The aftermath of Russia's parliamentary election on 4 December has been surprisingly lively. Although previous election results have been half-heartedly challenged by opposition political parties for a variety of infringements of electoral law, if not outright ballot-rigging, the expression of popular indignation since Sunday has been unprecedented.
The impact of these events should not be over-exaggerated at present but it will be interesting to see the result of an opposition call for protests throughout Russia's major cities at the weekend. Even Vladimir Putin has acknowledged the need for dialogue with the opposition which had previously been ignored as a minor irritant. It would seem Putin wishes to co-opt leading elements of the opposition in the run-up to the presidential election in March 2012.
The election results themselves suggest a significant loss of support for the pro-presidential party, United Russia, both in the state Duma and in a number of Russia's regional assemblies where elections were held at the same time.
United Russia is widely associated with the figure of Vladimir Putin and so this result can be considered something of a personal setback but it is very unlikely to derail Putin's return to the presidential seat in March 2012.
United Russia's vote has declined to just under 50% compared to 64% in 2007, but the party will still be able to command a simple majority. This does not affect the composition of the government which is chosen by the president rather than being based on the parliamentary majority. The state Duma does however play an important legitimating role and a majority will ensure that United Russia is able to pass ordinary legislation.
What is significant though is that United Russia will not have the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. Should such amendments be required, United Russia will have to negotiate with one or more of the three other parties which overcame the 7% threshold and significantly improved their vote: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
United Russia's vote appears to have varied from the sublime to the not quite ridiculous. In the North Caucasus, a region increasingly beset by tension spilling over from the conflict in Chechnya, United Russia polled extraordinarily highly. In Chechnya itself, United Russia gained an unbelievable 99% of the votes cast. This contrasts with the Yaroslavl region where United Russia only polled 29%. Despite this wide variation, however, United Russia topped the poll in every region.
United Russia's competitors, usually referred to as a 'within-system' opposition because of their failure to challenge the Kremlin effectively, have questioned the authenticity of the ballot, alleging numerous violations as well as outright ballot-stuffing. The election-monitoring organisation, Golos, claims several thousand violations of electoral law were committed. Golos and a number of other organisations critical of the Kremlin were the subject of a cyber-attack on the day of the election, forcing the closure of their websites, and undermining any potential protest on election day itself.
The significance of these election results should not be overestimated. In and of themselves, they change very little. They do, however, indicate a growing disquiet at the direction of Russian politics.
Putin's regime has been built on the re-establishment of order following the chaos of the Yeltsin era. Putin constructed a unity among Russia's different elites and established a strong 'power vertical' with the Kremlin at its apex. While ensuring that ordinary workers received their wages, Putin reconnected contemporary Russia to the finer moments of both its communist and pre-communist pasts, in particular, Russia's status as a global superpower.
The basis on which this was done, however, was not through modernisation of the creaking economy inherited from the Soviet period but through reliance on exports of Russia's abundant energy and raw materials. As in the Soviet period, the legitimacy of the regime has depended primarily on its ability to deliver economic benefits to a variety of interest groups. While oil prices accelerated during the mid-2000s, the state could ensure significant improvements in the living standards of many ordinary Russians, as well as meeting the needs of the various elites. The financial crisis of 2008, and a fall in GDP of 8% in 2009, challenged the capacity of the state to deliver. Rising oil prices are failing to compensate for the increasing rates of capital export.
Many Russians now believe oil money is used primarily to line the pockets of state officials. United Russia, which has earned itself the sobriquet of the 'party of swindlers and thieves', has suffered as a consequence.
The Kremlin's capacity to 'manage' elections will ensure that Vladimir Putin is elected president on 4 March 2012 but his project is beginning to unravel. The sight of the Kremlin ringed by military vehicles and the mass arrests of protestors suggest a regime increasingly willing to use coercive measures to maintain its predominance.