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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Nightmare of "Elections" in Russia

Writing the the Moscow Times, columnist and professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR Konstantin Sonin chastises the Kremlin for abolishing the election of governors. But the article that follows his column clearly shows that there is method to the Kremlin's seeming madness:

In his seventh and final state of the nation address in April, President Vladimir Putin called on those present to sum up the results of his presidency. For many Russians, it probably feels like the years under Putin have flown by faster than the eventful year of 1993. Such an exammination of Putin's tenure serves not just as a nostalgic look at the past: Every one of his policy achievements will play a role in contributing to the legitimacy of his successor, just as each failure will remain a vulnerable point for the next president and provide political ammunition to prospective opponents.

And failures there have been. Three clear missteps have been the decision to do away with gubernatorial elections, the suppression of press freedoms and the move to electing the State Duma entirely based on a proportional representation system. Each of these measures was introduced in order to remedy specific situations that troubled the Kremlin -- the development of political fiefdoms at the regional level, bias on the part of television stations and weak political parties. Medications often, however, have side effects more harmful than the illnesses they are designed to treat, so unpopular policies provide a window of opportunity for any outsider who might aspire to the presidency next year.

So what's wrong with appointing governors? After all, a governor appointed by Moscow is more likely to follow instructions from Moscow. The problem is he or she is less likely to be familiar with the region itself. With oil prices so high and petrodollars flooding into the federal budget, there is no discussion of the pros and cons of this policy. At the slightest sign of trouble, the opportunity arises for an outside candidate to appeal to the interests of an offended region, a strategy that served President Boris Yeltsin well in the early 1990s.

The option of returning to the direct election of Duma deputies could also turn out to be a trump card in a battle for the top spot. As Russia and Russians grow wealthier with each passing year, there is less need for an outlet for voters looking to let off steam. But should growth stall, some steps might have to be taken in this direction. I wouldn't be surprised if sometime in the fall, in the run-up to the presidential vote, Putin's chosen successor -- or even Putin himself if he decides to stay on for a third term -- might promise to reinstate direct local votes for candidates, just to make sure no other challenger latches on to the policy.

Freedom of the press is a more delicate question. The average Russian is evidently satisfied with the current state of the media, even though it differs little from that in any moderate South American dictatorship. This state of affairs opens up opportunities for presidential hopefuls because not just mediocre regimes, but even the most able can easily run aground without a healthy flow of information and feedback. As high-ranking officials continue to declare that the press enjoys the same level of freedom in Russia as in Europe, you have to wonder whether they themselves are starting to believe it. Do they realize that if any of their colleagues are on the take, Russian television would never report on it? When Kremlin ideologues claim that the United States orchestrated Ukraine's Orange Revolution, have they forgotten that they invented that theory themselves? If they do understand, things aren't as bad as they could be: Cynicism like this is not unusual in government. If they have forgotten, what are they going to start believing in next -- Martians.

So an outsider would have some simple and inexpensive pledges to offer the electorate in a run for the presidency: A return to gubernatorial elections, greater press freedoms and a return to winning some seats in the Duma by way of direct voting. Borjomi might also help.

The Moscow Times reports that the Kremlin's favored United Russia Party has been beaten in a Volgograd mayoral election by a card-carrying Communist. Talk about neo-Soviet Union! No wonder the Kremlin doesn't want to let Russians vote! The overwhelming majority of the city, 62% of registered voters, sat at home on election day. So much for the idea that the USSR was a nation of victims abused by a few bad apples. What is WRONG with these people???

United Russia's candidate lost to a Communist in Volgograd's mayoral election this weekend, preliminary results showed Monday -- a stunning upset that puts a Communist in charge of a major city for the first time in years. At 31, Roman Grebennikov will also be the youngest mayor of a regional capital. Communists hailed the victory as a breakthrough that showed public support remains strong for the party when "votes don't get stolen." United Russia, seeking to put on a brave face, said Grebennikov's agenda mirrored its own and promised to work with anyone who tackled the problems of this city of 1 million. But the election outcome looks likely to send a chill through the ranks of the pro-Kremlin party, which had been determined to win after suffering embarrassing defeats in a Samara mayoral vote last fall and Stavropol regional legislative elections in March.

Grebennikov received 32.47 percent of the vote, far ahead of United Russia candidate Vasily Galushkin, who placed third with 20.35 percent, according to the preliminary results. Acting Volgograd Mayor Roland Kherianov came in second among the 15 candidates, with 23.85 percent. A simple plurality was enough to win the election. Thirty-eight percent of the Volgograd's 762,000 registered voters cast their ballots Sunday in the last major vote before State Duma elections in December. There were no reports of significant electoral violations.

After the results were announced, Grebennikov immediately sought to assure United Russia that he would work with the party. "It is a powerful political party that has a majority in state structures, and you should cooperate with it," he told reporters early Monday. He said managing Volgograd was not a political game, but an administrative task that he would undertake by first scrutinizing the city's property records. The election was called after incumbent Mayor Yevgeny Ishchenko resigned in October amid allegations of wrongdoing linked to municipal property, among other things. Ishchenko has been in custody since May 2006 and is currently on trial in a Volgograd court.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the head of United Russia's general council, said the party had not only backed Galushkin, a Duma deputy, but all of the candidates who had Volgograd's interests at heart. "Along with Galushkin, who was nominated by the regional branch of the party, we also supported candidates who presented themselves as ready to cooperate with United Russia in solving the problems of Volgograd residents," Volodin said. Four days before the vote, a senior United Russia official, Yury Aleinikov, attempted to link all the leading candidates to the party, saying, "If you analyze their campaign platforms, it is clear that they match the ideological principles of United Russia."

The conciliatory rhetoric will do little to soften the image in voters' minds that United Russia actually lost to the Communists, said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. He said, however, that this would not undercut United Russia's influence in the region. "Communists in this region have been successfully cooperating with United Russia," he said. The region is led by a Communist governor, Nikolai Maksyuta, and is traditionally part of Russia's "red belt." Alevtina Aparina, the only Communist deputy from Volgograd in the Duma, called Grebennikov's win a "breakthrough" and compared it to the Battle of Stalingrad. The 1943 battle at Stalingrad, as Volgograd was previously called, proved to be a turning point in the Soviet Union's war with Nazi Germany. (St. Petersburg Communists on Monday sent an open letter to Grebennikov to rename the city Stalingrad.) "This victory demonstrates the return of public trust in the Communists and the success of the party's new cadre policy," Aparina said by telephone from Volgograd.

Grebennikov joined the Communist Party after the Soviet collapse and belongs to a new generation of party members who prefer a pragmatic approach over dogmas, Aparina said. He quickly rose through the ranks and became the youngest speaker of a regional legislature in modern Russian history after being elected to the Volgograd legislative assembly in 2001. Viktor Ilyukhin, a senior Communist Duma deputy, said Sunday's vote reflected the true degree of support that Communists enjoy in the regions. Political pundits, however, predict the party will get only 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote in the Duma elections. "In Volgograd, the governor did not allow any machinations with ballots in favor of United Russia. That is why we won," Ilyukhin said. "In other places, we lose a lot to United Russia, not because we are weak but because Communist votes get stolen."

State television channels Rossia and Channel One ignored the election results on their Monday evening news programs.
NTV showed brief footage of Grebennikov accepting flowers, and a voiceover said he was Communist. Curiously, Izvestia ran a front-page story Monday that said Galushkin was leading in the election "as Izvestia predicted in a previous issue." The article had the headline "Bears Took Over Volgograd." The bear is the symbol of United Russia.

1 comment:

Peter said...

'What is WRONG with these people?' The question is appropriate on many occasions in the context of Russia, but the Communist victory in Volgograd is a protest victory -- and it may not be appropriate here. Whatever their policies, contemporary Russian Communists have been sublimated into an anti-authoritarian force, whatever its strength. When they win the Kremlin and lay flowers at the grave of Andropov, then we can (and probably should) criticize them. Of course, there is more to elections than candidates' positions in political hierarchies. Voters care about what the winner will do for them. But for now, let them elect clowns and professional hedgehog trainers, if these people represent morality, humanism, transparency, etc.... It is something that there is still a 38%-strong population that cares to vote. It is important because people that care are more potent than people that don't (in the relevant contexts).