A poster of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, appealing to people to vote for their political party United Russia, in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2011. 
A poster of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, appealing to people to vote for their political party United Russia, in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2011. 
(Alexander Demianchuk/Courtesy Reuters)

Russia's parliamentary election last Sunday saw Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, receive slightly less than 50 percent of the popular vote. In most countries, this would be viewed as a stunning victory. Instead, it is being interpreted by the Russian and Western press as a rebuke by a restive Russian public to Putin and his policies.

Although the electoral results are undoubtedly a signal to Putin and his political protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev, that Russian voters will not blindly follow wherever the Kremlin leads, in reality they do not portend seismographic shifts in the Russian political landscape.

Some reports, including that of The New York Times earlier this week, have argued that with only 238 seats in the 450-seat Duma, as opposed to the 315 parliamentary seats it previously held, United Russia will now be unable to change the Russian constitution unilaterally. True enough—but what they fail to mention is that the Kremlin has little need to make any significant constitutional changes in the foreseeable future. The constitution is already stacked in favor of the presidency, and even with a reduced number of seats in parliament for United Russia, the Duma will still be compliant, since no new parties have gained seats.

The Duma is already relatively powerless compared to what Russia watchers call the "super" presidency enshrined in the 1993 constitution that was hastily written by Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first elected president. Between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and 1993, Yeltsin faced a recalcitrant parliament (then called the Congress of People's Deputies), whose members resisted his attempts to reform the country's troubled economy. The standoff reached its climax in the fall of 1993, when Yeltsin disbanded parliament. When Russian deputies trapped inside the parliament building broke out and attempted to take control of a national television station, Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the building, putting an end to the showdown.

The constitution that Yeltsin then forced through by popular referendum in December 1993 resolved the issue of legislative executive power in no uncertain terms. It allows the president to rule by decree in almost every area but the budget. At the same time, the president has the authority to disband the Duma and call new elections should parliament refuse three times to accept the president's choice of prime minister, and the executive branch has full control of the country's security and defense ministries.

The ruling tandem of Putin and Medvedev has made further constitutional changes to strengthen the executive's hand. In the constitution's original version, the president could serve a maximum of two consecutive four-year terms. In his first year as president, Medvedev changed the constitution, then approved by the United Russia-dominated Duma and the compliant Federation Council (Russia's appointed upper house of parliament), to allow for two consecutive six-year terms, paving the way for Putin to serve for a total of 12 years when he retakes the presidency (as he intends to do in the upcoming March 2012 presidential elections).

What is more, even if Putin and his allies decided they needed to change the constitution (and this is doubtful), they would still have little difficulty doing so. Sunday's election results, however dispiriting for United Russia, will not bring about any significant change to the composition of the Duma. The Communist Party (which finished second with just under 20 percent of the vote, translating into 92 seats in the Duma), the Just Russia party (13 percent and 62 seats), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (11.7 percent and about 56 seats), are exactly the same parties that have sat in the pliant Russian Duma of the past four years.

Of the three, the Communist Party has taken the most oppositional positions toward United Russia—at least relatively speaking—but it has seldom voted against United Russia on legislation that actually mattered. It provided modest opposition on cuts to subsidized transportation fares for pensioners, for example, but strongly supported the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democratic Party, which was created by the Kremlin in the 1990s, has not provided any true opposition in the last ten years. Its outspoken and flamboyant leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is more concerned with attracting attention and outrage for his appearances on television than in having any substantive debate with Putin and those close to him.

Finally, although Just Russia did manage to increase its representation in the Duma over its 2007 standing, it, too, is a Kremlin construct. (The party was originally conceived as a social democratic alternative to United Russia, but one that would still vote with the ruling party on big issues.) Historically, it provided little opposition to United Russia and is unlikely to do so now.

In effect, the opposition parties that gained seats are no real opposition at all. Any true opposition forces were weeded out far in advance of Sunday's elections. Only seven political parties met the state's strict registration requirements; the courts simply did not permit other parties that represent more independent liberal alternatives to register. The leadership of some of these groups—in particular, Boris Nemtsov of Solidarity—are now leading street protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They have little nationwide support, however, and given the degree of state control over the media, their brave efforts this week will not bring about a popular revolution.

In the end, the biggest loser on Sunday was neither United Russia nor Putin, but rather his fall guy, Medvedev. At United Russia's party congress on September 24, Medvedev nominated Putin to take over again as president. Accepting the nomination in a well-choreographed exchange, Putin then nominated Medvedev to become his prime minister should he win the presidency next March. This "castling" of positions is evidently the straw that broke the back of many Russians' tolerance for Putin's growing autocracy. Medvedev, now the party's nominee for prime minister, was the only name that appeared on the United Russia electoral list in the Duma elections. The Kremlin's apparent logic was that Medvedev's personal popularity would carry the party to easy victory.

Given the effects within Russia of the global economic downturn, a decline in the fortunes of the ruling party was inevitable, at least relative to United Russia's high in 2007, when it captured 62 percent of the vote. But few predicted that the party would receive less than 50 percent of the vote; as of late last week, reputable Russian polling agencies were predicting that it would receive at least 53 to 55 percent. The fact that United Russia supporters resorted to ballot stuffing and other falsifications to boost their votes and still fell below 50 percent will likely affect Medvedev's political prospects the most, given that he headed the party's ticket. In a foreshadowing of exactly such a scenario, Putin late last week amended his offer of the office of prime minister to Medvedev, suggesting the post might be contingent on United Russia's performance in the Duma elections. Medvedev is now particularly vulnerable.

Despite the clear falsification of electoral results, international expressions of displeasure with the electoral process, public demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg calling for "Russia without Putin," the new Duma will most likely be seated by the end of the month. Putin's largely successful efforts to control the country's media and curb freedom of expression and assembly eviscerated any meaningful opposition years ago. Further, Putin remains personally popular, still polling at slightly below 70 percent approval. And if the need for muscle arises, Putin has already shown willingness to use the security forces to put down any opposition activity; he is also adept at mobilizing the country's state-controlled media and government-created youth groups to counter protests.

Still, although there will be no immediate seismic shift in the balance of power in Russia today, the masses have fired a warning shot at Putin's presidential bid. Protests against the election may be relatively small and are unlikely to lead to a Ukrainian-style popular revolt, but should Putin and Medvedev not appear to listen to voters and be ready to make a few concessions, they may have to resort to the sporadic use of force to keep the regime afloat.

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  • KATHRYN STONER-WEISS is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
  • More By Kathryn Stoner-Weiss