Is a power struggle breaking out among Russia's pro-Putin elite?
A hitherto obscure Moscow think tank that's headed by one of Russia's most powerful men and a staunch Kremlin ally, Vladimir Yakunin, has leaked news of a study that finds the pro-Kremlin United Russia party lost the December 2011 parliamentary elections to the Communist Party, and that even President Vladimir Putin's 65 percent victory in presidential polls a year ago was fraudulently inflated by around 12 points.
The potentially explosive news here isn't that the past election cycle, which brought the current right-wing State Duma and President Putin to power, was probably tainted by massive fraud, say experts. Opposition leaders and liberal think tanks have been saying that for more than a year. And tens of thousands of Russian protesters began shouting it in the streets within hours of the polls closing in December 2011.
What's extraordinary, they say, is that this report was drawn up by a think tank run by Mr. Yakunin, who heads the world's largest company, the state-owned Russian Railways, and has long been a bulwark of Russian conservatism and a key power behind the Kremlin throne. The study was prepared last year, but is only now being made public.
Cracks in the facade
To many Russian analysts, who are accustomed to scanning Russia's frozen and opaque political landscape for even the tiniest signal, this suggests a crack could be forming in the Putin-era facade of elite solidarity, portending a power struggle that's developing beneath the surface.
"This report's release is a clear political move at a definite moment," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The fact it's being put out now suggests that we are on the eve of some essential political shift. This is just one straw in the wind, but a very clear one. All elite clans are becoming more active, moving into new positions, getting ready for something."
Major Russian media, including Forbes and the daily Kommersant, have jumped on the story, even though staff at Yakunin's Center for Analysis of Public Policy and Management refuse to give interviews and say they will not release the full report.
But the independent RBK Daily, an online business newspaper that was first to break the story quoted the center's director, Stepan Sulakshin, summarizing the report's main findings. He said that a panel of scholars applied mathematical modelling to the official results reported by Russia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC), and found distortions which, when corrected, produced a different picture.
"United Russia didn't come first [in the Duma polls]. Its actual result was 20-25 percent," Mr. Sulakshin is quoted as saying.
"On the other hand, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, won with a vote of 25-30 percent.... Putin, unlike United Russia, is legitimate: He was supported by 52 percent of voters, and 13 percent was added to his tally by 'zealous officials'.... Between [the Duma and presidential elections] the element of falsifications decreased. That can be explained by the fact that Putin displayed political will: he needed a fair victory. For this purpose he really gave the order to achieve fair elections," he said.
Gripes and psychiatric clinics
The head of Russia's CEC, Vladimir Churov, responded Wednesday by suggesting the report's authors must be crazy.
"I will ask my secretariat to publish the addresses of the Kashchenko Hospital [a Moscow psychiatric clinic] and the Serbsky [Psychiatric] Research Institute. It's better to address them for comments on these reports," he told journalists.
He added that people with gripes about the election results shouldn't publish reports, but gather their facts and take them to court.
But Vadim Solovyev, central committee secretary of the Communist Party, says they've known for more than a year that their party probably won the Duma elections, and have gathered thousands of examples of fraud, all to no avail.
"We have addressed the prosecutor's office, the [Kremlin] Investigative Committee, and the CEC hundreds of times," Mr. Solovyev says. "They all refused to look into it. It's useless to go the legal route...."
United Russia: 'A bit like the Titanic'
He adds: "We think the fact this report has appeared now reflects a struggle going on within the United Russia party. That party is a bit like the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. The bosses already know of the disaster but the passengers are still ignorant. They may be thinking of jumping ship and moving over to a new party of power."
Other experts argue that Putin has long shown signs of being fed up with United Russia, which is widely derided among the population as "the party of rogues and thieves," and is planning to replace it with a new Popular Front organization that's due to be formally created in June. That further suggests to some commentators that Putin might be open to dissolving the current United Russia-dominated Duma, with its popular aura of illegitimacy, and holding new elections, with the Kremlin throwing its support behind the Popular Front which is due to be created in June.
"It certainly looks like an internal struggle between elites, which could take the form of competition between United Russia and the Popular Front," says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, Russia's biggest grassroots election monitoring group.
"This puts in doubt the legacy of United Russia, and its positions in the Duma, because it got more seats than its popular vote warranted. The Popular Front has no negative reputation, because it's never been accused of fraud," he says.
Yakunin is not only one of Russia's most powerful men, he's also a leading conservative public intellectual who runs his own think tank and heads the department of state policy at Moscow State University.
"Yakunin heads Russian State Railways, which is the world's largest employer and is so big it has its own army," says Mr. Petrov.
"He's a prince, to Putin's czar. He's not a very public person, so that fact that he's been more publicly active lately is a sign that something is happening within the elite," he adds.
If nothing else, the appearance of this new report from Yakunin's think tank suggests that both liberal and conservative experts in Russia are now on the same page concerning the allegations of mass fraud in the last Duma elections.
"The assessment of Yakunin's think tank is absolutely the same as what the opposition has been saying for over a year," says Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst and frequent Kremlin critic.
"This clearly speaks to an under-the-carpet struggle that's underway. Politically and psychologically this report contributes to a growing atmosphere of uncertainty in the country. Putin is being attacked by his closest political allies. All the institutions of power appear to be of dubious legitimacy.... It's an interesting moment, that's for sure."