Transforming Russians From Subjects to Citizens

Russians have long lived with the insult of meaningless elections. During the seven-plus decades of the Soviet era, regularly held elections were the norm and state officials proudly boasted to the world that the communist exemplar had the highest participation rates in the world. While the decadent West could barely achieve a 50% turnout, nearly 100% of eligible voters took part in Soviet elections. Most importantly, Soviet voters did not need to navigate complicated ballots with multiple parties, like in the chaotic, self-indulgent West. Their elections, with but one party, gave every Soviet citizen the right to vote "yes."

Mikhail Gorbachev's uneven attempts at promoting multi-party democracy ultimately led to the erosion of the East Bloc, and then the Soviet Union itself. Next, post-Soviet Russia, under the mercurial and alcohol-diminished Boris Yeltsin, saw a wholesale looting of public property by politically-connected banking oligarchs, and wealth disparities between elites and the common man of which commissars could only dream. Then, a former KGB man with an MBA's understanding of the connection between economic and political power, Vladimir Putin, arrived to play the traditional Russian role of the "man on horseback" who would restore order to remedy the chaos of multiparty, inefficient government.

He did so through "managed democracy": Political parties were "rationalized" (made fewer in number by manipulation of the legal system and outright election-rigging). News media were encouraged to "behave responsibly" (by intimidating and, in at least 23 cases since 1992, murdering journalists -- like the courageous Anna Politkovskaya, whose persistent examination of the cronyism of the first Putin presidency was halted when she was executed in gangland style). And the legislature and courts were "reformed" to provide "more constructive" results (their composition and powers were set by Putin).

After two terms, either through laxness or uncharacteristic timidity, Putin did not remedy the constitutional limitation on presidential terms and was forced to hand the office to his Prime Minister and hand-picked successor, Dmitri Medvedev. In doing so, he re-assured his people that they should have no fears: Medvedev would follow his policies and, more importantly, the two would switch jobs and Putin would be back after the one-term interregnum. Upon his return, Putin would properly amend the constitution to guarantee at least 12 more years as their president.

Everything appeared to be going as has been normal in the age of Putin until November 21, 2011, at a martial arts competition in Moscow two weeks before Parliamentary elections. As Putin climbed into the ring to congratulate the Russian winner of the international match, a large portion of the 20,000 in attendance booed him lustily. Not only was this a most unexpected and unprecedented display of public disapproval, but it happened on live Russian (Putin-controlled) television. Old intelligence hands recognize "receptors of ground-truth" when they occur, and the open contempt shown for Putin pointed to trouble for his planned return. The size of the problem came into sharper focus on election day when Putin's United Russia party saw its parliamentary majority drop from two-thirds to slightly more than half. Many Russians, if not an outright majority, viewed the December 4th vote as being rigged in favor of United Russia (e.g., the party scored a Soviet-like 99% of the vote in the Caucuses republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia). With the fix clearly in, securing just a bare-majority was seen as a further sign of broad voter discontent with the soon-to-be president and his government.

The day after the election, some 5,000 gathered in Moscow to protest the corrupt vote. Keynoting the rally was Alexi Navalny, a lawyer turned blogger who has documented corrupt share buying and trading in monopoly ventures by government officials, and has called Putin's United Russia "a party of crooks and thieves." Navalny has reached large numbers of Russians though the internet and social networking, thus circumventing Puntin's state media monopoly and its information management. His arrest for causing a public disturbance added fuel to a demonstration by an estimated 50,000 people six days later (December 11, 2001).

Putin was rattled enough by the massive but peaceful protest to dust off a variation of the old Soviet-era "Americans are facilitating counter-revolutionary activity" canard by accusing U.S. Secretary of State Clinton of "encouraging protestors." In an effort to quell public anger, Putin sacked United Russia's Parliamentary Speaker, Boris Gryzlov. He also has spoken of installing cameras in all polling places to insure greater transparency and electoral integrity for the March 2012 presidential election, and of reaching out to other political players to mend fences.

But for a Russian electorate that is growing more confident and sophisticated in its understanding of how to circumvent Putin's "managed democracy," these measures have the strong, familiar scent of counterfeit parties and sham elections. A protest planned for December 24, 2011, should offer even more proof of the trajectory of Russian electoral sentiments which, unlike those of the protestors in Egypt's Tahrir Square, are more broadly representative of the growing Russian middle class. Though it would be difficult to conceive of a Putin loss in the March election, it is a firm certainty that the democratic genie is finally out of the bottle in Russia, and he has granted its people a long-desired wish: they are well on their way to becoming citizens instead of subjects.

This post first appeared on Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia..