How To Read the Russian Election

If you are wondering which of the candidates opposing Vladimir Putin on Sunday is a stooge, rest assured: They all are.

Russia’s Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin speaks at a meeting with his campaign activists in Moscow, on Tuesday

Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images.

On March 4, I expect the Russian consulate in Washington, D.C., to be crowded with Russian citizens coming to cast their votes in the presidential election. Voting has become a surprisingly popular pastime among Russians of late, and the consulate will probably see a record number of visitors on Sunday. I’ll be one of them because I am in the United States promoting The Man Without a Face, my biography of Putin, the prime minister and certain victor of this week’s election.

The ballot I’ll be issued will be identical to the ones used in Russia. In fact, with five candidates, including four party nominees and an independent, it will look much like a ballot in any democratic country with a multiparty system. But what it actually represents is the systematic—and successful—dismantling of Russian democratic institutions begun a dozen years ago.

Within days of taking office as president in May 2000, Vladimir Putin issued his first decree and introduced a bill in parliament aimed at undoing the fragile mechanisms of democracy. To begin, he made the country’s 89 elected governors accountable to presidential envoys (most of them former KGB officers) whom he appointed to supervise seven newly created districts of the country. The bill did away with elections for members of the upper house of parliament; instead, they would now be appointed by governors and regional legislatures. A year later, a new law, also initiated by Putin, recast the procedure for forming political parties. The requirements were made so arduous that in effect no party can be registered unless the Kremlin wants it to be registered.

In 2003, in anticipation of Putin’s first re-election bid, similar barriers were created for presidential candidates. In 2004, Putin abolished gubernatorial elections altogether—governors are appointed by the president—and canceled direct elections to the lower house of parliament, whose members are now chosen by voting for political parties. (As a result, most regions are represented by people who have never lived there.) Finally, in 2007, Putin introduced even more onerous restrictions to entering the presidential race—and the following year his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, pushed through a constitutional reform that increased the president’s term of office from four to six years, opening the possibility that Putin could serve in that position for another 12 years.

To get on the ballot today, a presidential candidate must collect 2 million signatures in January (even though half of the month is lost to the New Year’s holiday). Signatories must be geographically diverse: No more than 50,000 names can come from any one of the country’s 83 regions. The signatories themselves must be precise: a single mistake such as a contraction in the name of a city—for example, “St. Petersburg” instead of “Saint Petersburg”—can render an entire sheet of signatures invalid. The names are then submitted to the Central Election Commission, which can pick a sample at random—and if it rejects more than 5 percent of the sample, the candidate is disqualified. At the same time, candidates are prohibited from submitting more than 5 percent extra of the required number of signatures—in other words, no more than 2.1 million signatures may be turned in to the Central Election Commission. Care is hardly sufficient, in any case. The commission has a list of 14 reasons it can cite to reject a signature. One of these is “expert opinion.” In other words, any candidate whom the Kremlin does not want on the ballot will not be on the ballot. So, if you are wondering which of the candidates opposing Putin on Sunday is a Kremlin stooge, rest assured: They all are.

Russian election campaigns, like the ballot, bear only a surface resemblance to the genuine article. The law, for example, provides equal air time for all candidates. But there is no such thing. Putin has, in violation of federal law, refused to take a leave from his job as prime minister for the duration of the campaign, and news reports on government channels—all of which are controlled by the Kremlin—usually begin and end with coverage of the prime minister hard at work. The law also provides for televised debates. But Putin has refused to take part in debates personally—he says he is too busy running the country—so he has sent his representatives instead. This has actually made for some surprisingly entertaining television, as when highbrow publisher Irina Prokhorova, representing her brother the multibillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, debated film director Nikita Mikhalkov, representing Vladimir Putin, and made him look like a blathering idiot. But a presidential campaign it is not.

I know all of this. And yet, even though it feels like sitting down to play cards with a shark, I’m going to the polls. And so are millions of other Russian citizens, many of whom had until recently boycotted what passes for the Russian electoral system. Last December, Russians—especially young urban men and women—turned out in record numbers for the parliamentary election and, the very next day, launched a series of unprecedented protests against the rigging of election results. A protest movement was born, and “We want honest elections” is its battle cry. Which is why more than 150,000 Russians will go to their polling places not only as voters but also as election monitors, intending to monitor and document any violations that occur in the process. During the parliamentary election, monitors were able to stop or document many violations—including young people hired to stuff ballot boxes. But the most important fact they exposed was that voting tallies are most often doctored after the polling place closes. Monitors don’t expect to prevent fraud this time; they just expect to document it even better.

I am still of two minds about what to do when they hand me my ballot: Vote for the pseudo-independent Prokhorov or check off all the candidates except Putin, rendering the ballot invalid. Like many of my friends, I am leaning toward the latter option. Under Russian election rules, an invalidated ballot will still count against the 50 percent +1 vote that Putin must collect to avoid a runoff. (If, in fact, I believed votes were counted accurately.) Of course, I fully expect my vote to be stolen. But I also expect that the unprecedented number and organization of election monitors will enable me to prove that it was stolen.

At the first large-scale street rally in December, my favorite poster was one that read, “I did not vote for these assholes: I voted for the other assholes. I demand a recount!” Which is another way of saying that little by little, we plan to wrestle the country back from the man who hijacked Russia’s democracy.