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Analysis & Opinion
23.10.09 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: A Stolen Election In Moscow?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger

Last Sunday, voters went to the polls in 75 out of 83 Russian regions to elect local and regional governments, including the Moscow City Duma, the legislative council of Russia’s largest and richest city of over ten million people. The elections resulted in a major scandal that shook the lethargic political landscape of modern Russia. Why did Medvedev choose to defend United Russia’s fabricated results, instead of using the stolen election as a pretext to drive through his democratization agenda? And what implications will it all have for United Russia and its grip on Russia’s political system?

In some regions, official election results showing United Russia’s lopsided wins looked downright suspicious, with some precincts in Moscow reporting United Russia getting an astounding 90 percent of the vote (and that with a very low turnout).
Major opposition parties, including Yabloko and Just Russia, failed to overcome the electoral threshold of seven percent for the Moscow City Duma, which will now have only two parties – United Russia (32 seats) and the Communist Party (just 3 seats).
Exit polls by respectable polling agencies (including the state-run VTsIOM) showed United Russia getting barely over 44 percent of the vote in Moscow and Yabloko getting more than 13 percent. Official results, announced hours later, placed United Russia at 66 percent and Yabloko below five percent. The picture was pretty much the same in other regions, with only some remote and rural areas showing truly competitive races.
The electoral fraud was so apparent and downright brazen that it left the opposition parties in the State Duma little political choice but to storm out of the Duma session in protest, demanding an urgent meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev to voice their complaints. Medvedev had scheduled a meeting with the Duma deputies for October 27, but moved it up to October 24 after some hesitation.

Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the election results fare and largely free of violations, suggesting that the losing parties seek redress in court if they had proof that electoral fraud did take place. Medvedev and Putin pronounced themselves satisfied with the election results and even congratulated United Russia on a landslide victory, which the Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov liberally interpreted as “the people siding with the authorities to fight the crisis.” No recount was ordered and it seems unlikely that the authorities will ever concede that electoral fraud did take place, much less punish the perpetrators.

On Thursday, the Federal Electoral Commission Chairmen Vladimir Churov linked the deputies’ walkout to “an important foreign guest’s” visit to Russia, in an apparent reference to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Moscow on Monday and left on Wednesday.

Where does this leave Russia’s political system? Why was it necessary to engage in practices that might delegitimize the entire political process in order to secure a couple more seats for United Russia, which would have won the election anyway, albeit not with such astounding numbers? Why did Medvedev choose to defend United Russia’s fabricated results, instead of using the stolen election as a pretext to drive through his democratization agenda? What implications will it all have for United Russia and its grip on Russia’s political system? Does it reflect the voters’ dissatisfaction with the party of power, or is it just a consequence of the electorate’s apathy and lack of interest in representative government? Is it a sign of Putin’s political consensus coming apart at the seams, or is it just a temporary phenomenon that demonstrates the bureaucratic nature of Russia’s political system and its dependency on government bureaucracy for winning elections?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Last week's Russian regional and local electoral results are simply not credible. In all elections, what matters most is the manner by which the votes are counted, and not how they were cast. No one in good faith can deny that significant fraud seems to have occurred, yet I am continuously perplexed by the need of the country's national and regional ruling elites to fix elections that they would have most probably won anyway (albeit by much smaller margins).

One clever individual once described electoral systems in most developing countries as "one man, one vote, one party, and one election." At present, the latter two characteristics do not describe Russia: there are multiple parties and there have been multiple elections. Yet, it would be foolish to say this is an indication that Russia is a democratic state ("managed" or otherwise). The government is in no way accountable to the people in any fashion.
With the passage of time, the country’s various parties have changed along with the percentage of the vote they receive in legislative and executive elections at all levels, but a real opposition has not been allowed to emerge. Russia is a diverse country. Over 140 million people live in eight time zones, with roughly 30 million individuals eligible to vote. The population is highly stratified economically, and it can be subdivided in any of a myriad of ways: age, education level, ethnicity/nationality, income, profession, urban/rural, etc. How could its electorate speak in such a uniform manner?

Given the state of the Russian economy and the level of governmental corruption, the absence of some degree of voter outrage is simply not credible. U.S. President Barack Obama's Democratic Party is preparing to lose some seats in both chambers of Congress and possibly even the governorships in traditionally Democratic New Jersey and Virginia for a variety of reasons, even though the opposition Republican Party has done little to promote a meaningful alternative program, other than saying "no" to anything Obama proposes.

Elections cannot be fair and free where those exercising power largely control the media, prevent opposition demonstrations, and appoint those who hold positions in the various electoral commissions. The Russian leadership leaves nothing to chance. No "color" revolutions (even at the local level) will be permitted, as they may spread. Situations similar to that in Iran must not occur.

In fair, competitive elections, most victories are relatively narrow. Germany, and not Zimbabwe, should be Russia's future. Who would have thought that I would have a sense of nostalgia for former Russian Central Electoral Committee Head Aleksandr Veshniakov, who seemed to believe that some opposition might be good for the country?
The Russian nomenklatura don't need guidance on how to orchestrate elections and ensure pre-determined results.

At this time it remains unclear whether the walkout by the Duma Deputies was "staged," reflecting anger over not getting their share of the pie, or if the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Just Russia and the Communist Party, were motivated by genuine anger over the fraudulent elections.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Frolov is making very strong assertions indeed about the results of the October 11 elections, calling them factually (not “allegedly”) fraudulent.

However, no hard evidence is presented, just references to exit polls (unattributed, except for VTsIOM) and to claims by leaders of those parties who had a poor showing (the Communists, the nationalist LDPR and the social-democratic Just Russia).

The elections of October 11 in Russia were for thousands of positions in regional legislatures and district administrations. Seven parties participated: the four in the Russian State Duma plus Yabloko and other smaller groupings. Russian parties with smaller electorates hoped to have stronger results in local elections, to expand their bases through local political victories. A reasonable strategy; however, success was predicated on very effective local resources and campaigns. This just did not happen, through the parties’ fault.

And so the facile accusations of vote fraud began. If one applies the democratic concept of presumption of innocence, then the burden of proof of fraud lies with the accusers. Considering that all parties could (and did) station permanent observers at the polls and in the vote counting process, extensive genuine documentation of massive and blatant vote fraud should be presented by the accusers, and in our Internet-empowered world, this evidence would be widely reported.

Yet, no substantial evidence has appeared – allegations are not evidence. Also, no person who may have been involved in the actual fabrication of results has stepped forward with convincing proofs of evildoing.

The entire “scandal” was a two-day walkout of the Duma deputies from LDPR and Just Russia and a slightly longer “strike” by the Communists. The entire episode, initiated by LDPR’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, well-known for his eccentric behavior, resembled a temper tantrum in a pre-school playground.

Instead of unproven “vote fraud” accusations, the lopsided vote for United Russia is more likely due to other causes.
The losing parties included the Communists (with their burden of 70 years of criminal misdeeds in the Soviet period), the extreme nationalist LDPR (and the marginalization of extremists is not per se a suspicious phenomenon), the social-democratic Just Russia (note that the socialists also resoundingly lost the recent elections in Germany), Yabloko (a party which is still re-inventing itself, also widely perceived as pro-American, which is not the “flavor of the month” with a Russian electorate that is suffering from an “American economic crisis.”)

Frolov correctly asks why anyone would engage in vote fraud when electoral success is certain. Why, indeed? Such a question is only meaningful if one accepts a priori that electoral fraud did happen. The question is meant to be rhetorical, but in reality it reflects the basic unsoundness of the fraud accusation itself.

The electorate is sending a strong signal to the opposition: the parties’ message to the voters is vague, oftentimes trivial, and simply not attractive. The opposition seems to have trouble facing this truth, and would rather console themselves with claims of vote fraud than face the simple and hard fact that few voters elected their candidates. The paucity of votes earned strongly implies the political irrelevance of the losing parties. In the United States, the tiny American Communist Party gets trounced in election after election, and also claims vote fraud.

In the final count, there is only one (albeit weak) opponent to United Russia – the Communists. Those who would like to see the incumbent party defeated should very clearly appreciate this political configuration.

Professor Stephen Blank, the US Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

I cannot speak for public opinion, but this fraud was wholly unnecessary if we are to believe the claim that Medvedev and Putin are so popular. If that were the case, there would be no need for fraud. Undoubtedly, the case in question points to bureaucratic guidance from above, with superiors setting targets for lower officials, etc. But it also attests to the cynicism of the elites and to the fallaciousness if not mendacity of the utter nonsense we hear about Medvedev's liberalism.

Alexander II's reformers were more liberal and they were very much statist. Ultimately, this tells us that the ruling system in Russia is brittle, that the elites know it and will do anything to stay in power regardless of the consequences. They don’t care how it looks.

Medvedev, for all of his speeches, is still afraid to do anything concrete in the way of reforms. Still, I do think that we can see signs of the inertia of the Putin system (in the sense of a system moving along the same line it has previously followed until it can go no further). No doubt other analysts and regime flacks will come up with all kinds of justifications for the fact that we have here a perfect likeness of, in Max Weber's terms, “pseudo-Schienkonstitutionalismus,” and this shows that despite everything that has happened in Russia, it has still to get beyond what Russian historians used to call the “June 3 System,” with reference to Nicholas II's forcible dispersal of the first two Dumas in 1906 to 07. If Tsarism is the best Russia can do, we are in for a very dangerous period.
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