TOPICS: Putin’s meddling is baffling

The Russian parliamentary elections are over. Party strategists, local officials, factory managers and university lecturers, all drafted to get people into polling stations and vote for United Russia, can now enjoy a well-deserved break. But the job of explaining what happened on Sunday has just begun.

Why, for example, did the Kremlin resort to such extraordinary measures to harass the opposition, intimidate voters and manipulate the elections, given that the president and his programme are genuinely popular? Living standards are rising, and there is no obvious cause for discontent. Vladimir Putin dominates the Russian political Olympus. His party won 64% of the votes, which perhaps reflects its standing in the country. However, the process by which it achieved that victory is deeply flawed. Allegations of coercion taint its legitimacy. Moreover, it is expensive: the state must feed its law enforcement apparatus, on which it depends.

The outcome came as no surprise. The only opposition permitted into the Duma were the Communists and their allies, who have a genuine constituency in the country and with whom the Kremlin has learned to live. However, the parties that failed to make it, while critical of Putin’s course, are hardly revolutionary. Liberal parties to the right have always played by the rules, at times cooperating with the government on economic reform. There are no forces in the country with a mass calling to target the fundamentals of the Putin system.

Opposition is weak and divided, and its constituency does not stretch far outside the urban middle classes. The authorities rightly fear xenophobic and nationalist groups, but their share of support is on the decline. What is obvious is that the leadership does not trust society to use democracy without harming itself: the child is judged to lack the maturity to handle such a complicated toy without supervision.

The greatest danger for Russia — and, potentially, for others — is that the leadership may be losing touch with reality, driven by an insecurity about how much real support it enjoys. A 99% turnout in Chechnya, with a 99.2% vote for the ruling party is a kind of “triumph for democracy” the regime could have lived without. If the Kremlin is possessed by anirrational fear of “colour revolutions” — demonstrations over dubious elections that have led to the overthrow of regimes in neighbouring states — it in fact risks kindling a popular resentment where there are no real grounds for it.

The west did not expect a clean campaign and would have been taken aback if elections in Russia were free and fair. Thus, what has happened has confirmed all the worst fears and stereotypes held about Russia, its “managed democracy” and “authoritarian-leaning” people. There is nothing the west can now do to help get Russia “back on a democratic path”. Any political backing for the losing parties would portray them as western puppets rather than domestic actors. The best thing is to sit and wait until they generate support by example rather than by instruction. — The Guardian