Stealing the Vote: The Kremlin Fixes Another Election

T yrants have never fared well in Russian elections. The country’s first parliamentary poll in 1906 was decisively won by the Constitutional Democrats, who ran on a platform of political and social reforms; pro-czarist parties failed to win a single seat. In the Constituent Assembly election of 1917, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks already in control of government and the armed forces following their October coup, Russians flatly rejected the emerging dictatorship in favor of the pro-democracy Socialist Revolutionary Party, by forty to twenty-four percent. In the first-ever direct election for Russia’s head of state in 1991, Communist candidate Nikolai Ryzhkov, backed by the Soviet state apparatus, managed a meager seventeen percent of the vote to fifty-seven percent for Boris Yeltsin, the face of the country’s democratic opposition.

Given this history, it is hardly surprising that after ballot-stuffing his way to victory in the 2000 presidential poll (investigations by the Moscow Times and the Panorama research center uncovered significant “inflation” of his vote in several regions, including Saratov and Dagestan), Vladimir Putin proceeded to do away with the inconvenience of democracy. The story of Putin’s power grab in 2000–2004 reads surprisingly like Mussolini’s in 1922–25, with the same tactics of “plucking the chicken feather by feather” used to weaken resistance. One by one, independent television channels were seized or shut down; unruly entrepreneurs and sponsors of opposition parties (like Mikhail Khodorkovsky) were shown their place; the courts were transformed into rubber stamps for the executive, while elected governors and senators gave way to Kremlin appointees.

Putin’s “reforms” of the electoral laws have largely removed voters from the business of elections. Russian citizens can no longer run for Parliament as individuals: the only way to seek office under the 2004 law (signed by Putin, ironically, on Constitution Day) is by having a place on the nationwide slate of one of the officially registered political parties—with the registration process, naturally, being controlled by the government. Since 2006, the number of registered parties has declined from thirty-five to seven, with the Justice Ministry also rejecting nine new groups that sought registration. Ideology does not seem to matter: any party—liberal, conservative, socialist, or nationalist—that is deemed a potential threat to the Kremlin’s “managed democracy” is denied a license. Pretexts for refusal border on the absurd. In 2007, for instance, People for Democracy and Justice, a center-right party led by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, was denied registration on account of thirty-seven mistakes found in the list of more than fifty-six thousand party members (some of which were obvious typographic errors, like “1053” instead of “1953” for the year of birth). Responding to a complaint by the similarly disbanded Republican Party of Russia, the European Court of Human Rights found the Russian government’s stance on party registration to be “unjustified” and “disproportionate.” But this practice continues unabated with the result that some three-quarters of Russia’s political groups are currently barred from taking part in elections.

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I n what will no doubt become one of the most memorable statements from the Putin era, Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the State Duma, asserted that “Parliament is not a place for discussion.” His words are hard to dispute. After pro-democracy parties were evicted in the heavily manipulated election of 2003, and the handful of remaining independents booted out in 2007, the Russian Duma became a parody of parliamentarism, with more than two-thirds of seats controlled by Putin’s United Russia party, and the rest divided among its toothless shadow boxers. The Communists, once a force to be reckoned with (in 1996, the party’s leader, Gennady Zyuganov, came within 3.3 percent of defeating incumbent President Boris Yeltsin in the first round of voting), have settled into a comfortable niche of “loyal opposition,” with a predictable second place in federal and local elections as they continue to talk about Russia’s “socialist future” and Stalin (their warm nostalgia for him shared by many inside the government), but are no longer a threat to the system. The same applies to Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democrats, who, for all their nationalist and populist rhetoric, have never challenged the regime’s vested interests. (According to former Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, Zhirinovsky’s party, established in 1989, was given the KGB’s blessing to initiate an “alternative” to Communist rule and forestall the emergence of a genuine opposition.) The fourth party in the Duma, the ostensibly “center-left” Just Russia, was formed with open Kremlin support: Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, called it the “second leg” of the regime. Russia’s formally “multiparty” system is not dissimilar from that of communist East Germany, where Putin was once stationed as a KGB officer: the East German “parliament” was not, on paper, a one-party legislature, and included representatives from puppet “non-communist” parties, such as the Christian Democratic Union.

Even for the few registered parties, access to the ballot is by no means unimpeded. In the latest round of regional elections in March, Yabloko—a liberal party with a long history of opposition to the Kremlin—had nearly half of its candidates disqualified prior to the vote. Pressuring state employees, stuffing the ballot boxes, bribing voters, rewriting protocols, evicting observers, and tampering with early and absentee ballots are all common (and well-documented) tricks used by the authorities to ensure “correct” results. During the 2007 Duma campaign, European observers noted reports of “harassment of opposition candidates, detentions, confiscation of election material, threats against voters,” as well as “the extensive use of administrative resources . . . on behalf of United Russia” that, in their view, constituted “an abuse of power and a clear violation of international commitments and standards.” The results of that vote were reminiscent of the communist past: the initial tally in the region of Mordovia, for instance, gave United Russia between one hundred and four and one hundred and nine percent of the vote (this was later “corrected” downward to ninety-three percent); the party claimed eighty-nine percent in Dagestan, ninety-six percent in Kabardino-Balkaria, and ninety-nine percent in Chechnya. The maxim attributed to Stalin—“It is not at all important who and how will vote . . . It is extremely crucial who and how will count the votes”—is alive and well in today’s Russia.

Exit polls conducted after the 2009 election to the thirty-five-seat Moscow Duma predicted a five-party legislature. The official seat-count produced a thirty-two-to-three split between United Russia and the Communists. In one of the more notable results of that day, the home precinct of Yabloko chairman Sergei Mitrokhin, where he had voted with his family, reported zero votes for his party. Meanwhile, all candidates of the opposition Solidarity movement had been disqualified because of “irregularities” in the signatures submitted in support of their nominations. One Solidarity candidate had his own signature declared fake. Another was told by the electoral commission that one hundred and four percent of the signatures he presented were invalid.

“Innovations” introduced under Putin—and preserved by his figurehead successor, Dmitri Medvedev—include a ban on electoral coalitions, the abolition of money deposits, the removal of the “against all” option, and the elimination of the minimum turnout requirement. “Even if [Putin] alone shows up and votes for himself, the election will be deemed valid,” noted Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent Soviet-era dissident who was nominated by the opposition to run for president in 2008. Bukovsky’s application was rejected by the Central Electoral Commission for, among other reasons, failing to produce an “official certificate” proving his status as a writer—the books he has published in several languages not deemed adequate proof of his profession. Vladimir Churov, the current chairman of the Central Electoral Commission (and Putin’s old associate from St. Petersburg), once declared that his “first law” is that “Putin is always right.” Too often, this seems to be the only law that governs Russian elections.

A s the country heads into a new parliamentary campaign, with voting scheduled for December 4th, the Kremlin’s electoral firewall remains intact. In June, days after President Medvedev assured Western journalists that he wants “the whole of political spectrum to be represented in our Parliament,” the Justice Ministry denied registration to the opposition Popular Freedom Party, cofounded by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. The party’s manifesto included amnesty for political prisoners, the return of direct gubernatorial elections and single-member district elections for Parliament, and legislative guarantees of judicial independence, media freedom, and freedom of assembly, as well as a package of anticorruption measures. Polls showed that the party was within reach of parliamentary seats—an unwelcome prospect for the Kremlin. As the 1989 Congress of People’s Deputies—under Communist control, but with an outspoken pro-democracy minority—demonstrated, even a handful of independent voices in a monopolized political system can make a difference. Andrei Sakharov, himself a member of the 1989 Congress, once observed that “it is not a case of arithmetic, but of a qualitative fact—the breach of a psychological barrier of silence.” The Popular Freedom Party’s application was rejected on the standard pretext: alleged irregularities in the submitted list of members—in this case, in seventy-nine out of 46,148. Justice Ministry officials referred to “personally written statements from citizens” denying their affiliation with the party. Such statements did, in fact, exist: for several weeks leading up to the ministry’s announcement, Popular Freedom Party activists across Russia reported receiving phone calls and visits from police officials pressuring them to sign statements denouncing their membership. US and EU leaders described the decision to bar the opposition from the ballot as a breach of Russia’s international commitments. In a joint statement, US Senators Benjamin Cardin (a Democrat), Joseph Lieberman (an Independent), and John McCain (a Republican) pointed out that the disqualification of the Popular Freedom Party “calls into question the legitimacy and credibility of the upcoming Duma elections.” In an apparent attempt to save face, the Kremlin tasked Forbes billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who makes no secret of his loyalty to Putin and Medvedev, with leading a puppet “democratic” party, Right Cause, into the December election. Unlike opposition politicians, who are blacklisted by the major media (Vladimir Pozner, an anchor for television’s Channel One, recently admitted that “there are people who . . . cannot appear on federal television,” naming in particular Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, and Mikhail Kasyanov), Prokhorov received plenty of airtime for his proposals of “reforms,” such as restoring elections for mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg (but not for the rest of Russia’s regional governors). Voters are unlikely to fall for this hoax in December—but it has been more than a decade since voters decided the outcome of a Russian election. It is worth noting that Putin’s refusal to allow the opposition even token access to the ballot makes his regime less democratic than those of Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenko, and the late Slobodan Milosevic.

Despite being kept away from television and the ballot itself, Russia’s opposition has enjoyed a steady rise in support. In recent years, the country—literally, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok—has been swept by protest rallies, often centering around local issues, but linked by one common theme: the demand for accountability. Whether protesting against tax increases, the destruction of historic architecture, or environmental pollution, Russian citizens are insisting, first and foremost, on having a say in how—and by whom—they are governed. Polls consistently show that a majority of Russians want to reinstate direct gubernatorial elections. Promises of “order” and “security” that many voters believed—and tacitly agreed to exchange for political freedoms—during Putin’s initial rise to power in 1999 and 2000 have been proven hollow. The much-trumpeted corruption of the 1990s turned out to be child’s play compared to today’s levels. In the space of a few years, Putin’s associates—the likes of Arkady Rotenberg and Yuri Kovalchuk—have become Forbes billionaires. According to polls conducted by the independent Levada Center, in 2007 only sixteen percent of Russians believed that there was more corruption under Putin than under Yeltsin; by 2011 this figure had reached fifty-two percent. Transparency International estimates Russia’s annual corruption market at $300 billion (nearly a quarter of GDP), placing the country on a par with the Congo and the Central African Republic in its Corruption Perceptions Index. As economist Anders Aslund has observed, there is only one state in the world that is both richer (in terms of GDP per capita) and more corrupt than Putin’s Russia—and that is Equatorial Guinea.

The 2009 economic meltdown (the country’s GDP fell by 7.9 percent, with the official unemployment figure surpassing eight percent) brought an end to illusions that Russia was somehow shielded from outside events, even during periods of relatively high oil prices. Despite Putin’s pledge to “wipe out terrorists in the shithouse,” his promises to “pacify” the North Caucasus, and an eleven-fold increase in law enforcement budget (from $2.8 billion to $31.3 billion) between 2000 and 2009, security problems have worsened, with terrorists staging high-profile attacks in Moscow, and insurgency spreading through all of Russia’s Muslim regions. On Putin’s watch, the number of terrorist incidents has risen from 135 in 2000 to 786 in 2009, increasing by fifty percent in 2009 alone. Adding to all this is the natural fatigue with a regime that has entered its thirteenth year in power. A poll conducted this summer by the Levada Center showed that fifty-two percent of Russians disapprove of the current government. Another poll, by the Public Opinion Foundation, indicated that forty-nine percent are ready to personally take part in protest rallies.

The regime has responded to this threat with a combination of carrot and stick, offering concessions in some instances (firing the unpopular Kaliningrad governor, Georgy Boos, whose resignation was demanded by thousands of street protesters), and crackdowns in others. Peaceful pro-democracy rallies across Russia on the last day of each month that has thirty-one days (symbolizing Article 31 of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly) are routinely dispersed by police, often with inexplicable brutality. After one such rally in Moscow, on New Year’s Eve, opposition leaders, including Boris Nemtsov, were arrested and jailed for “disobedience.”

The regime’s declining support is seen even in the results of its own stage-managed elections. In the March 13th regional poll—widely considered a dress rehearsal for the parliamentary election—United Russia lost votes all around the country. In seven of the twelve regions that voted on that day, Putin’s party failed to reach even the fifty percent mark, falling to 36.7 percent in Kirov and 39.8 percent in Tver. In eleven of the twelve regions, United Russia’s result fell in comparison with the 2007 Duma election, including a drop of twenty-two percentage points in Khanty-Mansiysk, twenty in Tver, nineteen in Kirov and Orenburg, and eighteen in Nizhny Novgorod. Unable to vote for real opposition parties, many Russians have turned to their paper substitutes as a means to protest. Just Russia has been scoring in double digits and appeared headed for a win in December’s election to the St. Petersburg legislature until the Kremlin, acting to prevent embarrassment, reprimanded its “second leg” by removing Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov from his post as speaker of the upper house of Parliament, thus shutting off the party’s administrative lifeline. Conscious of its falling ratings, United Russia has attempted a “relaunch”: Vladimir Putin announced that his party will contest the December election as part of a new “Popular Front” consisting of some five hundred organizations, from the “Union of Women” to the “Union of Transport Workers.” Witty commentators have compared this formation to Stalin’s “Unbreakable Bloc of Communists and Non-Party People” created before the Soviet “elections” of 1937. Reinforcing the analogy, Putin’s “Front” has drafted its manifesto in the form of a “five-year plan.”

Even with weakened public support, the Putin-Medvedev tandem is still capable of ensuring the “correct” vote tally in December, as well as in the presidential election next March. The Kremlin’s rich arsenal of administrative tricks may be reinforced by coercion: Vladislav Surkov, previously Putin’s deputy chief of staff, now Medvedev’s, has urged members of the pro-government Nashi (“Ours”) youth group—which he described as the “combat detachment of our political system”—to “train their muscles” ahead of elections. There is little doubt that the vote on December 4th will produce another puppet legislature, with Putin’s “Popular Front” as the dominant force, the parties of Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky as the “loyal opposition,” and perhaps a sprinkling of Right Cause deputies as a “democratic” facade for the West. But, as Hosni Mubarak’s convincing win in the 2010 Egyptian election—his National Democratic Party swept the board with more than eighty percent of parliamentary seats—has demonstrated, choreographed votes do not necessarily translate into political stability. In fact, they often do the opposite. In May, while the Popular Freedom Party’s registration bid was still pending, a group of prominent cultural figures, including writer Vladimir Voinovich and film director Eldar Ryazanov, published a letter warning the authorities that, unless the system is liberalized from above, it will be inevitably—and maybe violently—brought down from below. “The attempt to conserve the current non-constitutional order can lead to serious socio-political upheavals in the nearest future,” the letter cautioned, placing responsibility for the consequences on Putin and Medvedev. The Kremlin has so far not heeded the call. One more lesson from Russia’s history is that despotic regimes here rarely exit on their own terms.

Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., a Russian journalist and historian, is the author of Reform or Revolution: The Quest for Responsible Government in the First Russian State Duma. He is one of the leaders of the opposition Solidarity movement and was a candidate for the Russian Parliament in the 2003 election. He blogs for World Affairs.

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