Analysis: Five Myths About Russia's Elections
By Robert Coalson
December 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There is an "election" going on in Russia. Not an election, but an "election." This is not an election that falls short of international standards. It is not a democratic, a flawed-democratic, or even a pseudo-democratic process. According to a recent RFE/RL poll, nearly two-thirds of voting age Russians don't believe the elections will be conducted honestly. Nearly half say if they do vote, it will be out of a sense of "duty."
The Kremlin, regardless, is expending considerable effort to create the illusion of a democratic process, with the Kremlin-controlled election agencies, the Kremlin-controlled legislature, and the Kremlin-controlled media, which constantly intones the mantra that Russia is following its own democratic path, that the country has a reliable democratic system. "We don't need helpers in organizing elections like in Africa or Kosovo," a Central Election Commission member said in October. "We have an established democratic system."
Here are five myths the Kremlin's political spin machine has been working non-stop to promote.
1) President Vladimir Putin is popular. Polls consistently show Putin with a popularity rating of 60 to 70 percent. But these polls are part of an antidemocratic system, one where conformist political messages are drummed into the populace constantly while high-profile examples of the consequences of dissent -- from dispossession to exile to murder -- are frequently reinforced. No other political figures in Russia have even minimal name recognition, and even people who regularly appear on state television to sycophantically praise the leader are not known to the public by name.
"Popularity" in Russia is something the Kremlin gives and takes away. Six days after the largely unknown Viktor Zubkov was named prime minister in September, a poll found that 40 percent of Russians thought he'd be the next president of Russia. Because Putin is the only political figure with any significant stature in Russia, he attracts personal credit for everything that happens in the country, all of which is positively spun in the state-controlled media. However, the presidential administration understands how quickly setbacks can erode even Putin's support, as it learned in 2001 when Putin was lambasted for failing to show sympathy for the trapped crew of the Kursk nuclear submarine and in 2005 when pensioners took to the streets in the thousands calling for Putin's resignation because of a controversial social-benefits reform.
Putin's popularity ratings are a bubble that exist within a political vacuum, a bubble that nonetheless needs to be continuously pumped up with injections of hot air from state television.
2) Parties matter. Putin and his team have worked hard over the last seven years to bring the political party system under control, and they have succeeded. Although there was some evidence the plan was to create a system based on two Kremlin-friendly parties, the Kremlin's commitment to that idea was never solid. Now it appears Soviet-era political impulses have taken over and the efficiency of a single-party monolith has proven too attractive.
There are 11 parties participating in the current campaign, but only one counts. Propped up by Putin and more than two-thirds of Russia's regional leaders, plus thousands of mayors and other apparatchiks, the Unified Russia party has -- as it did in 2003 -- ignored the other parties and focused entirely on using its vast financial and administrative resources to persuade a cynical public that since there is no beating them, you'd best join them.
Since its creation, it has followed the direction of the presidential administration, which in turn has not even bothered to create the impression that it takes the party's opinions into consideration. Party leaders were stunned when Putin announced unexpectedly on October 1 that he would head Unified Russia’s list of candidates for the Duma elections.
As for the other parties, some -- the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, A Just Russia, and Civic Force -- are Kremlin-controlled pseudo-opposition groups designed to muddle the situation and siphon votes away from independent organizations. The real opposition parties are financially starved groups that must spend all their resources merely in order to comply with the strict laws on forming and registering parties; that are shut out of the national media; and that are harassed, ridiculed, and parodied by Kremlin-inspired pseudo-NGOs.
3) Issues matter. The platform of Unified Russia's campaign is a collection of Putin speeches nebulously called "Putin's Plan," and it is not discussing any issues more sophisticated than the slogan "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory."
As it did in 2003, Unified Russia has refused to participate in campaign debates with opposition parties. Nonetheless, because of the party's domination of state-television news coverage, 8 percent of Russians in a recent poll said they remembered seeing Unified Russia members in televised debates and 69 percent of Russians who said they watched the debates thought that Unified Russia performed well in them.
Although Unified Russia has turned the elections into a referendum on Putin and his course, observers know that "Putin's course" is whatever Putin and his inner circle deem expedient at the moment.
Policy pronouncements by the minor also-rans are ridiculed at best, and as a rule ignored. In addition, because the violations of election standards by the authorities, by Unified Russia, and by bespoke “nongovernmental” outfits like the militant Nashi youth group have been so frequent and so outrageous, opposition parties spend the lion's share of their time and effort cataloging and complaining about them. There is literally no time to discuss matters such as the creeping renationalization of the economy or the systematic dismantling of civil society.
4) Election rules matter. Any party advertisement that does not include a direct, literal appeal to vote is not considered part of the campaign and is not covered by campaign or campaign-finance laws, the Central Election Commission has ruled in connection with complaints about Unified Russia flooding the country with t-shirts, notebooks, backpacks, and bottles of vodka.
On the other hand, the Federal Security Service, the KGB successor organization charged primarily with preventing terrorism, is investigating a Communist Party leaflet that contains jokes about Unified Russia and Putin. Police in cities around the country have confiscated campaign materials of the Union of Rightist Forces on pretexts ranging from the need to test them for narcotics to the need to analyze their content for signs of extremism or hidden advertising.
Opposition activists have been questioned by police in their homes and detained without cause on the streets. Garry Kasparov, head of the opposition Other Russia coalition -- which can't even participate in the elections because the Kremlin refused to register it -- spent five days in detention for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration, while six more Other Russia activists were sentenced this week to six days in jail for allegedly resisting arrest. Ivan Bolshakov, a leading Yabloko youth activist and Duma candidate from Nizhny Novgorod, was arrested on November 20 in Moscow hours after filing a complaint against Putin with the Central Election Commission on charges stemming from a demonstration he attended in May. Yabloko activist Farid Babayev was shot dead in Daghestan following his criticism of the republican administration's manipulation of the election campaign.
Unified Russia has filed 11 cases against newspapers in the city of Saratov alone, having recently won a hefty decision against one cash-strapped paper. Neither Putin nor the vast majority of the nearly 70 Category A officials (federal ministers and regional heads) running for the Duma on the Unified Russia ticket is taking administrative leave during the campaign. The governor of Novosibirsk region told journalists he can't leave his post because of upcoming events like " the celebration of the harvest, the 70th anniversary of the oblast, and the coming of winter."
5) Election results will reflect the public will. This myth is perhaps the most important from the Kremlin's point of view. Analysts in Russia and the West have argued Putin is seeking a landslide in the elections so he can -- under the cover of an apparent popular mandate -- affect some unspecified major overhaul to the state structure and/or the constitution. Those changes will likely institutionalize Putin's increasingly totalitarian political system by introducing further antidemocratic measures such as the elimination of the direct election of the president.
No one knows what those changes -- "Putin's Plan" -- will be. So no one can vote for them. But even if Russians did know what that plan is, a political system without alternatives cannot produce an endorsement of that plan. Fewer than one in five respondents in the RFE/RL poll believe the results of the vote will reflect the true will of the electorate.
The Russian legislative elections will produce a "landslide," but it will be no more meaningful than similar landslides that are produced in other controlled political systems, such as those in most Central Asian countries. Unified Russia's victory will be a victory for Putin and his circle. But it won't be anything more than that.
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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