Russian ‘Election’

4 March 2004

The Russian ‘Election’

By Gwynne Dyer

“The mentality of power in Russia today is absolutely similar to that of the Soviet Union,” said Irina Khakamada, candidate in the Russian presidential election. But why is she surprised? President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to get at least three-quarters of the votes cast on 14 March, was a loyal member of the KGB for fifteen years before he jumped ship as Communist rule was collapsing in 1990. Indeed, her own candidacy, for all the novelty value of seeing a Russian woman of Japanese descent sharply criticise Mr Putin from a right-wing perspective, is believed to have been encouraged by the Kremlin to lend credibility and colour to an election that is really a foregone conclusion.

The credibility problem arises because Mr Putin has forgotten all the subtlety that was drilled into him as a KGB agent. The KGB was by far the most intelligent part of the Communist apparatus (large parts of which were brain-dead), and by the late 80s, as the old totalitarian controls weakened, you occasionally met a KGB officer who was openly contemptuous of the Party’s insistence on ‘elections’ in which the sole official candidate won by 99 percent. It was unbelievable and embarrassing, they would complain, and quite unnecessary: 95 percent of the vote would do.

That is the difficulty with Mr Putin. In a genuinely free election, with strong opposition candidates and critical media coverage, he would still win a second term as president by a comfortable margin. Russia is more stable than it was four years ago, the economy is growing at a decent pace, and the war in Chechnya is more or less contained, apart from sporadic bombs in Moscow. Unfortunately, he was not satisfied with a comfortable margin. He wanted more, and he could only get it by destroying the free media.

When independent newspapers and television chains emerged in Russia in the early 90s after the fall of Communism, they had to operate in an economic environment where advertising revenues were rarely enough to cover their costs. Given the reflexes of the Russian bureaucracy, state-owned but editorially independent media like the British Broadcasting Corporation were not a promising option. What happened instead was that some of the billionaire ‘new rich’ started subsidising media outlets, or even buying up whole papers and networks.

Rich people exploiting media ownership to promote their own political preferences are not exactly unknown elsewhere: think of Rupert Murdoch in the US, Britain and Australia, Conrad Black in the US, Britain and Canada, or Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In Russia, however, the rich people were hated for having made their fortunes out of the chaotic and corrupt privatisation process, and there was no tradition of press freedom.

When Mr Putin began to pick off the billionaires one by one, jailing them or driving them into exile on corruption charges, his popularity actually rose. Few people objected as the independent media withered or passed into the ownership of the state or of conglomerates owned by Putin cronies. The biggest independent TV channel, NTV, was taken over by the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom three years ago, and TV6 was closed on various financial pretexts two years ago. The last critical voice among the four main terrestrial channels in Russia, TVS, was closed down by the government last June “for the benefit of the audience” and replaced with a sports channel.

There is no official press censorship in Russia, but self-censorship is now so pervasive that official controls are hardly needed. In the parliamentary elections in December, pro-Kremlin parties won more than two-thirds of the seats in the Duma. Having seen how it now works, all of Russia’s well-known opposition leaders, who would normally be running against Mr Putin, have decided to sit this election out.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who won 30 percent of the vote running against Mr Putin for the presidency in 2000, has asked an obscure member of the allied Agrarian Party to stand as the candidate of the Communist block this time. Ultra-nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky is letting his bodyguard, former boxer Oleg Malyshkin, run in his place. Even Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko Party and perennial presidential candidate, is refusing to run, saying that “free, equal and politically competitive elections are impossible.”

Alexander Konovalov, director of the Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow, recently compared the half-dozen nonentities running against Mr Putin in this election to ‘background dancers’, adding that “our political life has been replaced by the ritual of installing the leader.” The opposition candidates are unlikely to win twenty percent of the votes between them; the only way Mr Putin can lose is if the turnout falls below 50 percent of eligible voters and invalidates the whole process.

This has happened a couple of times recently in Serbia, another country where massive cynicism about the political process has turned off the voters entirely, but the latest figure for Russia shows that 62 percent of those polled plan to vote. So Mr Putin will win with an overwhelming majority instead of a healthy one, Russian democracy will be further discredited — and you wonder what on earth makes him believe that this process will make him stronger. Even the KGB knew better than that.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Rich…freedom”; and”Communist…impossible”)