Putin's Win Is No Victory for Russia

Among the 48 percent who voted.

Photographer: Grigory Duker/AFP/Getty Images

A new round of elections has handed all-but-complete control of Russia’s parliament to President Vladimir Putin. The result, however, can hardly be called a victory for Russia.

Putin’s United Russia party gained its largest-ever majority in the lower house of parliament -- enough to alter the country’s constitution. Genuine opposition parties didn’t win a single seat. In celebrating the outcome, Putin called it a repudiation of Western attempts to meddle in Russia’s affairs.

Yet this mandate is less than it seems: Surprisingly few people actually showed up to vote. Nationwide, turnout was just 48 percent of registered voters. In major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, it was less than a third. Unlike the U.S., where turnout of less than 50 percent is common in midterm congressional elections, Russia hasn’t seen such low numbers in its post-Soviet history. In the last parliamentary vote in 2011, about 60 percent of voters participated.

The apathy stems from a lack of choice. Legitimate opposition candidates have been kept out of the process -- for example, through fabricated criminal charges and the government’s control of major media outlets. Taking grievances to the streets has also become more dangerous, thanks to Draconian laws and tougher enforcement introduced after a wave of protests in 2011 and 2012.

The shutting down of dissent means that Putin is increasingly disconnected from the people, at a time when a protracted economic slump is testing their patience. The odd world he inhabits can be glimpsed in the bizarre beliefs of his latest wave of high-level appointees, which include a chief of staff partial to the idea that the future can be predicted using a device inspired by the Russian nesting doll.

True, polls suggest that Putin remains extremely popular. Yet that rating is largely a function of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Free and fair elections are not only an end unto themselves, they offer the public a peaceful way to express any dissatisfaction -- and their winners a better claim on popular legitimacy. Both are points Putin should keep in mind as he contemplates the next presidential election, scheduled for early 2018.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.