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What elections mean for Russia

3Qs with Harlow Robinson, Matthews Dinstinguished University Professor of History
December 8th, 2011

Fol­lowing par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in Russia on Sunday, protests broke out across the country this week amid alle­ga­tions of voter fraud. The elec­tions kept Prime Min­ister Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party in power, but revealed a drastic decline in sup­port for the party and sig­nif­i­cantly decreased its number of seats in Par­lia­ment. We asked Harlow Robinson, Matthews Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor and an expert in Russian and Soviet cul­tural his­tory, to ana­lyze the situation.

How would you describe the political climate in Russia leading up to the parliamentary elections this week?

The polit­ical cli­mate was marked by cyn­i­cism and dis­il­lu­sion­ment among most of the pop­u­la­tion. In Russia, the idea that ordi­nary cit­i­zens have the ability to influ­ence the behavior of their gov­ern­ment is still not firmly estab­lished. Most Rus­sians do not believe they can influ­ence what hap­pens in the Kremlin, even 20 years now after the col­lapse of Com­mu­nism. Espe­cially given the recent maneu­ver­ings between Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, there is less trust than ever that honest, real elec­tions can be held in Russia.

To what do you attribute the drastic loss of support for Putin and the United Russia party revealed in Sunday’s election?

What I hope is that the loss of sup­port for Putin may finally signal that the Russian people are waking up to the fact that if his party wins, they face at least 12 more years of his rule, which means a con­tin­u­a­tion of cor­rup­tion at the highest levels, and a lack of trans­parency in gov­ern­ment. Per­haps also this sig­nals that the younger gen­er­a­tion of Rus­sians, those who did not grow up under Com­mu­nism, may be coming to greater con­scious­ness and respon­si­bility. Remember that Putin is entirely a crea­ture of the Soviet system  — he was pre­vi­ously a high-​​ranking KGB officer  — and that he rules very much in that spirit. It will take a gen­er­a­tional shift for the admin­is­tra­tion of gov­ern­ment and the par­tic­i­pa­tion of cit­i­zens to truly change.

After protests broke out following allegations of vote fraud, the Russian government quickly banned unauthorized rallies and arrested opposition leaders. How will these fraud allegations affect the success of these elections, and what impact may they have on Russian society and the political climate going forward?

The actions by the Russian gov­ern­ment will cer­tainly call into ques­tion the suc­cess of the elec­tions. I under­stand from Russian sources that mil­i­tary equip­ment has been posted around Moscow. These actions will cer­tainly lead to a polar­iza­tion of the polit­ical atmos­phere in Russia — but they also could lead to pos­i­tive change, in that the Putin/​Medvedev admin­is­tra­tion is showing its true colors, and there can be no fur­ther ques­tion about its real inten­tions and tac­tics in holding on to power at all costs. Tran­si­tions have always been very dif­fi­cult for Russian gov­ern­ments, going back to Tsarist times, and this seems a con­tin­u­a­tion of that his­tor­ical tradition.

by Lauren Dibble


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