Russia’s Voters Speak Out

One of the favorite pastimes of Russia’s political analysts is guessing what the results of a free and fair election in the country would look like—no easy task, since the last genuinely competitive vote was held in 1999. With most polling agencies taken over by the government, and online polls clearly unscientific, any prediction is as good as another. One way to gauge public opinion and measure the relative standing of political parties is a “mock election”—an exercise launched by the opposition Solidarity movement earlier this year. Every few weeks, Solidarity activists across Russia—from Archangelsk to Yaroslavl—print mock ballots, set up mock ballot boxes on the streets and squares, and ask passing citizens to register their votes by means of a secret ballot. The results from around the country are then tabulated and published.

Two Russias React to US Visa Sanctions Bill

Western proponents of realpolitik and the Kremlin’s “fellow travelers” routinely caution world leaders against criticizing Moscow over its dismal human rights and democracy record, as such criticism, in their view, would only “irritate Russia” and sour relations. This argument is true—if one takes “Russia” to mean Vladimir Putin’s unelected clique of corrupt bureaucrats, former security operatives, and billionaire friends. For those who do not equate a great nation with a rogue regime and pay attention to the genuine voices of Russian society, such a view is a travesty. With regard to human rights, nowhere is the discrepancy between the two Russias more evident than in the attitudes toward S.1039, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, a US Senate bill that would impose visa sanctions and asset freezes on Russian officials responsible for violating human rights, including “the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.”

Mr. Putin & the ‘Common People’

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 Brezhnev’s Footsteps—and Proud of It

For all the obvious similarities between Vladimir Putin and Soviet dictators—from stage-managed party congresses to farcical “elections”—the regime in Moscow was at least shy to admit the likeness publicly. No longer, it seems. In a television interview last week, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, not only accepted the comparison of his boss to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, but readily embraced it. “Brezhnev was not a negative for our country’s history,” Peskov opined to his interviewers’ disbelief, “He was a huge positive.”

How to Vote When There’s No Election

Following the events of September 24, when Vladimir Putin announced his intention to remain in power for another twelve years, it is becoming increasingly likely that the next change of government in Russia will take place outside of the official “electoral” schedule. Growing discontent, falling oil prices, likely economic downturn, and a rigid authoritarian system devoid of checks and balances—or even “steam valves”—do not make for a stable combination. Opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov called Putin’s decision “the catalyst for civil unrest and possible revolutionary events” in the country.

Putin’s ‘Return’ Opens Way to Upheavals

One of the surest signs of repression in Russia is a flourishing culture of political jokes. The 1930s and the 1970s, in particular, bear testimony to this. In 2008, when Vladimir Putin tricked term limits by becoming prime minister under hand-picked President Dmitri Medvedev, a new joke was born in the Moscow intelligentsia’s kitchens. The year is 2020. Putin and Medvedev are in a bar, drinking beer. Putin looks up and asks: “Dima, do you remember which one of us is president, and which one is prime minister?” Medvedev thinks for a short while, then replies: “I think you are president, Vladimir Vladimirovich, and I am prime minister.” “Then it’s your turn to pay for the beer,” responds Putin.

Kremlin Closes the Curtain on Its ‘Liberal’ Project

One inconvenience of heading a puppet political party is that, at any moment, the puppet master may remind you who is really pulling the strings. Mikhail Prokhorov learned this lesson the hard way. Last week, the Forbes billionaire, whose fortune is estimated at $18 billion (making him the third-richest man in Russia and the eighth-richest man in Europe), was publicly shown his place by a midlevel Kremlin apparatchik. Radii Khabirov, deputy head of the internal politics section at the presidential administration—a subordinate of the Kremlin’s notorious deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov—directed the national convention of Right Cause party to dismiss Prokhorov as leader.

Russia’s ‘Election’: The Games, the Truncheons, and the Opposition

As Russia’s “parliamentary campaign” gets underway, its participants—the handful of officially sanctioned parties—try their best to animate the predetermined spectacle, which will end on December 4 with a convincing “victory” for Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. Two parties—Right Cause and Just Russia (through its youth wing, the Young Socialists)—have unveiled “shadow governments” that would take power if they win in December. Right Cause, led by Forbes billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, staffed its fantasy cabinet mainly with business figures, such as banker Yevgeny Ivanov (finance minister), power company executive Mikhail Slobodin (energy minister), and pharmacy owner Artyom Bektemirov (health minister). If Prokhorov’s list at least has some corporate logic, the “shadow government” presented by Just Russia defies comprehension.

Medvedev Opens ‘Election’ Season

On Monday, during his meeting with leaders of the seven registered political parties, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed decree number 1124, calling parliamentary elections for December 4. Between ten and thirty days from now, parties must hold their conventions and nominate candidates for the State Duma (by way of nationwide lists). The four parties currently in the Duma—United Russia, Just Russia, the Communists, and LDPR—are placed on the ballot automatically; the three remaining groups—Yabloko, Patriots of Russia, and Right Cause—must collect at least 150,000 signatures by October 19 in order to be registered.

When Russia Chose Freedom: Remembering August 1991

Just the same, no simpler
Are the tests of our times:
Can you come to the square?
Dare you come to the square?
Can you come to the square?
Dare you come to the square?
When that hour strikes?

— Alexander Galich, St. Petersburg Romance (1968)

Putin’s Regime, from Despotic to Kafkaesque

When Vladimir Putin’s government set out to mute public criticism, its censorship primarily targeted large television networks: NTV, TV-6, TVS were successively shut down or seized by the state. The squeezing of influential newspapers soon followed. Today, it seems, even talking to people on the streets or in their homes has become a censored activity.

The Kremlin’s Hand in the Middle East

This year, which has been dominated by news from the Middle East, also marks the twentieth anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR. There may be more in common between the two than first meets the eye. Behind the Desert Storm, a new book by Russian historian Pavel Stroilov that has just been published in Britain—and that has already become a source of controversy—sheds light on top-secret Kremlin documents and suggests that many of today’s problems in the Middle East have their origins in the waning years of the Soviet empire.

The Kremlin’s Know-How: A Secret Election

For all the tricks the Kremlin has perfected over the years to ensure “correct” voting results, what happened last week in St. Petersburg was in a league of its own. The Russian authorities may have invented a new authoritarian know-how: an election organized in secret from candidates and voters.

The Kremlin Tries to Get Rid of Nemtsov

For Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB from the 1960s to the 1980s, suppressing political dissent was a top priority. “Every such act represents a danger,” he told his colleagues in 1979, “The struggle against them must be decisive, uncompromising, and merciless.” The regime tried different approaches. Dissidents were convicted to long sentences for “anti-Soviet agitation”—an offense under Article 70 of the penal code—and sent away to prisons and labor camps alongside real criminals. Often, they were labelled “insane,” committed to special psychiatric prisons and subjected to torturous “treatment.” Both of these practices—criminal convictions and “punitive psychiatry”—met with worldwide condemnation and ultimately proved too costly for the Kremlin’s international image.


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