Putin's Russia Pre-Election: The KGB Democracy

by Laura Snedeker

Sometimes democracy is just another word for dictatorship. Russian president and former KGB agent Vladimir Putin dismissed complaints about his handling of this weekend's elections in a speech to foreign diplomats this week.

“We know the value of real democracy,” he said. “And we want to hold honest elections that are as transparent and open as possible, without organizational failures and problems. I am confident that this upcoming election will be of precisely this kind.”

Meanwhile, reports surfaced that the Kremlin’s agents had routinely harassed opposition party members, seized pamphlets, and arrested and beat campaign workers over the course of the campaign. Thuggish, unsophisticated tactics of this sort are common in weak democracies, but neither Putin nor the Kremlin is stupid enough to rely on hard power alone to secure a victory for the incumbent United Russia party. While some analysts in Moscow are predicting widespread stuffing of ballot boxes and post-election falsification of vote tallies, others have emphasized the Kremlin’s extensive pre-election engineering.

Some Russian officials are pressuring state employees, including doctors, teachers, university deans, students, and workers in psychiatric clinics to vote for United Russia in Sunday’s elections. Officers in some state companies have been ordered to prepare lists of non-voting employees for the local administration.

The psychological pressure exerted on Russian society and especially on state employees who risk losing their jobs is “normal in contemporary advanced authoritarian systems,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs. “They are smart enough to organize the vote in quite a proper and correct way."

The Kremlin, mourning the loss of many of its state-owned media outlets during the immediate post-Cold War years, took advantage of Putin’s desire to reign in rogue elements of society and bring the state back under the tight control he remembered from his days in the KGB. National and regional television stations, which were reacquired by the state and are loyal to the Kremlin, have neglected to mention electoral violations and scheduled only brief time slots during the campaign for opposition leaders to make political statements.

Putin’s astute media manipulation has boosted his image and United Russia’s popularity before the elections and made his opponents virtually invisible. Even a strong opposition could not hope to compete with the president in terms of favorable media coverage, the extensiveness of which makes a United Russia victory appear inevitable, if not necessarily desirable.

Rumors that Putin would attempt to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term have been mostly discredited. Instead, Putin is running for parliament at the head of his party’s list, an unprecedented move by a sitting president. If elected, many expect he would use his position to maintain power as the country’s “National Leader,” an undefined and as yet nonexistent position.

Putin came to power at the right time to implement his agenda. Elected in 2000, he promised to restore law and order and fight the corrupt oligarchs who became accustomed to manipulating the government during the economic and political liberalization of the 1990s. Voters who wished to see Russia respected (and feared) by the international community were brought along by his promises to spend more money on defense and resolve the ongoing conflict in Chechnya.

While Russian liberals and Western critics may have doubted his commitment to human rights and civil liberties, September 11th diverted much of the international community’s focus to the Middle East. Concerns over the increasing state control over the media and opposition parties fell by the wayside, especially as the U.S. and Britain clamped down on dissent and discouraged domestic opposition. Russia cast its war in Chechnya against Muslim extremists as another front in the so-called War on Terror – not a completely inappropriate comparison, since many of the fighters in Chechnya made their bones during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s and eventually re-appeared in Iraq.

United Russia can safely expect to win Sunday’s elections, and barring a mass uprising, the presidential elections in March as well. What happens after that is the Russians’ decision. While the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe can certainly pressure the government to have more open and fair elections, too much involvement jeopardizes the domestic pro-democracy movement. Putin has already raised the specter of “jackals” (foreign agents) hidden in the population who aim to discredit the government; extensive involvement by the West only serves to discredit the reformers and strengthen the state all the more.

(For more background on the fragility of human rights and free speech in Russia, please see: "Who Really Killed Anna Politkovskaya?")

(Political graphic from azrainman via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. More of these graphics are available at AZRainman's Abstractions.)

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