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Analysis & Opinion
05.03.08 Misleading Rhetoric
Comment by Vladimir Frolov

This year’s presidential election in Russia has been a boring and predictable affair. We have all known for some time that Dmitry Medvedev would be our next president. Over 70 percent of the voters endorsed this outcome, which was not really contested during the campaign. Medvedev’s rivals were no match.

Many in the West argued that the uncontested nature of this election is the direct result of the Kremlin’s manipulation, which artificially narrowed the field of potential contenders for the presidency. The standard line of commentary in Western media is that this election was the next step away from genuine democracy in Russia. They claim that a predetermined result cannot be recognized as free and democratic, and that a sham election undercut Medvedev’s popular and international legitimacy.

As Clifford Gaddy and Andrew Kuchins write in their article in the latest issue of the Washington Quarterly, “In the eyes of most of the outside world, at least those of Europe and the United States, the Russian electoral process has failed to measure up to benchmarks of democracy and free choice of policies and personalities.”

The critics miss the point. The choice, indeed, appears to be limited and the election close to uncontested. But this lack of competition is caused mostly by an absence of credible alternatives to Putin’s course, rather than by the Kremlin’s manipulation. Being a boring and utterly predictable affair does not make the election undemocratic.

Vlad Sobell of Daiwa Institute of Research writes in his well-argued analysis of the Russian presidential race that the “Purpose of democratic elections is not to generate public entertainment, but to create conditions for the formation of effective and legitimate government.”

This is a test that this Russian election has clearly passed. “The regime has successfully entrenched stability, continuity and its democratic legitimacy in the face of difficult tasks ahead,” Sobell argues. “Russia’s modernization is only in its early phase. It should also not be missed that this is the first instance in Russia’s history of a peaceful change of leadership in accordance with the law.”

Many have found fault with Medvedev’s tightly orchestrated nomination by four competing parties at once – an arrangement that, in my view, should have been reviewed more carefully.

But in reality, all of us have known that Medvedev has been running for president and has been groomed for succeeding Putin since November 2005, when he was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister to run the National Projects.

The voters had a reasonably good chance to get to know the man, which is partly reflected in his spectacular approval ratings on the eve of the election. Of course, Putin’s personal blessing and support were crucial for Medvedev’s national acceptance as the new Russian leader.

Medvedev’s offer to Putin to become his prime minister essentially cinched the election. Was Medvedev wrong to make such an offer, or was it illegal? The answer is no, on both counts. U.S. presidential nominees are entitled to select their running mates (a procedure that has few, if any, democratic features). Why can’t Medvedev be entitled to make his own decision as to who he wants to be his prime minister?

In early 2007, some friends in the West advised the Kremlin to arrange for two potential Putin successors – for example, a liberal Medvedev and a hawkish Ivanov – to run against each other. In my view, the Kremlin was right to ignore this advice. Such a scenario would have split the ruling elite and the nation, and allowed for irresponsible populists or nationalists to steal the show. (As an aside, it was very wise of Putin to get someone like Dmitri Rogozin out of Russian politics before the election by sending him to Brussels to entertain NATO ambassadors).

The Communists once again decided to nominate Gennady Zyuganov, who had lost three presidential bids before. That was an unwise decision that they would come to regret, but the Kremlin definitely had nothing to do with it and no one forced their hand, except Zyuganov and his friends. The Communists could have tried their luck, and perhaps done better, with a fresh face, who could have led the Communist Party in the new post-Putin era.

The same applies to LDPR’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky – he was obviously having fun running for president for the fifth time in his life, but it did not do much good for his party. Could the Kremlin block his candidacy? Not by any legal means. LDPR is a parliamentary party and under the Russian law it uses a simplified procedure for nominating candidates to all elected offices in the country.

Bogdanov’s race was somewhat of a joke. But as a Russian citizen, he was entitled to run for president if he fulfilled the registration requirements, which he did.

Critics claim that the Kremlin torpedoed the presidential run by former Prime Minister Michail Kasyanov. This is simply not true.

Kremlin sources are telling me that at the start of the presidential campaign early last December the decision was taken to judge Kasyanov’s run strictly on legal grounds. Were he to collect the necessary two million signatures that would have passed the Central Election Commission’s scrutiny, he would have been registered as a candidate and proceeded to get his 2 percent of the vote.

Some Kremlin officials even offered to help Kasyanov out with signature collection, suspecting that the former prime minister and his campaign operation might not be up to the job. The prognosticators turned out to be right – Kasyanov’s campaign failed miserably to clear the signature collection requirement. A great deal of the signatures they handed in were obtained from well known characters of classic Russian literature.

Many argued that the two-million-signature collection requirement was too onerous and blocked opposition candidates from running. This claim is misleading. To collect 2 million genuine signatures you need to have about 10 thousand activists in all regions of Russia. But if you do not have at least 10 thousand active supporters of your candidacy across the country, you better not bother running. The rest is just a matter of solid campaign footwork and competent campaign management. Democratic Party Andrei Bogdanov’s campaign proved that this was far from an insurmountable obstacle.

Third party candidates in the United States are routinely having one hell of a time fulfilling the registration requirements and getting on the ballot in enough states to run in a national election. Just ask Ralph Nader or Ross Perot.

Gary Kasparov’s claim that he had been denied premises to hold the meeting of his nominating committee is simply laughable. The Kremlin, with all its political muscle, does not possess god-like powers to lock every public building in a country spanning eleven time zones.

Boris Nemtsov’s decision to bow out of the race was unwise. His party – the Union of the Right Forces – deserved to field a presidential candidate. When Nemtsov’s campaign ran out of money and it became obvious that they would be unable to collect the 2 million signatures, they chose to withdraw, but it was hardly the result of the Kremlin’s pressure.

Much has been made of the OSCE decision not to send its election monitors to Russia for reasons that the Russian authorities unduly restricted their freedom of action in the country and shortened the observation period. The truth is they were invited on exactly the same terms that the Russian government offered to all international election monitors. The OSCE decided to decline the invitation, it was their call.

Another line of criticism is that the media coverage of the campaign was heavily skewed in favor of Medvedev while other candidates received much less airtime. They got all the free airtime they were entitled to under the election law. Medvedev was covered more as a more newsworthy senior government official. Is it unfair? Yes, but not from a legal point of view. And, frankly, do we really want to hear everything that Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennadi Zuganov have to say?

In the United States there is no legal requirement for the news organizations to provide equal coverage to different presidential candidates. Their access to airwaves for instance is limited by the size of the campaign’s advertising budget and the success of its fundraising activity. No one is crying foul over there and democracy in that country is not under threat.

The problem with this presidential election in Russia is not procedural (the electoral process is not much different from other democratic states). Rather, the problem is substantive – constructive political platforms that could be viewed as plausible alternatives to Putin’s course simply do not exist.

The Russian people wanted “someone like Putin” and that is exactly what they got in this election. It was a public endorsement of Putin’s policies and a popular mandate for Medvedev to continue the course.
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