Foreign Policy Blogs

Russia’s Opposition Got What It Deserved

Hardly anyone likes Putin anymore, but he still won the election in a landslide, and is celebrating in style. How is that possible?

Of course, it helped to be the only candidate allowed TV airtime, and a hefty (unlimited) government budget for high-stakes propaganda (including some apocalyptic ads depicting Russia descending into WWII style suffering if Putin didn’t get re-elected. Also, excluding major opposition figures from running was a prudent idea. And it certainly didn’t harm to have a few thousand busloads of people paid to whimsically cast ballot after ballot at different polling stations, in what has become known as “carousel voting”.

However, none of that made much difference to his overall score.

Sure, ballot stuffing helped Putin avoid embarrassment in Moscow, among whose wealthy, upwardly mobile and restless population he barely managed to eke out 50%, if the unofficial observer figures are to be believed. But Moscow is not Russia. It’s like casting doubt on Bush’s victory by pointing out how badly he did in Massachusetts.

No, acording to the Levada Centre, Russia’s foremost independent social research firm, the real reason Putin won was the lack of any reasonable alternative. And for that, the opposition has only itself to blame.

Its crimes: elitism, complacency, tone-deafness and wishful thinking. Oh, and did I mention elitism?

Masha Gessen, an otherwise astute commentator on Russian affairs, is the perfect illustration of what’s wrong with Russia’s “protest movement”.

“The only problem with the “middle-class revolution” image is that it is dead wrong”, she writes.

But yet it’s not. The protests are confined to Russia’s two wealthiest cities. They are a strong internet presence at a time when most people in Russia remain offline. They involve people significantly younger and better educated than the average, people concerned with democracy – an issue that fewer than 5% of Russians see as the biggest threat facing the country (inflation, lack of social services, and unemployment were the top 3). All of this explains their low numbers.

The real reason, however, for the alienation of the protesters from the bulk of ordinary Russian voters (many of whom share the protesters’ frustration with Putin’s authoritarianism and Russia’s corruption) is cultural.

For a start, many senior opposition figures have a barely disguised disdain for their average countrymen. Here is what the famous liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told the press yesterday about his experiences as a poll observer in a wealthy Moscow neighbourhood: “Я живу на Ордынке, и тут эти гопники толпами носятся, а по улицам ездят машины с ОМОНом. Вы видели хоть одну страну, в которой честно победивший глава государства окружает себя военными и ликующей массовкой из провинции?”/ “I live in Ordinka, and I saw all these ‘gopniks’ running around here, while riot police cars lined the streets. Have you seen a single country where a fairly-elected leader surrounds himself with soldiers and an ecstatic mob from the provinces?”

The key word here is “gopnik”, a derogatory term that translates roughly to “chav” or “redneck”, as well as ‘massovka’, a slur connoting a mass-mob.

We might ask Nemtsov: “Have you ever seen a country where a leader of the supposedly enlightened liberal opposition hoping to create a mass democratic movement uses words like chavs and rednecks?”

This is not an accident, and ordinary Russian people have always sensed the classist venom imbuing Nemtsov and many of his liberal comrades, which might go some way to accounting for his party’s inability to gain even 7% of the vote way before Putin tightened the screws.

For now, many Russian people continue to admire and respect Putin, but increasing numbers are becoming fed up with his personality cult, his empty theatrics, lack of ideology other than power, and his lack of respect for the country’s institutions and voters’ intelligence; with the inability of wages to keep up with inflation, the corruption, the shoddy service provision, the general atmosphere of chauvinism that he has bred in the country.

But it’s not enough to be disillusioned: voters need someone to vote for before they can be persuaded to vote against the devil they know.

The opposition’s inability (and unwillingness?) to capitalise on the biggest crisis facing Putin in 10 years shows that, while they certainly don’t deserve to be arrested, they don’t deserve to be in power either. At least Putin had enough fire in his belly to hire all those carousel voters!

  • AK

    Of course, it helped to be the only candidate allowed TV airtime…

    Vadim, I don’t even watch TV, but even on the debates I saw on YouTube, there were ads for ALL candidates during the breaks.

    Random people saying Putin is great, Zhirinovsky beating that donkey, Zyuganov in front of dams and tractors, etc.

    Could you please source this assertion that no other candidates were allowed no airtime?

    • Vadim

      Privet Anatoly – thanks for reading! Of course, when I wrote that Putin was the only one allowed TV airtime, I hoped most readers would realise it was a playful exaggeration, given the televised debates, etc. However, while Zyug and Zhirik did certainly appear on TV, they did so only in the perfunctory “election” slots; by contrast, Putin never gets off the TV, ostensibly in his newsmaking capacity as head of the government: “The prime minister enjoys more airtime because he is the head of government, and publicity is part of his job… Mass media cannot ignore Putin as the current Prime Minister and the work which is being done by his Cabinet” ( Interestingly, the President does not appear subject to the same logic.

      According to a recent German report, “a full two-thirds of all election coverage mentions Putin by name”( As a result, nearly all TV is Putin news, with the exception of a few grudging minutes devoted to the other candidates, ghettoised into “election news”. None of this is new – the same thing happened with Medvedev in 2008:

      Anyway, all this was mostly beside the point of my post, which was about the stupefying lameness of the so-called liberal opposition – something over I think we’re in full agreement :)

      Best, V

  • John

    The activist opposition came late to the game, but if they survive this new Putinist regime, they will make more of a mark during the next election, which thanks to the Putinist regime, will now be 6 years away rather than 4. Certainly they are an elite, but thats what happens: all movements start with an elite and a cause. Takes time to get the vast masses going, and even then, it isn’t always important to reach most of the masses – the elite only has to turn a minimum number of both the opposing elite and the near middle-class opinion leaders.

    Nikitin’s commentary misses the point of some of the OSCE’s criticism that the electoral process was built on the systemic exclusion of competition. OSCE did find that Russians could fully participate as voters, but that the range of candidates ‘on offer”suffered from the ability of those in power to reduce any options. As Henry Ford said, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

    A cynical comment like “At least Putin had enough fire in his belly to hire all those carousel voters!” is really excusing a crime that even Putin knows full well is a blunder that will only serve to unnecessarily bolster both internal and external criticism. With videos of ballot-box stuffing in Dagestan and other places, the opposition has an excellent tool for arousing those quiescent masses – and Putin didn’t even need that corruption. That Nikitin concludes his story without interpreting his comment suggests that it should be answered by links to a couple of the most vociferous critics of the process and the weak American response to such electoral corruption:

    “Putin’s Victory, With an Obama Assist”:

    “Putin steals an election, Obama’s State Department cheers”:


Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs