Something went very wrong for Vladimir Putin last Sunday. It was not just that the party of power, United Russia, lost popularity. That he could have expected and anyway he thought he had a plan. If voters had expressed their opposition either by boycotting the polls or spoiling their ballot papers, United Russia would have benefited, either by identity fraud or by legally acquiring their share of the vote.
Putin did not count on a third form of protest vote, as advocated by the blogger Alexei Navalny: voting for any party but United Russia proved a devastatingly successful tactic. A consensus was created between voters of different political colours – western-leaning liberals, nationalists, communists. When it found out what happened, the Kremlin went into a tailspin, and quickly had to make up the lost votes. United Russia’s real vote in Moscow was 23.5%, but it came out officially at 46.5%. That means one million votes were stolen in one city alone. So the demonstration on Monday and the bigger one due this Saturday are about a concrete demand: a stolen election.
Thus far, Putin has responded with a series of panic measures. Calling Golos, Russia’s only independent monitoring organisation, Judas and the agent of foreign governments is playing the nationalist card. It won’t work, because Russian nationalists are by nature oppositional, and people like Navalny are more astute players of this game than the Kremlin. Shutting down websites was also a panic measure, and when they came back online, the flames were simply stoked again. Putin is learning what Mubarak in Egypt and Tunisia’s Ben Ali could have told him. You cannot fight YouTube; certainly not after the clips of election commission officials stuffing ballot boxes have gone viral.
But here come the caveats. First, Moscow is not Russia. Big protest movements do start first in Moscow and spread outwards, as they did in the late 1980s. But this is not a snowy Tahrir Square, nor is it Ukraine in 2005. Not yet, anyway. If there were hundreds of thousands on the streets of Moscow, parallel demos in St Petersburg, Nizhni Novgorod, Ekaterinburg and Perm, then it could be. But this is very far from being the case now. The democrats are low in the public esteem, after the damage they did to democracy when they were in power. The opposition is leaderless. Besides, the target of voter ire is not Putin but his appointees. Putin himself has no serious political rivals. Yet.
This political crisis – and let us be clear, this is the biggest political challenge he has faced to date – is as much a result of his mistakes as it is of disenchanted voters. The biggest mistake was to announce he was swapping jobs with Dmitry Medvedev a month before the elections. This humiliated voters, because it made them redundant. This is the contradiction inherent in the concept of a managed democracy, or electoral authoritarianism. Getting the elite to do what it is you want them to do is easier than getting people to vote for it. Elections need votes. Despots rely on elections not as a means of expression, but as an act of acclamation. A dictator certainly does not go to the electorate for a mandate; he believes he already has one. Another mistake was to remove from the elite anyone powerful enough to represent a different line or policy. The elite is unbalanced and only one man matters.
Putin has not decided what to do. There is ample scope for him to make matters worse. He could do this by a combination of more repression and scapegoating. He could turn the water cannons on the next demonstration and organise a show trial of one egregious case of corruption. The other option is to take the message he has been delivered to heart. But this is not without risk. Separating yourself from the party of forgers and crooks will not be easy, if you yourself can be accused of the same thing on a bigger scale. It’s his call to make. What he can not do is pretend that none of this is happening.