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From Arab Spring to Russian Winter?

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Originally published in the Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel of December 16, 2011

I am afraid that I have to disagree with the conventional wisdom. Nationwide exit polls by the Foundation for Public Opinion and VTsIOM, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor and CBS News, were very close to the final results. Such a close correspondence is typically seen as conclusive evidence for the reliability of the overall vote tally, just as the discrepancy between the two was taken as evidence of fraud in Ukraine in 2004.

The incomplete tallies in Moscow, and reporting errors in Rostov, where the tableaus put up on television on one channel briefly showed results that added up to 146 percent, are understandably favored by conspiracy theorists, but are probably best explained by human error. Extrapolating the same results nationwide, or even Moscow-wide, would require attributing such a high degree of organizational finesse to United Russia that one would think it could have come up with a better result.

As for the "evidence" posted on YouTube, in the vast majority of videos it is hard to tell what exactly is being shown. Certainly nothing that might meet the standard of legal evidence seems to have been caught on camera, except perhaps for some post factum statements by electoral observers that behavior at this or that polling stations struck them as suspicious.

I certainly hope that those with real grievances will file them in the courts, which in the past have proven quite willing to overturn the results when evidence of corrupt practices has been presented. For now such evidence seems remarkably slim. The major opposition parties all say they are still gathering evidence, but none have indicated whether or not they will file suits.

How then can one explain these unsurprising results?  First, like all "catch-all" parties, United Russia has a broader base than parties that appeal to a narrow segment of the electorate. For this very reason, however, it is also more prone to defections and "protest voting."

Parties of this type, like the UMP in France, do much better during times of crisis, when the party can make national unity its rallying cry. But Russia has handled the economic crisis of 2009 with exceptional skill and emerged with a budget surplus this year. That means more money for social programs and investment projects. United Russia is thus a victim of its own success. As the most pressing issues of salary and jobs recede, people are more willing to upset the status quo, ever so slightly, to have their less pressing concerns raised in the parliament.

What are these concerns? Oddly enough, they involve the never-ending carousel of reforms: pensions, military, police, courts, even the political system--in sum, all of United Russia's much publicized "modernization" agenda. People are tired of being told that they need to keep moving, like lemmings, toward some unspecified and unattainable goal. Leading the rebellion is the rising middle class, which worries that modernization will cost them more than it will benefit them. In sum, this is a conservative protest vote. The social agenda of the left won, while the competitive agenda of liberals, a group which happens to include Medvedev and United Russia, lost.

How will this affect the March vote for president of Russia?  I happen to believe that the Russian electorate is very perceptive when it comes to identifying who will actually defend its interests. As a result, if Putin makes his electoral campaign about defending the gains that the less fortunate have made over the past decade, I suspect that he will have a relatively easy time being re-elected.


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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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