12.05.1110:02 AM ET

Russia's Vladimir Putin Gets a Reality Check at the Polls

Russia’s once and future president took a drubbing in the polls this weekend. His party will manage to cling to power anyway—but a few simple things could change that.

The Kremlin has some problems. About 77 million of them, to be precise—the number of Russian registered voters who didn’t vote for Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party in Sunday’s elections. Despite allegedly unprecedented efforts by the authorities to fix the vote, United Russia managed to scrape just 49.5 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2007’s elections.

To put the figure in context, that’s 3 percent less than Barack Obama scored in the last U.S. presidential election—and unlike Putin, Obama didn’t have the luxury of controlling 100 percent of his nation’s regional governors and legislatures, plus all the main television stations and newspapers. Neither did Obama have a legion of university rectors, factory managers, Army officers and police ordering their subordinates to vote for his party.

The result is a dismal performance, a powerful message sent by Russian voters to the Kremlin that they’re fed up with the “party of crooks and thieves,” as anti-corruption campaigner and popular blogger Alexei Navalny calls United Russia. But a Russian Arab Spring this is not. The number of Russians who care sufficiently about changing the political system to show up at protests and register their opposition by getting themselves arrested is still tiny. No more than 3,000 protesters dared to defy the thousands of police in riot gear posted in downtown Moscow at a small but passionate rally. Crowds chanted “Putin is a thief” and wolf-whistled when Putin’s name was mentioned by speakers who included Navalny and green campaigner Yevgenia Chirikova. “They got less than 50 percent—that’s our small victory, the first on the road to total victory,” Chirikova shouted to protesters. Soon after, baton-wielding police moved in to disperse crowds, clubbing protesters—including a Newsweek correspondent—out of the way.

The opposition is still weak and divided. The “official” opposition that the Kremlin allows to participate in elections—consisting of the Communists, who attracted a babushka vote of 20 percent; the Kremlin-created pseudo-liberal A Just Russia, which polled 13 percent; and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which got 11 percent—has long since been co-opted and in practice almost always votes with United Russia. Yabloko, the only liberal, pro-Western opposition party allowed to run in Sunday’s elections, polled just 3 percent, less than the 7 percent threshold required to get into Parliament. The rest of the opposition, largely made up of small liberal parties such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front, was refused registration by the Kremlin-controlled Election Commission—but in any case has ratings in the low single figures.

The problem for most ordinary Russians is that while they see a small elite becoming ridiculously rich, not much of the prosperity has tricked down to them. Access to health care, education, and good exam results are blocked with thickets of bribery, as are the most basic functions of government like renewing a driving license or registering a house. Russians may approve of Putin’s macho bluster and his nationalist politics—but they’re angry at his cronies’ thieving ways. With no plausible opposition candidate in the offing, that anger won’t change the fact that United Russia will remain the dominant political party, or that Putin will return to the Presidency next year. But the Kremlin is clearly losing control of its own managed electoral system—and that spells serious trouble down the road if and when economic woes catch up to Putin’s crisis of legitimacy.

So Sunday’s result shows that Russians are unhappy with Putin but don’t support any alternative candidate. That’s the good news for the Kremlin. The bad news is that these elections mark an important watershed moment in the history of Russia’s so-called managed democracy. When Putin came to power in 2000, handpicked as the successor to Boris Yeltsin by a clique of powerful businessmen and courtiers, Russians were deeply weary of the chaotic upheavals that democracy and the free market had brought. Putin’s mantra then, and now, is that he would bring stability. Most Russians were more than willing to swap the political freedoms they’d won under Yeltsin for stability. And then, thanks to a boom in oil and metal prices in the 2000s, Putin was also able to deliver apparently effortless prosperity. Russian’s average income rose by more than three times over the decade.

The problem, for most ordinary Russians, is that Putin’s “stability” has meant the removal of any outside checks and balances on the government and its servants—either from the press, Parliament, or the courts, all of which are firmly under the Kremlin’s thumb. The result has been an unchecked orgy of looting and extortion by bureaucrats and the security services, with ordinary Russians as the victims. Since Putin took power in 2000, corruption has grown to a staggering one third of Russia’s GDP, or $300 billion a year, according to Russia’s Anti-Corruption Committee, an NGO. Unsurprisingly, resentment of bureaucrats and dysfunctional government has grown. Polls show that Russians have a deep distrust of just about every state institution, from the police (distrusted by 78 percent of the population) to bureaucrats (a whopping 99 percent of respondents said they didn’t believe officials’ income declarations).

Most worrying of all for the Kremlin’s political technologists is that these elections have shown that the levers of “stability” are no longer very effective. Sunday’s was the dirtiest election in modern Russian history. In Moscow’s Maimonides State Jewish Academy last month, 200 students were mustered in a concert hall and told that they were joining Putin’s People’s Front, an umbrella group cooked up by the Kremlin to sidestep the unpopularity of United Russia. Students who did not wish to join were invited to step forward and explain their reasons to the whole university (only 15 did). The websites of Ekho Moskvy radio station, more or less the only independent, mainstream mass medium still tolerated, and the U.S.- and EU-funded Golos NGO, an electoral watchdog, were shut down by a sustained hacking attack Sunday. Across Russia, independent electoral observers were harassed (in one case for having the wrong-size name badge), journalists were denied access to polling stations, and there were widespread reports of stuffed ballots and improbable counts. Yet even with the full resources of the state at its disposal, United Russia won big only in Russia’s lunatic asylums (where the party scored an impressive 90 percent of votes), the former rebel republic of Chechnya (which boasted a close to 100 percent voter turnout, with United Russia scoring 99.48 percent of the vote), and the troubled Caucasus republic of Dagestan, which is teetering on the brink of civil war.

United Russia’s sagging poll ratings come as no surprise, of course—the party’s own internal polling showed its support slipping to around 30 percent in Moscow this summer. What’s disturbing is Putin’s response. In a speech to a carefully orchestrated United Russia convention earlier this month, he struck a note of aggressive anti-Western rhetoric. "Some foreign countries are gathering those to whom they are paying money in order to influence the election campaign," Putin told supporters. These alleged foreign meddlers “are wasting their time, because Judas is not the most respected biblical character in our country." For good measure, Putin also attacked political opponents, Russia’s beleaguered democrats, for helping in the collapse of the Soviet Union and accusing them of looting the country during the economic chaos of the 1990s.

At the same convention, Putin announced that he would be running again for the presidency in 2012, with his liberal stand-in and current president Dmitry Medvedev taking the job of prime minister. It’s hard not to see Sunday’s vote as a protest against six more years of Putin. The scary thing is that these, for Russia, are the good times. Thanks to a wisely managed Stability Fund set up at the height of the oil boom, the Kremlin has been able to balance the nation’s budget without going into crippling debt (unlike Europe). And the Kremlin has spent large chunks of its oil wealth on pensions, schools, hospitals, housing projects, and the military.