By Alexander Kliment
Vladimir Putin thinks that Russia's elections are over, and that it's time to move on with business as usual. The trouble for him -- and the system of "managed democracy" he has built -- is that Russia's season of elections is just beginning.
In his final address as Prime Minister to Russia's State Duma (the lower house of parliament) on Wednesday, Putin, who will return to the presidency on May 7, explained that in a "mature democracy, after elections are concluded there begins a more important phase of work." He called for unity and an end to the "heightened emotions" that have recently taken hold of Russia's politics.
So much for that. A few minutes later, the entire faction of the left-leaning Kremlin-created opposition party A Just Russia walked out of the hall in response to Putin's defiantly tin-eared response to a question about the disputed mayoral election in Astrakhan. In that city, the largest administrative center in Russia's Caspian littoral, A Just Russia member Oleg Shein has now entered the third week of a widely-publicized hunger strike to protest well-documented fraud in a mayoral vote that he lost on March 4, the very day that Putin was returned to the Kremlin.
The battle in Astrakhan, which anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny and other opposition figures have joined, follows a mayoral election in the northern city of Yaroslavl, where a former member of Putin's United Russia (UR) party ran as an independent, built unified support from several opposition groups, shrugged off scathing coverage from local media, and trounced the government's preferred candidate. More than a thousand election observers, mainly from Moscow, arrived to monitor the vote.
The controversies in Astrakhan and Yaroslavl have mainly to do with local issues, and Putin still has pre-eminent control of the country. United Russia, however tarnished by its new sobriquet as the "party of crooks and thieves," maintains its chokehold on the legislative and executive branches at all levels of Russian politics. But these local episodes underscore an emerging national reality: Opposition politics is taking root in Russia, and the regions will be the most fertile ground.
Despite Putin's wishful thinking, election season is far from finished. Later this year, regional legislative elections will be held in a half dozen localities. A similar number will vote in 2013 and 2014. By then, Russia's opposition forces may well have coalesced into a coherent national force, and voters will choose a new city council for Moscow, a city that Putin actually lost in last month's election.
Moreover, the Duma is expected to approve a bill in coming weeks that will reintroduce direct election of regional governors, though the president can still "filter" the candidates. Several regions could elect new leaders as early as this fall.
These elections will take place at a moment of unprecedented civil society activism, a trend that will cast a bright light on Russia's brand of democracy. Candidates for posts ultimately beholden to the Kremlin for their authority and resources must court an electorate increasingly skeptical of the prevailing power elite. Putin's "vertical of power," the system he has used to maintain political control across the country, already brittle thanks to the weakness of Russia's governing institutions, could begin to show real signs of stress as an increasingly restive public watches election results with new interest.
If so, the country's nascent opposition will have to begin to build a much broader infrastructure to help its leaders speak to a national audience about local problems. Change won't come quickly. Putin's approval rating stands at 68 percent, and Russia's economy is performing reasonably well. Moreover, few key regions face legislative or possible gubernatorial elections in coming months. But at the regional level, increased activism and attention from civil society and opposition groups, coupled with a threatening crisis of legitimacy for United Russia, could introduce a new element of unpredictability into local politics and, by extension, into center-regional relations.
Russia's opposition has a lot of building to do, but at least it now knows that a growing number of Russians are paying attention.
Alexander Kliment is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
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