United Russia Stumbles

by Joshua Foust on 12/4/2011 · 16 comments

The early results are in, and United Russia seems to have suffered surprising electoral losses in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

United Russia, the governing party of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, suffered surprisingly steep losses in parliamentary elections on Sunday and was barely clinging to a 50 percent majority, with nearly three-quarters of the votes counted.

The three minority parties that now hold seats in Parliament — the Communist Party, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia, a social democratic party — all made strong gains, meaning that United Russia would have little choice but to forge a working relationship with at least some segment of the newly empowered opposition.

Puting/Medvedev losing the ability to summarily make decisions and changes to Russian law is a pretty major change from the last 12 years, but there’s no need to pop champagne and declare an end to Putin’s tyranny just yet. United Russia maintains a slim majority, so the need for it to form a ruling coalition is pretty small, and gives it a lot of leverage.

However Russia’s parliamentary coalitions shake out, one thing is for sure: Russian politics are about to get a whole helluva lot more interesting over the next few months.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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zaji December 5, 2011 at 7:12 am

Come on! “Putin’s tyranny”? Russia under Putin/Medvedev has largely been governed following formal, written law. Yes, the deck is been stacked but – by and large – he/his government have obeyed the rule of law. By definition, that is not tyrannical (unrestrained/unchecked use of power).

Grant December 6, 2011 at 11:58 am

I presume by rule of law you also mean the assassinations of dissidents, stopping and starting gas supplies whenever Russia has an argument with another nation, blatant ballot stuffing and other measures? Even ignoring that there’s still the apparently universal corruption of the police, suicide-inducing hazing of the military and little effort by the bureaucracy to have consistent and good supply of services.

zaji December 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm

So Putin directs the hazing of privates in the army?
Clearly, I was referencing how Putin governs Russia. In that way, he has – again largely – generally followed formal, written law. The key institutional changes that occurred under Putin which are often cited as the indications of his centralized, tyrannical rule- the introduction of PR to Duma elections and presidential appointment of governors- are institutional rules found in many Western democracies (like France).
My key point is that words have meanings- Putin is not – and has not ever been- a tyrant. The Russian regime is probably best described as hybrid- it has features resembling both a democracy and an authoritarian regime without being either. This isn’t about being an apologist, it is about putting a check on hyperbole and being clear about our empirics and concepts.
Is there corruption? Of course. As there is in just about any middle-income state. Is Putin responsible for all of this corruption? I doubt it.
Is Russia a dangerous place for journalists (I am assuming by dissidents you were partially referencing people like Politkovskaya) ? Yes, it can be. But if we take a ratio of the number of journalists killed over the number of journalists in a state, places like Lithuania and Croatia are far more dangerous.
The starting and stopping of natural gas to its neighbors is totally irrelevant. That is foreign policy and the international environment is governed (or not governed, according to who you talk to) by its own sets of rules. Does the fact that the US invaded Iraq mean that the US is a tyrannical regime? I think very few people would answer in the affirmative.

Grant December 6, 2011 at 3:16 pm

You can’t simply view the Russian government as a single individual (although simplistic journalists like to). The bureaucracy, the courts, the police, the military and the respect (or lack of) for democracy are indicators of the government. In this I see little respect for law and unless Putin is far less powerful than he likes to imply he could do something about it if he wanted to.

Xenophon December 6, 2011 at 3:23 pm

“You can’t simply view the Russian government as a single individual (although simplistic journalists like to).”

“…unless Putin is far less powerful than he likes to imply he could do something about [government corruption] if he wanted to.”


zaji December 6, 2011 at 3:31 pm

The word “tyranny” implies that you can view government through the lens of a single individual. This is what I am challenging and am actually trying to suggest that there are institutional rules in place that actually matter. I am not certain I understand what you are objecting to.

R.Duke December 5, 2011 at 10:25 am

All this despite the reported “carousel voting” that was taking place in many poling stations. In actuality their share of the vote might be even lower.


Don Bacon December 5, 2011 at 11:36 am

Gotta love US chutzpah when it comes to the pot calling the kettle black. REUTERS US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday she had “serious concerns” about the conduct of Russia’s parliamentary elections and Russians deserved a full investigation of all reported irregularities.

Grant December 6, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I think you might simply post on many sites to be anti-American. In reality there is incredibly little effort to alter votes in the U.S. I have spent time both as a volunteer in get-out-the-vote efforts and volunteering to monitor proceedings at voting stations. In three such times I only saw irregularities once, and as far as we could tell that was because the woman in question simply couldn’t understand how to use the new voting system.

Don Bacon December 6, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Apparently you haven’t heard of Florida and Ohio.

Florida, from wiki:
State efforts to purge voter rolls have led to disputes, notably in Florida. Before the 2000 election, Florida officials purged approximately 100,000 registered voters on the grounds that they were convicted felons (and therefore ineligible to vote under Florida law) or dead. Many of those whose names were purged were “false positives” (not actually felons). A post-election lawsuit brought by the NAACP, the People for the American Way Foundation, and other organizations resulted in a settlement in 2002 in which the state agreed to restore eligible voters to the rolls and take other steps to improve election procedures.

The issue returned to prominence in 2004 when Florida announced another planned purge, again based on a list of felons. The state government initially attempted to keep the list secret. When a court ordered its release, it was found to contain mostly Democrats and a disproportionate number of racial minorities. Faced with media documentation that the list included thousands of errors, the state abandoned the attempt to use it. Some of the voters improperly purged in 2000 had not been restored as of May 2004 (end wiki)

And then there is gerrymandering, repression of third parties and other schemes to ensure that those in office stay in office in so far as possible.

Xenophon December 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Good points by zaji and Don Bacon. What’s most amusing about all this is how quickly the “Putin as dictator” meme is being supplanted by the “Russia rejects Putin” meme in the western media, the latter narrative, of course, essentially contradicting the former.

This article manages to combine both in one single piece–quite an achievement!

Finhook December 5, 2011 at 9:58 pm

What amuses me is that the USA has become everything they accused the (then) Soviet Union of being (and doing) during the Cold War.

Undemocratic, the rich and powerful keeping the citizenry under their thumbs, poor, hungry, cold. The jails full of innocent dissenters, their rights as demanded by constitutional law (an international agreement) ignored while their crooked leaders escape proprosecution and remain unaccountable.

The parallels abound, sadly.

kate dyson December 6, 2011 at 1:49 am

In Canada we have a government that lied and cheated it’s way to power…Putin is no different….

Grant December 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I wouldn’t be at all certain that politics will change to any great degree. Most of the ‘opposition’ parties are effectively government opposition, meant to exist as window dressing. This is obviously embarrassing for Putin and might suggest an inability on his part to set up a real political party but it won’t weaken his grip on power.

Don Bacon December 6, 2011 at 3:54 pm

The Russia election results may have been surprising to the New York Times, but they were expected.

pre-election polls on United Russia —
AP 53%, Russia TV 55-58%

actual 50%, giving them a majority in the Duma — 238 of 450

Inkan1969 December 7, 2011 at 11:35 am

It might have been expected, but that still leaves United Russia with a dive from 64% to 50%.

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