Vladimir Putin to Get Litmus Test with Parliamentary Elections

Putin and Ivanov
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and chief of President's staff Sergei Ivanov attend a ceremony marking the 72nd anniversary of the Nazi German invasion, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin walls in Moscow, Russia, June 22, 2013. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

This weekend, Russia is to hold parliamentary elections in what is being described as a litmus test for the strength of the regime of Vladimir Putin and a referendum on his ability to run for a fourth, arguably fifth, term–he was twice elected president, then chosen as PM before again becoming president—in less than two years. Despite sky-high popularity for the leader, Russia and the regime are changing as cracks in the system deepen, threatening Putin's continued control. And as he clings to that power, he finds himself doing so alone.

Sunday's elections are the first of their kind since anti-Kremlin protests shook the government in 2011-2012. At the time, Putin and his ruling United Russia party were popular, with approval ratings of around 60 percent, but that didn't stop the Kremlin from blatantly rigging the elections to ensure better results, stuffing ballot boxes, banning rival political parties, and misusing the media and funding. And still United Russia lost its majority in the state Duma. What started as tens of thousands taking to the streets in protest of the government's manipulation of the elections grew to hundreds of thousands when Putin announced he was running for a third term in office to replace then-President Dmitri Medvedev.

The demonstrations were made all the more extraordinary by their diversity. They included liberal reformists, anti-Putin activists, ultra-nationalists and communists. The Kremlin couldn't simply call the uprisings a Western-backed attempt at a color revolution in Russia. Instead, it had to respond to the people themselves, most notably by giving them several political concessions. It was rare backdown from the typically resolute leader.

The primary mission for the Kremlin going into Sunday's elections is to avoid the protests and poor results of 2011—but the Kremlin is facing more challenges going into these elections than it was five years ago. The Russian economy has floundered in recession since the end of 2014. The Russian people's standards of living have declined sharply, leading to minor protests throughout the country. Putin's approval rating has dropped by 11 percent, as has United Russia's, which now stands at 31 percent, according to independent Russian pollster Levada.

But the Kremlin cannot engineer Sunday's results as flagrantly as it did in 2011, so the regime would instead manipulate the outcome more subtly, at least by Russia's standards. It moved the elections from December to September, hoping for lower turnout. It replaced Vladimir Churov with Ella Pamfilova, a human-rights advocate, as the face of its Central Election Commission. It lifted many of the restrictions that once kept other political parties from entering the fray. Putin and members of his party, meanwhile, have met with the other big-three political parties—Just Russia, the Communist Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party—to strike a deal dividing up the vote.

Putin is also trying to show the people, however superficially, that his is not the same 'crony system' of the past 16 years. But this may be more easily said than done: nearly two-thirds of Russians believe their country's elite are corrupt. The same cadre of elites have been with Putin for decades, since his time in the St. Petersburg administration and, before that, the Federal Security Services. When he came to power in 1999, he did so with the backing of the Petersburg group. Their reward for helping him was their own fiefs throughout Russia, ranging from powerful government positions, board memberships and leadership posts in some of the most lucrative companies in the country. These are the elites that have constituted the system under Putin.

But Putin is now changing that system, not only for the benefit of the Russian people but for the benefit of Putin. To protect his power, Putin has ousted some of the most powerful men in the country over the past year: Vladimir Yakunin from Russian Railways, Viktor Ivanov from the Federal Narcotics Control Service, and Sergei Ivanov from his Chief of Staff. He's also publicly going to battle with Igor Sechin, the head of oil giant Rosneft. Putin's inner circle once seemed like a fortress protecting him for more than a decade. Now Putin is increasingly concerned about revolution from within the Russia's walls, not just outside them.

And so, in addition to purging internal threats, Putin is shoring up loyalists who are not quite powerful enough to challenge his authority. In April, Putin created his own personal military, the National Guard, that answers to him alone. Should an uprising start on either side of the Kremlin walls, he has the forces needed to quiet the storm.

The Russian regime is evolving—from its bases of popular support among the Russian people and clans balanced under presidential arbitration—to an entire system depending on one man. The next test, one that will take place in just a few days, is whether all the Kremlin's maneuvering can give Putin what he wants: another decade of power.

Lauren Goodrich is a senior Eurasia analyst at Stratfor.com, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas.