Russia's elections: Not quite Back to the USSR

Though interest in Sunday's parliamentary elections seems minimal we are entering a new chapter in the story of Vladamir Putin, reports our Political Editor Harry Cole from Moscow

Vladimir Putin: A man on a mission
Harry Cole
On 2 December 2011 10:09

If you spent four days in any capital city in the week leading up to a parliamentary election you would expect there to be at least some buzz around the prospect of democracy in action. Not in Moscow, where Sunday's election to the Duma is being greeted with the deafening silence of inevitability.

Nobody seems able to get excited about it, or even talk at length on the subject. Not out of the fear that used to strangle these parts, but out of a sense of weariness that the status quo is unchangeable. It's clearly tiresome to try and get excited about the forgone conclusion that will be declared by Monday.

The smartest, hungriest young entrepreneurs and ruthless tech-driven capitalists from across Russia met on Tuesday for the fourth annual "Digital October" Innovation Convention, but the only concern there was that the right climate for business growth was pursued, aka lower taxes.

However, the lack of political conversation was not for want of trying on my part, (I was there to give a speech about social media and politics,) but there was no real mention of the election at the event, or even the slightest whiff that there could be another way to do things.

With one of Medvedev's closest advisers (we'll call him Steven Hiltonski) happily pressing the flesh and promising sweeties to Russian venture capitalists and Silicon Valley's great and good who were imported for the week, there was no real cry for change there.

Away from that bubble where there must of have been more Apple products per square foot than anywhere else in the Federation, taxi-drivers, barmen and the guy who ripped me off with impunity for a fox-fur hat all shrugged when I turned the conversation around to Sunday.

"The swap…the swap" – Prime Minister Putin for President Putin for President Medvedev for Prime Minister Medvedev – did come up frequently, but much insight beyond that was rare. Only the beautiful blond who had the dubious pleasure of being seconded to me as a personal assistant for the convention gave more than an uninterested grunt at questions about Putin and Medvedev.

The fact that she was studying international journalism might have had something to do with that though.

But then we know the result already – Putin’s United Russia will sweep the board again, locking down his grip and greasing the wheels for the Presidential run next March that in all likelihood will see him continue to dominate Russian politics for at least another six (but probably twelve) years.

That would make him the longest serving leader since Stalin. Hardly something to put on the election leaflets. The United Russia flags that drape Moscow's bridges look more like a premature victory celebration than a campaign tool.

In some ways, things are changing though. This is the first time that the current occupants of the Kremlin have really had to work for the result. Local speculation is that a deal has been cut for the last few days of the campaign that will see the opposition softening up their attacks in return for guaranteed seats in the state Duma.

The Moscow Times goes as far as to suggest that a formal but secret pact has been drawn up that will see all three other major parties get over seven percent of the vote and thus guaranteed seats.

In the straw poll of posters around town, the Liberal Democrats would take second place. The local candidate points to an uber-nationalistic future on their poster, a future that isn’t very "democratic" and far from "liberal". He’s a ringer for Glenn Beck too, which certainly raised a wry smile.

The Communists are making a fair amount of noise with a two pronged strategy to march the country straight back to the past. To an outsider, their targeting of the ageing “silver” vote with hammer-and-sickle-soaked nostalgia seems absurd.

While their slogan "Back to the USSR" raises nothing but a hum and a chuckle from this western-watcher, it's expected that they will take second place on Sunday.

The youth vote is being promised victory "Together" by a photogenic couple dressed in red. Quite what that future would entail isn't explained, but if the queues in McDonald's, Red Square, are anything to go by, the kids aren't listening anyway.

The ineffectual soft lefties over at A Just Russia just don't seem to have the fight in them: evidence of their campaign on the streets of Moscow is virtually non-existent.

Nonetheless, despite a lacklustre opposition, we are seeing a new phase in Russian politics emerge: what one hack on the ground calls “Putin 2.0” – the next stage of his career that will see him having to actually fight for what he wants rather than bulldozing his way through the system.Though it won't change the endgame this weekend, the polls say United Russia will lose seats. People are getting weary of the cosy coterie at the top, and that will be reflected in the party’s share of the vote.

Putin is used to being popular and used to getting his own way with either minimal effort or the threat of force. If the endless pictures of him topless, slaughtering some wild beast in the vast Russian forest, show one thing it's that he's not young and fresh anymore. The excitement that once surrounded him, reflected in the trademark twinkle in his eye, is long gone.

The fact that the Prime Minister was booed at a boxing match last week has been seen as major turning point -- such overt opposition, on camera and to his face, is a rare occurrence. How Putin copes with being disliked and unpopular will feed the news agenda here in the coming years.

It will certainly liven things up, and it might just re-ignite an audible interest in politics on the streets of Moscow.

Harry Cole is the UK Political Editor for The Commentator. He tweets at @MrHarryColeand is the News Editor of Guido Fawkes, Westminster's leading political website

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