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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ryzhkov on the "Elections"

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, and host of a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio, writing in the Moscow Times:

Every so often in life we come up against situations where we have to do something unpleasant and boring but necessary. Men's daily ritual of shaving is a good example.

For many authoritarian regimes, an equally burdensome but unavoidable chore is holding elections. These are boring, embarrassing, unpleasant and pointless affairs, but they still must be staged from time to time to provide an outward appearance of legitimacy -- even if it is clear to everyone that they are, in reality, a complete sham.

Another goal of these elections is to provide an ironclad guarantee that power will remain in the hands of the ruling elite. In this way, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and the Aliyev family in Azerbaijan, to name a few, periodically prolong their terms in office. Sadly, modern Russia has joined their dishonorable ranks.

The widespread, popular myth is that President Vladimir Putin has abided by the Constitution by stepping down from office and holding an election. Just the opposite is true: Sunday's vote was the latest, and most significant, chapter in a whole series of actions taken by the Kremlin to eliminate free and fair elections in the country.

Why then didn't Putin simply disregard the constitutional limit preventing him from serving a third consecutive term as president? After all, President Nursultan Nazarbayev had no problem at all doing this in Kazakhstan. The only explanation is that the country's political elite was concerned that Western countries would initiate punitive actions against its foreign financial interests if Putin stayed on for a third consecutive term.

After all, family members of top Russian bureaucrats live in luxurious homes in the West and their children study there. The money they have stolen from the state budget and major state-owned companies sits in foreign banks accounts. Russia's leaders are forced to act as if they were abiding by the Constitution because they fear that the West will deny them entry visas, block access to their foreign bank accounts or investigate their financial dealings. This is the regime's real Achilles' heel. This is where the Pied Piper's fabled flute is capable of bewitching Russia's high-ranking "patriots."

The presidential election campaign, which was carried out in a classic authoritarian fashion, was a complete farce. Medvedev's three political "rivals" were reminiscent of the three "competitors" who were propped up by Karimov in Uzbekistan's December election. Medvedev refused to participate in the presidential debates. In the end, the "debates" were limited to the Kremlin's three other handpicked candidates hurling insults at each other without much enthusiasm, while tiptoeing around subjects the authorities might deem too sensitive. At the same time, the Putin-Medvedev duo dominated television airwaves as usual, occupying 70 percent to 80 percent of all election coverage.

The campaign was devoid of any criticism of the Kremlin, which meticulously orchestrated every scene. Viewers were treated to a smorgasbord of staged events: Medvedev with Putin, Medvedev with children, Medvedev with pensioners, Medvedev helping the Serbs give the Americans a licking. These dishes were peppered with Medvedev's meaningless quips about incorporating "the rule of law," "putting people first" and "helping small businesses," with no specifics given about how to accomplish these bold tasks.

It is no wonder that Medvedev's success was the predictable final act of the dull and boring theatrical show that the Kremlin called the presidential election.

History shows that most authoritarian regimes agree to reforms or make concessions to their citizens only when faced with military defeat or economic catastrophe. That was true under Peter the Great and after Russia's defeat in the Crimean War. It was also true following the chaos caused by war communism from 1919 to 1921, as well as after the Soviet Union's failures in Afghanistan and after the economic crisis of the 1980s. These preconditions for reform do not exist under Putin's oil- and gas-fueled eight-year economic boom, which our leaders assume will never end.

What does the continuation of Putin's Plan under President Medvedev promise for the country? Russia will continue plodding along for the next few years, but the country's serious and chronic illnesses will become more acute. Corruption and the already large income gap will grow even more. The technological gap between Russia and other nations will continue to widen, and the country's infrastructure will deteriorate even further. The monopolization of the economy will intensify, high inflation will remain a huge problem, and Russia will become even less competitive in world markets.

Authoritarianism has destroyed Russia several times throughout its history, and the current leaders are again leading the country down this same self-destructive path. The ruling elite's main interest is in acquiring personal wealth, and it is willing to betray its own people to get what it wants. It has not built the modern social institutions and state structures that are necessary for the nation's long-term development and for improving the living standards of its citizens.

In the latest survey by the Levada Center, 60 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "Overall, the country is moving in the right direction." They are the ones who dutifully cast their votes on Sunday in strict accordance with the Kremlin's instructions. Once again, the majority of Russians placed their bets on a shell game in which they have no chance of winning.

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