Western leaders must envy Vladimir Putin. They can only dream of a primetime television interview, broadcast by all major networks, with obsequious, prescreened questions, and the knowledge that nothing they say—however untruthful or outrageous—will be publically challenged, since their opponents are not allowed on the air. In his interview with Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV over the weekend, Putin—formally still prime minister, but certain to take over the presidency next year—stated that Russia does not need a “Ukrainisation of our parliament” (meaning a multiparty legislature with genuine debates), declared that Western parliamentary democracy is in “crisis,” maintained that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—the broadcaster that broke the iron curtain of censorship for millions of Soviet citizens—was “a CIA subdivision … that engaged in covert intelligence work,” and advised the United States to “mind their own business,” namely, “fight rising inflation, rising national debt, and obesity.” Answering perhaps the most daring question of his interviewers—why he decided to return to the Kremlin—the once and future president suggested that that is what the “common people” want.
Many—indeed, most—“common people” in Russia would find this somewhat surprising. According to a Public Opinion Foundation poll carried out in early October, just 41 percent of Russians—despite the media brainwashing and administrative pressure—are planning to support Putin’s United Russia party in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In key regions, the party fares even worse: 27 percent in Kaliningrad, 31 percent in St. Petersburg, 29 percent in Moscow.
According to Kremlin sources who spoke with the newspaper Vedomosti, the presidential administration has set the goal of 65 percent for United Russia on December 4. If the polls are correct, the authorities will have to manipulate millions of votes. Preparations are already under way. In direct violation of the electoral law, Novokuznetsk Mayor Valery Smolego instructed local plant managers that “United Russia must win,” telling them to keep an eye on their employees’ voting behavior. In Chelyabinsk, top regional official Alexander Polozov warned that “if a territory does not vote the correct way, that territory will not receive money” from the federal budget. In Chechnya, Parliament Speaker Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov had already offered to give United Russia 120 percent of the vote. As polling day approaches, the pressure on voters—especially public sector employees—will only increase. Opposition leaders who travel the country urging citizens to protest against the unfair election will also find themselves under increasing pressure, as former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov discovered last weekend when, on a visit to Krasnodar, he had to meet with local residents in total darkness, when electricity in the building was cut off, and the building itself was surrounded by riot police. Nemtsov’s Popular Freedom Party has been banned from participating in December’s election.
In case the pressure is not enough, the authorities have the proven option of ballot-stuffing. A leaked United Russia memorandum from 2008, published by Duma deputy Sergei Mironov, contains detailed instructions to local officials on how to inflate the turnout and the party’s result—10 and 18 percent, respectively—by adding extra ballots and signing for absent voters in the last hour before polling places close.
There is little doubt that United Russia’s “result” announced on December 5 will be very similar to the administration’s goal. It is also increasingly likely that Russia’s next change of government will not come as a result of a Kremlin-sanctioned “election.” Poll numbers showing that 70 percent of Muscovites oppose Putin’s party should give the regime particular cause for concern. As analyst and former legislator Yuri Zagrebnoy noted, “the capital city is where revolutions begin … In the event of a crisis, the authorities will have no one [in Moscow] to rely on.”