Russia’s Sinking Electoral Process
Date posted: Monday, November 21, 2011
What do you do when elections no longer matter?
In March 2012 Russian citizens will be voting for their future president. For three-and-a-half years—from the time Vladimir Putin finished his second presidential term, appointed Dmitri Medvedev as his replacement, and became Russia’s prime minister, to the time (last September) when Medvedev announced that Mr. Putin would be on the United Russia party’s presidential ticket for the 2012 elections and Medvedev himself would be on the ticket as prime minister—the world had wondered what would happen after Medvedev’s first term expired.
There was never any pretense that there would be any real inter-party competition for the 2012 presidential seat—after all, United Russia, holds 315 of the 450 seats in the Russian Duma, and has monopolized Russian politics since it was founded by Mr. Putin in December 2001—but there was some anticipation about who was going to run. The Kremlin kept the public guessing as to whether United Russia would put the president or the prime minister on the presidential ticket for the impending presidential elections, and there was even speculation that the “tandem” would split and the two men would run against each another, finally bringing pluralism to Russian politics.
In the months preceding September, the situation in Russia was best captured by a political joke that circulated Moscow: “The Kremlin is divided into two camps, the Putin camp and the Medvedev camp. The question is which camp Medvedev belongs to.” At the time, Medvedev was making some seemingly independent moves—his “fight against corruption,” for example, included some measures that appeared to contradict Mr. Putin’s wishes, such as the firing of Moscow’s longtime Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and the removal of government ministers from corporate boards. And last April the Economist argued that Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin was “looking less certain.” There was a sense of intrigue about what was going to happen next.
The intrigue dissolved in late September. While much of the world was preoccupied with the financial crisis, Medvedev made the announcement that he would not be running for president, and calmly admitted that this matter of Russia’s future had been settled since Mr. Putin first backed him for the presidency in 2007. And so, just like that, the joke was over—it was confirmed that Medvedev belongs to the Putin camp. The news flooded the international headlines for about a week, and then the affair dissipated, and the global community went on with its daily business. (Although Mr. Putin did quickly reappear in the headlines when his press secretary Dmitri Peskov admitted that the diving exploit that led the prime minister to discover a 6th century ceramic jug was actually staged).
In hindsight, many commentators are stating that there had never been any doubt that Mr. Putin taking the candidacy was the only possible outcome, but the reality is that this projection seemed so likely that many were actually flabbergasted when it happened. Right after the announcement, the Kommersant columnist Andrei Kolesnikov admitted to the journalist Julia Ioffe that it was, “a surprise precisely because it’s so obvious.”
On December 4, the Russian public is supposed to elect its parliamentary representatives. There are technically seven parties in the Duma, but no one even knows the difference between them. At a panel I went to last week at Columbia University, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nikolay Petrov argued that there were no political parties at all. “There are ‘electoral projects,’” he said. “[They] are used in the elections and forgotten almost immediately thereafter.” He was referring to the unfortunate truth that most of the parties in the Duma are Kremlin creations meant to orchestrate the illusion of a genuine political process.
At the same panel, which consisted of five prominent Russian scholars and journalists, the economist and Vedmosti columnist Konstantin Sonin refused to call the event scheduled to take place in Russia this March an election. He thought that a more appropriate term would be “confirmation,” as suggested to him by a colleague earlier that day. And the journalist Yulia Latynina added that Mr. Putin’s run for the presidency has made it clear that it would be impossible to change power in Russia for the foreseeable future unless there was a revolution.
Their discussion made me reflect back to 1991, two weeks before my family immigrated to New York. I went with my mother to the polls so she could cast her vote for Boris Yeltsin in the Russian Federation’s first presidential election. My mother, who as a rule, never trusted the Russian government, was going to spend one of her last afternoons in Moscow waiting in line to cast a ballot, because she felt that this vote would actually count and wanted to use it for the sake of the family and friends she was leaving behind. Ironically enough, though those elections took place inside the Soviet Union, which was not claiming to be a democracy, they felt legitimate because of the hope inspired by Perestroika, and brought with them the expectation of real change. It is sad that in today’s supposedly democratic Russia, elections no longer ignite that feeling of expectation.
Here are a couple of interesting videos pertaining to the upcoming elections:
The above video is United Russia’s latest campaign video ad. It features a sexy Russian girl in stilettos (yawn) walking into a polling station (techno music full force in the background). She exchanges looks with a handsome young man who walks after her as she approaches the voting booth, closes the curtain, opens it again seconds later, and pulls the young man into the booth. The words “Let’s do it together” flash on the screen, after which the pair re-emerges smiling (they both have tousled hair), and deposits ballots into the ballot box.
The video is the party’s attempt to reach out to a younger, tech-savvy audience, and it has been making the international headlines. However, this isn’t because of the sexual innuendos (which we are used to by now from Russia) but because it is unconstitutional for two people to enter a voting booth together.
The above video compares voting for United Russia candidates to choosing to board the Titanic. It uses clips from the movie Titanic intertwined with clips of Putin and Medvedev, and urges the Russian public to “choose another ship.” (You have to remember that the symbol of the Communist party during the 1917 Revolution was the ship, “Aurora.”) This video is very well done; you should watch it even if you don’t understand Russian.[pinit]