The parliamentary elections this weekend in Russia were by no stretch of the imagination free and fair. The most credible opposition politicians were banned from participating, leaving United Russia, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s ruling party, with hand-picked competion including antique Communists, goofy nationalists, and ineffectual socialists (the latter allied with Medvedev). And the counting was blatantly falsified, with numerous documented instances of fraud and preposterous results; in Chechnya, where the Second Chechen War left most of the locals thinking of Putin as a butcher, United Russia supposedly received 99.5% of the vote, with 99% turnout.
Despite this, United Russia lost a lot of ground, going from controlling over two thirds of the seats in the Duma to around half of them. Presumably a fair count would have yielded an even more dramatic rebuke to Putinism. The widely-publicized electoral fraud — YouTube videos of election officials filling out ballots have gone viral — drew thousands into the streets this week to protest. Hundreds have been arrested at the protests, among them a popular anti-corruption activist and blogger named Alexey Navalny. Raising Navalny’s profile could prove a costly mistake, writes Walter Russell Mead:
The election was a blow to Putin’s pride and prestige, but the fragmented opposition is no threat to his rule – unless missteps and overreactions on his point galvanize the public. His enemies cannot throw Putin out of office, but the prime minister’s blunders and those of his supporters might conceivably do the trick.
It may be too much to hope that that will happen soon, but the situation bears watching. In the meantime, it’s long past time US policy toward Russia moved beyond the Obama administration’s ill-conceived “reset.” Here’s more on that from the Foreign Policy Initiative.