Putin’s Potemkin Election

“Russian democracy” is still a cynical joke.

Riding on his own coattails

Ah, to be in Russia during the presidential election season: Exuberant political rallies paralyze the main avenues of the country’s villages, towns, and cities; candidates hash out detailed policy programs in feisty and substantive policy debates; brilliantly colorful campaign posters and a kaleidoscope of thought-provoking TV commercials temporarily become the national form of art.

Oh, wait: That’s Russia-through-the-looking-glass—after a few shots of vodka at that. Presidential elections in today’s Russia, just a bit more than a decade after the right to vote supposedly ceased to be a cynical joke, are a dog-and-pony show of managed democracy, with President Vladimir Putin as the ringmaster in chief.

Choice is an illusion in the country’s March 14 presidential polls. “10 Candidates in a One-Horse Race” is how the Moscow Times described it before the field was further whittled down. Vladimir Putin’s nosebleed-level popularity ratings (even according to those polling agencies that haven’t been taken over by the Kremlin) and the domination of the United Russia Party in December’s parliamentary elections, purely on the strength of having Putin’s support, culled the ranks of would-be contenders. Politicians who aren’t in the inner circle are anxious not to alienate the Kremlin and thus shut themselves out of power altogether—so they wind up sounding like lovesick puppies.

For example, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultra-nationalist prankster who has been the fist in Russia’s smash-mouth politics for the past decade, anointed one of his former bodyguards to run for president in his stead. The Communists, still the country’s second-largest political party but in the midst of a bloody leadership battle, chose a party hack as its sacrificial goat, not even bothering to put its two-time presidential loser leader on the ballot. The country’s liberal parties didn’t field a candidate at all, in part as a futile gesture of protest against the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the election, but also because they knew they’d be lucky to poll in the double digits. They didn’t even endorse Irina Khakamada, one of their own who is making a courageous and credible, if doomed, go of it on her own.

Then there’s Ivan Rybkin—the toy candidate of Boris Berezovsky, a discredited former Russian oligarch now in exile in London and an archenemy of the Kremlin—who etched his likeness in Webster’s under “flake” by vanishing for five days in mid-February, explaining later that he had gone to Ukraine to hang out with friends and was unaware of the media uproar that followed his bizarre disappearance. (For more on Rybkin’s lost long weekend, see this “International Papers” column.) “This is as weird as it sounds—even for Russia,” remarked intelligence consultancy As if to partly redeem himself, Rybkin later claimed that he had been drugged, kidnapped, and taken to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where he was made the subject of what he termed a “disgusting” film. Paris Hilton meets heavyset middle-aged Russian guy, anyone?

Ironically, the presidential contender that ostensibly concerns the Kremlin the most is one that it pushed into the limelight last year. In part at the Kremlin’s behest, last autumn Sergei Glazyev hastily cobbled together a new party to siphon parliamentary election votes away from the Communists, his former party. Glazyev’s party won a surprising 10 percent of the vote, and he soon broke with the Kremlin, launching his own campaign for the presidency—although Glazyev may still be just a pawn in the Kremlin’s chess game.

Meanwhile, policies and political platforms are largely irrelevant. Political dialogue rarely moves beyond sound bites that are clichéd even by the demanding standards of Soviet politics. (“Today we feel that the time of uncertainty and fearful expectations is behind us. A new period has arrived, a period in which we can create conditions for a fundamental improvement in the quality of lives,” Putin inspirationally proclaimed during one speech.) The incumbent chose to not debase himself by debating other candidates—so in protest, the candidates who were not Putin refused to debate each other. When pushed to provide an election platform, Putin points to five consecutive years of economic growth and the strengthening of law enforcement organs as key accomplishments—conveniently ignoring a culture of corruption, the stalled reform program, the overwhelming poverty of much of the population, and the continued bloodshed in Chechnya.

It goes without saying—since all national TV stations are government-controlled—that coverage of the presidential campaign is all Putin, all the time. The speech marking the official launch of Putin’s campaign, a month before the election, was broadcast live on national television. That many of Russia’s newspapers regularly publish boisterously anti-Kremlin opinions is irrelevant, since television is the only medium that matters for the vast majority of the country’s 140 million people. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders lists Russia 148th in its 166-country ranking of press freedom, behind such guiding lights as Afghanistan (134) and Zimbabwe (141).

One of Putin’s biggest concerns at this point is that widespread apathy in the face of a pushover election may make it difficult for him to meet the 50-percent threshold required to avoid an embarrassing run-off against the candidate with the second most votes. In part to generate some interest in politics, in late February Putin sacked his prime minister and Cabinet, naming Mikhail Fradkov, a largely unknown technocrat who one pundit described as a “Putin Mini-Me” to be his right-hand man. But the Kremlin’s political machine—oiled with vote-count-fudging where required—will kick into high gear as Election Day nears. Putin can then focus his attention on how to go about extending his stay in the Kremlin or choosing a suitable heir—while continuing to guide Russia back to a future as a one-party state.

Of course, it could be worse. For all his authoritarian traits, Putin has provided Russia with a newfound sense of stability and has helped bring about a range of economic reforms. Russia generally plays well with the other children in the global neighborhood, and foreign policy doesn’t shift by the hour, as it seemed to while Boris Yeltsin was the country’s president. The usual ups and downs notwithstanding, U.S. relations with Russia are warm.

And it’s just as well, because it looks like Putin, or his chosen successor, will be around for a while.

Thanks to Peter Lavelle and Alexander Bim for their help.