One of Anna Politkovskaya‘s great qualities as a writer was her sense of the absurd. As horrified as she was by the first one-and-a-half terms of Vladimir Putin’s presidency — she was gunned down before the second term was over — she also managed, in books such as A Russian Diary, to laugh as often as she cried. Her fellow liberals were an endless source of bitter amusement to her.
Putin’s dismantling of Russian democracy was so brazen, and his apparatchiks’ justifications for it so transparently disingenuous, that it was hard not to laugh in disbelief. Slavenka Drakulić once wrote a book about everyday life in Communist Yugoslavia entitled How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. Politkovskaya might have written something similar about Putinism had it not killed her first.
It did, of course, and in any case she seemed to be laughing rather less by the time she was murdered five years ago. Eventually the absurd becomes too horrific to warrant laughter any more. Franz Kafka’s The Trial is at its least inherently comical when it has finally been drained of all reason, and when illogic and meaningless come to reign unchallenged.
Orson Welles, adapting the book following World War II, could not stand to commit this process to film in light of the Holocaust and its own horrific absurdity. In a denouement no less brilliant for being unfaithful to the novel, he refused to drain away reason completely, and instead offered an image of hopeful resistance at the last. Like Politkovskaya towards the end of her life, Kafka was somewhat less idealistic and rendered hope itself progressively illogical and meaningless in his work. By the end of his most famous novel, hope itself has become absurd.
Putin’s announcement two months ago that he would seek a third term as president was for many people the moment at which hoping for Russia became absurd, too. Or rather the moment at which the hope they had been harbouring for the past four years was revealed to have been absurd the whole time.
I have written before about the manner in which Dmitry Medvedev‘s supposedly liberal ideas, and the apparent split between him and his predecessor, were merely the hopeful phantasms of liberals and Western journalists who wanted desperately to believe that they had survived Putinism and even laughed. When Medvedev‘s presidency was revealed to be little more than an intermission between acts, in a play that may run to a quarter of a century, the sense of disappointment was acute. People still told jokes about their leaders — Putin and Medvedev walk into a bar and all that — and there was that image of Putin done up as Brezhnev that did rounds on LiveJournal and Twitter.
But most people started talking about emigrating. First as farce, the feeling seemed to be, and now as tragedy.
That hasn’t stopped people from hoping, of course. Having been forced to discard Medvedev as the vehicle for their desires, liberals and journalists have since attached them to other figures and groups: Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption lawyer and blogger; LiveJournal, which serves as one of the country’s most democratic and open spaces; and even the growing ultranationalist movement.
Sunday’s State Duma election has already been strip-mined for signs of hope or change or an awakening of the apathetic populace and these have already become integral components in the anti-Putin narrative. That United Russia’s majority has been reduced by 77 seats is a sure sign of discontent, we are told, and represents an important step towards the inevitable reckoning that is set to play out between the country’s rulers and its ruled. But as with Medvedev‘s liberalism, we should be wary of putting too much stock in the idea that the election results represent some kind of fatal blow to the regime.
The first and most obvious point to be made is that United Russia still won — or stole, as it were — nearly half the vote. At the time of writing, with 95.7% of votes counted, Russia’s Central Election Commission had United Russia ahead on 49.5%. While Putin and United Russia have been falling in the polls, as the newspapers have taken great pleasure in pointing out over the past two months, it is also true that any other leader or party in the world would happily welcome such numbers.
Putin’s personal approval rating has dropped since 2008, when it was pushing 90%, but only to 61%. Gallup currently has US President Barack Obama at a comparatively measly 44%. United Russia’s closest competitor in Sunday’s election was the Communist Party, which received nearly 30% less of the vote.
United Russia may no longer enjoy the two-thirds majority required to amend the country’s constitution, but the most important changes to that document have already been made: Medvedev‘s extension of presidential term limits to six years will see Putin in the Kremlin until 2024 should he choose to serve two terms. (Let’s not be so naive as to suggest the voters will have any say in the matter.)
Meanwhile, voter turnout was down. Some have suggested that this is bad news for United Russia — the decline in its vote corresponds closely to the drop in turnout — but I suspect that it has less to do with people actively turning away from the party as it does with people assuming the inevitability of its rule and resigning themselves to it. Discontent may be growing, but apathy remains the dominant feeling in the electorate.
And apathy tends to benefit authoritarians. As, in this case, does a reduced majority.
You wouldn’t think it to read the headlines: critics of the party are revelling in its falling support, condemning the electoral irregularities it oversaw, and complaining that it would have lost even more seats had the election been completely fair. But I think they’re being played. While more than 5000 electoral irregularities were reported across the country — pens filled with invisible ink, voters being bussed around to numerous polling stations, electoral commission officers filling out stacks of ballots — I actually think the authorities showed a surprising degree of restraint.Putin is not the type to try for Saddam Hussein’s infamous 100%, of course — though United Russia did pull an unsurprisingly suspicious 99.5% in Chechnya — but the party could easily and illegally have ensured a solid 60% or so nationally. But Russia is run by cynics, not idiots, and they are well aware that this is not the year for completely unrealistic margins. This election was about placating the country’s discontents while simultaneously ensuring the relative stability of the status quo.
“The country’s masters had the good sense to realise that dissonance between rosy official figures and the public’s self-awareness would lead to an avalanche in the authorities’ credibility,” Michael Rostov wrote in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. “Sacrificing some modicum of false prestige, Putin really only strengthened his position. [He] released steam from the boiler. Now the real opponents of power will find it much harder to convincingly throw the accusation in his face: ‘You stole the election from the people’.”
Of course, the regime’s real enemies are not to be found in the parliament, but in the streets. While the Communists are genuinely but mildly oppositionist, A Just Russia, which was created with Putin’s blessing five years ago but switched its allegiance to Medvedev this year, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is an ultranationalist sideshow, are widely considered Potemkin parties. Any group the regime considers an actual threat has been outlawed, and indeed 200 ultranationalist protesters were arrested in Moscow on Sunday evening for carrying a banner claiming that “elections without opposition are a crime”.
The final thing to keep in mind is that while United Russia is a pro-Putin party, and while its former success and recent decline may be attributed in part to his association with it, Putin himself is not actually a member. This is an arrangement that benefits only him. “No contract means I have all the power,” Don Draper once explained to his wife. “They want me, but they can’t have me.”
With Medvedev heading United Russia’s electoral list, Putin can disingenuously deny being the cause of the weekend’s losses. Indeed, given the party’s success when he headed the list himself four years ago, and given his approval rating is some 20 points higher than that of the party, he could almost claim that nothing gets done properly unless he does it himself. Able to take credit for United Russia in the good times, Putin is more than cynical enough to take a populist stance, claim it has failed the people and disavow it, should its fortunes continue to head south.
This may involve sticking a shiv into Medvedev, but I wouldn’t put that past him, either. While newspapers have described the election as a blow to the prime minister, analysts have been suggesting for months that a poor showing would have far greater ramifications for the president.
In October, Dmitry Oreshkin told Reuters that “Medvedev will be guilty [for any electoral rout] as he is responsible for United Russia. And as he’ll be guilty, how can be trusted as premier?” Putin had already begun to suggest in his public comments that Medvedev‘s prime ministership would be contingent upon a positive showing on the weekend. When Medvedev sacked former finance minister and long-time Putin ally Alexei Kudrin in September, Putin wasted no time in stating publicly that the latter, who has long coveted the prime ministership for himself, would remain an integral part of his team.
While Putin clearly wishes to reward his successor and soon to be predecessor for his loyalty, it is also true that he has very deliberately set him up as his political fall guy.
People will see through these dissimulations, of course. As I was putting the finishing touches on this article, thousands of protesters marched through central Moscow, railing against electoral fraud, with wire services reporting some 300 people were detained after breaking through police lines and heading towards the Kremlin.
Alexey Navalny, the aforementioned anti-corruption advocate, was among those arrested and posted a picture of himself and others smiling wildly in the back of a paddy wagon. Some analysts have been predicting a Russian Spring, or even another Russian Revolution, ever since Putin announced his plan to replace his replacement by returning to the presidency. I have tended to group such writers with those who gave too much credence to Medvedev‘s liberalism or who continue to invest too much hope in the official opposition parties.
People will see through the dissimulation, of course, but will enough of them care either way when they do?
As comparisons to Tahrir and Occupy Wall Street flew about the Twittersphere last night, and as the protesters made their way through the city and steeled themselves for a confrontation with the riot squads, I must admit that I still couldn’t see it. Vladimir Putin is set to return to the presidency and, in all likelihood, will do so again six years later.
But while the election results may not represent some kind of fatal blow to the regime, and indeed may even have benefited it in some ways, they nevertheless remain important in at least one vital sense. They have, or so it seems, drained hope of its absurdity for moment. More people voted for opposition parties — even if they are government-approved opposition parties — than for the ruling one. It turns out that a vote can make a difference in even in an election marred by fraud.
The smiles of Navalny’s friends in the paddy wagon said everything that needed to be said: these guys survived a police crackdown, and were even laughing about it.
*Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba, and will cover the presidential elections in Russia next year for Crikey