These Russian elections will be like no other. They will of course have nothing to do with a democratic election, the results of which are always uncertain. Nor will they be comparable to the distorted competitions of “democratorships” which, like Hungary, can muzzle the press but must nevertheless submit to the verdict of the ballot boxes. Nor will next weekend’s Russian elections be comparable to those of Soviet times, which fully guaranteed the triumph of the forecasters, but then what?
Well, they will be what Mr Putin, and he alone, decides to make of them in order to limit the risks he faces at a time when any mistake could cost him dearly.
It’s not that all looks bleak for him. The prices of Russia’s two main resources, oil and gas, are soaring and widening its financial room for manoeuvre. The liberticidal laws against “extremism” and “foreign agents” have allowed him to silence all the independent sites and movements that could have fuelled an electoral debate. Vladimir Putin has done such a good job of wiping out all dissent that the country is as if anaesthetised and it is not this parody of a parliamentary election that could worry him, even though his coffers are filling up but…
But there are several important ‘but’s.
The first is that the purchasing power of Russians has fallen by more than 10% since 2013, that some twenty million Russians now live below the poverty line, that food prices continue to rise and that inflation is spiralling out of control so much so that the Central Bank keeps raising interest rates.
The first victims of this decline in living standards are pensioners, the hard core of the presidential electorate, and the second change is that the under-40s share the values and lifestyle of young Westerners and have no nostalgia for the Russian Empire, which they did not experience any more than they did the communism. For them, Ukraine, Belarus or Georgia are foreign countries over which they do not dream of getting their hands on and they are therefore not very sensitive to the Great Russian nationalism that Vladimir Putin has been waving since his reconquest of Chechnya.
For a long time very popular, this president has seen his electoral base melt away because twenty years is a long time, too long. A sign of the end of his reign, less than 30% of voters now support his party, United Russia, while 20% of them now prefer Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Putin runs two dangers this weekend.
The first would be an abstention rate that would be tantamount to a massive disavowal and from which he would emerge devalued in the eyes of the big Russian fortunes and the security apparatus, his two essential supporters. The problem is not insoluble since the Kremlin can announce the figures it wants but, by inflating the participation rate too much, it risks being caught in a lie and feeding the same kind of rejection as Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
As for the second danger, it would be that many voters would apply the idea of “intelligent voting” launched by Alexandre Navalny. Instead of abstaining, many would give their vote to any candidate other than those of United Russia, which they would have to disavow by all means. Yabloko, the only real opposition force allowed to compete, could thus win enough constituencies to impress. The communists could also benefit from Navalny’s idea, whose popularity is growing steadily. If this were the case, the communists could assume an autonomy that they lack today and Vladimir Putin would have another gamble to make.
Either he resorts to fraud in order to prevent the parliamentary affirmation of opponents who owe their seats to Navalny or he concedes a decline of United Russia and recognises victories of the other parties because he cannot totally deny their progression. In the first case, he risks a rupture with the population as a whole, the consequences of which could become serious. In the second case, he allows a new political dynamic to open up that could lead the big fortunes and the security apparatus to look for another champion.
Dictatorship is not a sinecure. All of this is becoming so unpredictable that Vladimir Putin ought not to change his habits, but it is usually from immobility that the greatest changes are born.