By any measure, Russia's legislative race was a triumph for the country's ruling party. United Russia regained a supermajority of the State Duma in Sunday's legislative elections, winning 76 percent of the vote. The Kremlin, moreover, was fairly successful in managing the election's outcome and aftermath, a stark contrast from the 2011 legislative vote, which revealed a decline in support for the ruling party and sparked mass protests across the country. Eschewing the blatant manipulations that provoked the public's ire in the last election, the government resorted instead to changes in electoral policies and backroom deals with rival parties to achieve its desired results. Though these efforts seem to have paid off, United Russia's victory is a compromised one.
For one thing, much of the Russian electorate did not vote in Sunday's election. Independent observers claim that 31 percent of voters turned out, while the state's estimate is just under half, significantly lower than the usual 60 percent participation. Some voters boycotted the election, aware that the outcome would be highly managed. The Kremlin itself is responsible in part for the low numbers; Moscow moved election day up in hopes that many Russians would be away on or just returned from vacation and not thinking about politics. Still, turnout was lower than the Kremlin expected or even wanted, highlighting a shift in the government's legitimacy. For the past 16 years, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his party have maintained power through varying levels of popular support. Now, however, the administration's authority will rely more on its centralized power than on the people's backing.
Nonetheless, United Russia's strong performance in the elections — at least on paper — gives the Kremlin and the president the mandate they need to make the tough decisions that lie ahead. With the theatrics of the election behind it, the Russian government must finally take serious action on the economy. At this point, implementing austerity measures is the Kremlin's only viable option, albeit a highly unpopular one among the Russian people. The Duma's makeup guarantees that Moscow's solutions will come to pass, no matter how controversial they may be.
The results of the election also give Putin the mandate he needs to run for a fourth term as president in 2018. Whether he will, though, is another matter. The longtime leader has hinted that he is tired of being president and is considering a successor (though Putin would doubtless still pull the strings). What's more, the president recently suggested that his replacement would have to be someone from beyond his inner circle. This reflects Putin's growing isolation within the system he has created.
More and more, the clans that ascended to power alongside Putin are competing for limited resources, assets and authority, challenging the president. To maintain his hold on power, the Russian leader has already started to strike down some of the most influential men in the country. He has even created his own personal military, a manifestation of his growing fears of a coup from outside or inside the Kremlin walls. In the weeks ahead of the election, rumors swirled throughout the Russian media that Putin would overhaul the government after the vote to bring in new people who would be beholden to only him.
Regardless of whether those rumors bear out, changes seem to be afoot in the Kremlin. On Monday, sources within the security services said the president is planning to create a superministry under his direct command. The new ministry would combine parts of the Federal Protective Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Prosecutor General's office, Emergency Ministry, Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry and Federal Security Service to oversee all of Russia's security and law enforcement functions. Ominously named the Ministry for State Security (MGB) — the very name Soviet leader Josef Stalin gave to his own superministry from 1945 to 1954 — the conglomerate would encompass espionage, counterespionage, protection and policing activities in the country.
Like the Soviet version, Putin's MGB would parallel the state security responsibilities of other agencies but with the heightened authority of a ministry. In fact, the MGB could be the most powerful institution in all of Russia, at the president's direct disposal. Putin, alongside his National Guard, would control all investigations, prosecutions and security forces. But in trying to centralize authority around a single personality, Putin is taking a big risk. Previously, instability in the Kremlin and among Russia's public could influence aspects of the government. But now the system is increasingly becoming Putin.