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A Sunday Test for Russian Democracy

(This article was originally published in The Mantle)

By Edward Hancox

Imagine for a moment a country a few days away from national elections, a place where the once all-powerful ruling party is fading in the eyes of the citizens, thanks to an economy burdened by low wages and rising unemployment, where even the prime minister—who has carefully cultivated an image equal parts action hero and everyman— is looking increasingly small; it all seems like a recipe for an electoral drubbing. But the country is Russia, and elections, like the one scheduled for this Sunday, really aren't supposed to bring about change, especially in the era of Vladimir Putin.

That's not to say that either Putin or his ruling United Russia party can breathe easily though. While no one really expects United Russia to lose their spot as the dominant party in the Russian parliament, the Duma, this Sunday, indications are that United Russia will not win by the comfortable 65-70 percent margins that they and Putin have come to expect. One poll projected that the opposition Communist Party, a holdover from the Soviet Union days, could receive as much as 20% of the vote, far more than the Kremlin would like. Even Yabloko, a left-wing party that supported pro-democracy reforms and pro-Western reforms during the era of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s (positions which would later cost them public support as Putin ushered in a new sense of pro-Russian nationalism during his first two terms as president), could surpass the 7 percent threshold and regain representation in the Duma.

The Kremlin seems to be taking the threat of a strong showing by Russia's fairly weak and disorganized opposition parties seriously enough to pressure the Central Elections Commission to slap a ban on television ads put out by the Communists, Yabloko and the Liberal Democrats (who despite the name are a staunchly nationalist bunch). The CEC contends that the ads by the parties “promoted extremism and targeted other parties,” according to the Moscow Times, which went on to explain that the CEC wildly overstepped their authority since under the law only the police or prosecutors office could officially ban a campaign ad. The CEC, meanwhile, didn't seem to have any problems with this ad (below) put out by United Russia, which featured a pair of young voters engaging in a voting booth tryst, with the none-to-subtle tagline of “let's do it together.” Critics wryly noted that not only was the campaign ad ridiculously salacious, but also that voting in a democracy is supposed to be an individual act.

The United Russia ad was meant to appeal to younger voters, a group that is increasingly turning its back on the ruling party, according to Alexey Eremenko on the site RussiaProfile.org. In his piece, Eremenko makes the fascinating point that this year's Duma election will mark the first time that the generation born after the fall of the Soviet Union will be eligible to vote, and if there is one thing that seems to unite these young voters, it is a dislike for United Russia. They have grown tired of the ruling party's repeated, and unfulfilled, promises of reform. Vladimir Putin's pronouncement earlier this year that he would be pushing Dmitry Medvedev aside in 2012 to once again run for president only seemed to confirm in the minds of many voters the idea that the status quo would endure. If there is any solace for United Russia, it is that the young people interviewed were not united behind one single opposition group, but would be scattering their votes among a collection of other parties: Yabloko, the Liberal Democrats, and even the Communists (though that in itself could be worrying since in recent years much of the support for the Communist Party has come from nostalgic pensioners).   

But these students may be among the minority who actually even bother to vote on Sunday. Beyond the usual levels of voter apathy is a persistent belief that the results of the election have already been decided and that the vote is a mere public spectacle. Allegations of voting irregularities have dogged Russian elections since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Boris Yeltsin's rise from low single digits in the polls to a second-term win in 1996 has long been viewed with suspicion. But charges of vote-rigging have become more serious and widespread under Putin, and more hi-tech. During the last Duma elections in 2007, there were numerous reports that students and government employees were told to take pictures of their ballots with their cellphones before casting them as proof that they voted “the right way”. In a piece about the test use of electronic voting machines in Sunday's election, the BBC gives evidence of voter fraud in more recent local elections, allegations that have been ignored by national authorities.

It could be argued that there really is no need for vote rigging since the Kremlin has done an effective job of limiting the political opposition. There are three main opposition parties in Russia today: A Just Russia, which is typically supportive of Kremlin policies and the Communists and Liberal Democrats, two parties who are perceived to not have enough general public support to unseat United Russia. The use of technical interpretation (or sometimes misinterpretation) of election laws have been used to disqualify potentially troublesome candidates from other parties like Yabloko.

That's why, despite his own sinking popularity (including some rare public displays of disrespect recently), it is nearly impossible to imagine Vladimir Putin not winning the presidential election next spring. There was some speculation earlier in the year that Medvedev could challenge Putin for the presidency, but those thoughts were dashed when Medvedev meekly affirmed his role in Russia's “ruling tandem” and agreed to step aside in favor of the Boss, likely to retake the much more thankless job of Prime Minister (where Medvedev can then serve as a convenient scapegoat for United Russia's continued failure to follow through on promised domestic economic and political reforms). Even wilder speculation centered on former billionaire oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was scheduled to be released this year from the prison in Russia's Far East where he is currently serving out his time on rather dubious tax evasion charges. 

From his cell, Khodorkovsky has styled himself as a prisoner of conscience, a martyr for the new Russia; the thought was that Khodorkovsky would be released just in time to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2012. Someone in the ruling elite apparently thought enough of this hypothetical threat to send Khodorkovsky back to court on even more dubious charges and tack another few years onto his sentence. Then there's Mikhail Prokhorov, another billionaire oligarch who entered politics earlier this year and immediately drew comparisons to the jailed Khodorkovsky. Prokhorov was supposed to lead another Kremlin-created “opposition” party, Right Cause. But Prokhorov took his role as party leader too seriously, putting together a platform of reform and modernization plans for Russia's still largely state-controlled economy; there was even talk that Prokhorov could use Right Cause as a platform to run for the presidency, or tap Medvedev to lead a presidential ticket. Prokhorov was soon ousted as head of his own party in a leadership meeting so secret, even he, the party head, didn't know about it.

Sunday's elections then are highly unlikely to bring about any change, at least not any obvious ones. But a poor showing by United Russia and/or a strong showing by one or more of the opposition parties could be a sign of a real growing discontent to the Rule of Putin. In this Arab Spring-inspired era of popular uprisings, it is a signal that the Kremlin would be wise to take seriously.  

*****

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Edward Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism.

[Photo courtesy of Michael Batiukov]

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