from above.” If the resignations of little-known United Russia deputies Alexei Knyshov, Vasily Tolstopyatov, and Anatoly Lomakin could be dismissed as sacrificing “pawns” (although it certainly provides an unfavorable backdrop against which to view Russian authorities); the exit of disgraced lawmaker Vladimir Pekhtin is in a different league, since he was one of the founding fathers of the ruling party.


In December 2011, public indignation at election fraud led to Russia's largest street protests in two decades.


An even heavier blow for the current State Duma was delivered by the publication of a report on the 2011 election, prepared by the Center for Analysis and State Management Planning. The Center’s board of trustees is chaired by Vladimir Yakunin, one of Putin’s closest associates. Although Yakunin has disassociated himself from the report (after waiting two days to do so,) questions as to the Center’s motives remain. According to the report, the Communist Party received the most votes in the 2011 election with 25 to 30 percent of the total; United Russia and A Just Russia received, respectively, 20–25 percent and 15—20 percent. It is worth noting that the authors of the report went to great lengths to emphasize that they have no doubts regarding the legitimacy of Putin, who (in their opinion,) received more than the required 50-percent majority in 2012 even when the fraudulent votes are subtracted. It is clearly not Kremlin opponents who are behind the public juxtaposition of an illegitimate Duma and a supposedly legitimate president.

The Kremlin, it seems, has accepted the fact that some concessions to the protesting urban classes will have to be made. Of all the possible “sacrifices,” the current Duma is the easiest one for the administration. Moreover, Putin’s entourage is planning to benefit from this concession. It is important to recall that the rules for electing the lower house will change after January 1, 2014; 225 legislators will be elected from party lists, and another 225, from single-member districts, where the candidate with a plurality will be the winner. Electoral coalitions have been banned, which means that opposition parties will be unable to combine into one or more large blocs. Putin’s opponents could still theoretically field joint candidates in the single-member districts, but, considering the state of relations among the main opposition leaders, this is unlikely. The recent mayoral election in the city of Zhukovsky provides an example; the two main opposition candidates, Civic Platform nominee Igor Novikov and the Communist Alexander Anikanov, received 52.7 percent of the vote between them, dividing it into 27.7 percent and 25.0 percent, respectively. The regime’s candidate, Andrei Voityuk, received 36.8 percent of the vote and won. This situation may well repeat itself in the district Duma elections.

The appearance of even a handful of alternative political leaders on the parliamentary rostrum can seriously influence public opinion.

Given these circumstances, the regime can afford to hold a relatively honest election—at least allowing genuine opposition parties on the ballot and with less obvious fraud than in 2011. With the administrative resources still at its disposal, United Russia—and its candidates in the single-member districts—can get approximately 30 percent of the vote and, because it only needs a plurality to win in the districts, secure a parliamentary majority. If the number of United Russia’s own legislators will be insufficient, the ruling party can always entice “independents” and members of other parties to join its Duma caucus, as happened in 2003, when United Russia received 37.6 percent of the vote for its list, but occupied 67.6 percent of seats in the lower house. Such a scenario, in the view of Kremlin spin doctors, would kill two birds with one stone—end the talk about the illegitimacy of the legislative branch, and preserve the pro-regime majority in Parliament for an additional five years.

Yet even this scenario, if realized, will not be a complete triumph for the current government. To begin with, the Duma’s dissolution will be a de facto admission of the illegitimacy of the 2011 election and the justification of the Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue protesters—although, of course, it will not be presented as such; the regime cannot allow early elections to be seen as a concession to society. The formal reason for the Duma’s dissolution will not be connected to the protests—it may be, for instance, the result of a double vote of no confidence in the government, as contemplated by Article 177, Part 3 of the Russian Constitution. Secondly, this is not 2007 or even 2011. Considering the public’s growing civic activism and maturity, the reach of the internet, and society’s already considerable experience in independent election monitoring, it is doubtful that the regime will be able to keep the lid on all 225 electoral districts. Even if—as the Kremlin plans—the votes of the democratic opposition are split between the People’s Freedom Party, Yabloko, and Civic Platform, and neither of these lists clears the 5-percent threshold, the Duma will still have a few opposition or independent legislators who will be elected from individual districts. As the experience of the 1989 First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR demonstrated, the appearance of a handful of alternative political leaders on the parliamentary rostrum—even if their voices are in a small minority—can seriously influence public opinion.

As for those who get into the Duma under the United Russia banner, or join the ruling party’s caucus for personal gain or political expediency, they can hardly be counted on by the regime in case of a political crisis. It should not be forgotten that it was the leaders of the loyal Fourth State Duma who, in March 1917, accepted the abdication of the Czar.