Sham 'Elections', Real Discontent

There was a time when Russian voters mattered. Elections in the 1990s were vigorously competitive. Twice, in 1993 and 1995, parliamentary polls were won by opposition parties. In the election of 1996, incumbent President Boris Yeltsin prevailed in the first round over his communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov by just 3.3 percent.

The last election with a semblance of democracy was held exactly 10 years ago, in March 2000. It was the poll that formally handed Vladimir Putin, acting as president since 1999, the keys to the Kremlin. According to investigations by the news agency and think tank Panoramaand the Moscow Times, Mr. Putin’s official result of 52.9 percent was achieved by ballot-stuffing, and his actual figures did not exceed 49 percent, which would make his first-round victory illegitimate. But there were at least elements of choice. NTV, Russia’s leading independent broadcaster, was still on the air, and liberal opposition candidate Grigory Yavlinsky was able to register, campaign, and, in the end, receive millions of votes.

Since then the electoral process has been on an unending downward spiral. In 2003, when I ran for the Russian parliament as a candidate of the democratic opposition, the lights on my campaign billboards were switched off, the newspapers carrying my ads mysteriously disappeared, and the audio was cut during my debate on local television. The district electoral commission spent weeks trying to remove me from the ballot, wasting time that should have been spent on the campaign. On election day itself, observers in my district found serious voting irregularities. By coincidence, soon after, the chairman of the electoral commission received the directorship of a firm affiliated with my opponent from Mr. Putin’s United Russia party. Nationally, exit polls and parallel vote counts in 2003 showed that the liberal Yabloko party has cleared the 5 percent threshold that would have allowed it to enter parliament. Official results gave Yabloko 4.3 percent.

What came after was worse. In 2007, almost the entire print run of campaign leaflets for the opposition Union of Rightist Forces party was confiscated by police, while the party’s leaders were detained at rallies. In the “election” of 2008 that transferred the presidency from Mr. Putin to his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, the regime decided not to take chances: Both candidates nominated by the democratic opposition, Vladimir Bukovsky and Mikhail Kasyanov, were simply barred from the ballot. The Moscow city elections in October 2009 broke new records of absurdity. Every single candidate from the opposition Solidaritymovement was denied registration on the basis of technical “irregularities”: One had his own signature on the registration petition invalidated, another’s “invalid” signatures were found to account for 104 percent of the total. Yabloko, the only pro-democracy party allowed on the ballot, officially received 4.7 percent of the vote and no seats in the legislature. This tally included exactly 0 (zero) votes for Yabloko in precinct # 192, where party chairman Sergei Mitrokhin voted with his family. In contrast, precinct # 2079 (the home precinct of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin), packed with hundreds of journalists and poll observers, reported 24.1 percent for Yabloko,with 26.1 percent for United Russia and 33.8 percent for the Communist Party.

Changes to Russian electoral laws effected since the early 2000s abolished single-member districts, restricted registration rules for political parties, prohibited electoral coalitions, eliminated the “against all” option and removed the minimum turnout requirement—all this in the context of near-total government control of television—thus ensuring that “election” results bear very distant relation to actual voter attitudes.

Yet even these obstacles could not prevent popular discontent with the regime surfacing in the March 14 regional elections. The government’s response to the economic crisis, when it chose to rescue friendly oligarchs while raising taxes and tariffs on the general population, undermined even tacit support for the Kremlin. Mass anti-Putin rallies in Kaliningrad, Irkutsk, and Penza and the thousands-strong citizen petition demanding the prime minister’s resignation point to shifting public attitudes. A recent poll by the respected Levada Center found that 48 percent of Russians believe the path to the country’s prosperity lies through democratic rights and freedoms, with just 31 percent opting for Mr. Putin’s “vertical of power.”

On March 14, United Russia,led by Vladimir Putin, failed to win a majority, receiving on average 48.8 percent of the vote in the 8 regional legislative polls (compared with 61.4 percent in the same regions in 2007). In Sverdlovskaya oblast, one of Russia’s most industrialized areas, the ruling party managed only 39.8 percent. United Russia lost mayoral elections in the cities of Irkutsk and Ust-Ilimsk and in several midsize towns. The democratic opposition was predictably denied access to the ballot. Where it could run, it achieved impressive results, including 46.4 percent for Solidarityco-founder Tatiana Kotlyar in the city of Obninsk and, symbolically, 28.5 percent for Yabloko in the town of Solnechny on Lake Seliger, the site of the annual gathering of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement.

Rigid control over the media and elections may secure the regime for a time. But, as shown by the experience of several post-communist states, when popular discontent reaches a critical point, no artificial restrictions can keep it at bay.

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