THE ONLY MAJOR surprise of Russia's parliamentary "election," which could not have been choreographed better by Diaghilev, is that it had even the Communists lamenting the death of democracy. Gennady Zyuganov, chairman of the party, said on Sunday, "We do not trust these figures unveiled by the Central Election Commission and we will conduct a parallel count. It is already clear that in Siberia and other regions the results have been adjusted according to pre-arranged plans I would like to say this to the authorities: stop, you are abusing the whole country."
And the heirs of Lenin walked away with 11.6 percent of the vote, placing them well above the Kremlin-designated 7 percent threshold for having that result translate into actual seats in the Duma. The Communists are thus the only real opposition to United Russia, which claimed, or seized, 64.1 percent of the electorate, guaranteeing it 315 out of the 450 seats in a national legislature where 300 make a constitutional majority. Only two other parties cleared the threshold: The ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party won 8.2 percent, and Fair Russia won 7.8 percent, and neither poses the least threat to United Russia.
LDP leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a staunchly anti-Western demagogue who sponsored Andrei Lugovoy, the suspected but unextradicted killer of Alexander Litvinenko, for a spot on the ballot. Zhirinovsky gloried in the "deserved punishment" of Litvinenko, thinks the Jews have ruined Russia, and once praised the "democratic process" of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Now comes news that he plans to appoint Lugovoy the head of--what else?--the Defense Committee!
Fair Russia, meanwhile, was baptized by the Kremlin and has long served as a reliable second on most of its policies. Nevertheless, party spokesman Dmitry Gudkov had a rotten weekend: "We cannot call these elections honest," he said, probably alluding to how his candidates were threatened with arrests and their offices searched by the authorities. Only the best for friends of Vladimir.
In fact, Putin gave every indication of being dead-set against compromise or--here's a Western idiom he'd find hysterical--"bridge-building." A few weeks ago, he reneged on his promise to smaller parties to give them some minor representation in the Duma in exchange for keeping quiet about his corruption--not that this was much of a concession to begin with. But for years, he has been razing every remaining obstacle to his autocracy and its continuance. In addition to increasing the electoral dividend threshold from 5 to 7 percent, in 2005 the Kremlin abolished the minimum turnout rule, which had been previously 25 percent for parliamentary elections. Turnout was a major propaganda point this year, as Putin needed 60 percent and got 63 percent. Also struck from the latest pantomime of self-determination was the right to register a protest vote against all candidates, and the very existence of single-mandate districts, which previously decided half of the Duma's makeup.
This last abrogation merits special attention. Like Britain's House of Commons, the lower house in post-Soviet Russia used to consist of an even division between proportional and equal representation. Now it's all proportional, which means it's easier to ring more lawmakers, or "deputies," out of large, regime-friendly areas, despite the fact that the 100 or so elected though single-district mandates in 2003 hailed from independent or miniscule parties, almost all of which have since melted into the Putinist monolith.
One would be forgiven, then, for mistaking today's Russia for a de facto one-party state, except that United Russia is technically not Vladimir Putin's party, nor did he run for anything in this election. A man apart and aloft, he only affixed his ubiquitous name to it to make the December vote a plebiscite on his rule as the "father of the nation." United Russia's official platform, aka "Putin's Plan," consisted of cobbled-together extracts of the president's speeches. And such was the sticking power of the Putin-United Russia alliance in the popular imagination that, as of mid-November, eight percent of the country believed the party's candidates publicly debated their opponents, with more than half of that percentage saying they did so impressively. "The thing is," reported the Moscow Times, "United Russia did not participate in a single debate." Nor were its opponents generally allowed anywhere near a television camera. Rather, other attention was paid to them, like being shoved into riot police vans during peaceful rallies on Andrei Sakharov Square and Nevsky Prospekt. One, Farid Babeyev, a candidate for the liberal Yabloko Party, was gunned down on November 21 in Makhachkala in the capital of Dagestan; he died from his wounds three days later.
Other abuses consistent with classical statism abounded. The Kommersant newspaper reported that the KGB successor organization, the Federal Security Service (FSB), of which Putin was once the director, was in complete control of local law enforcement, with 450,000 agents posted to active duty--20,000 stationed in Moscow alone. (Imagine the C.I.A. keeping tabs on the Iowa caucus.) FSB agents also harassed Communists for distributing leaflets that only satirized United Russia and Putin. And the pro-market Union of Right Forces had their campaign paraphernalia confiscated by local police in multiple cities. The police claimed the materials contained extremist or "hidden" messages, or were laced with narcotics.
Giant signs reading "Moscow is Voting for Putin!" were thrown up in the capital in the prime advertising real estate off Red Square, and kept up during the so-called "Day of Silence" preceding the December 2 vote, when all campaigning must, by law, stop. Round-the-clock television coverage devoted to one cause has been a fixture of the media for months. The Russian Union of Journalists found the three state-owned television stations (Rossia, TV Tsentr and Pervi Kanal) as well as the two top privately owned ones allotted 90% of their prime time coverage to direct campaigning by United Russia and Putin between October 1 and November 22. Seventy-five percent of those channels' news coverage went to them, too, despite the fact that, as Robert Coalson of Radio Free Europe noted, they have not discussed "any issues more sophisticated than the slogan 'Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory.'" The effects such narcoleptic boredom must have on an entire populace would make for an interesting dissertation on mass psychology.
Journalists have elsewhere been hounded and silenced. Three Ren TV reporters, along with an activist from the human rights group Memorial, were kidnapped, beaten, and their bodies dumped by the side of the road on November 23 in the republic of Ingushetia, whose voter turnout, by the way, was 98.3 percent. Russia has seen 88 journalists murdered in the last decade, and of that number something like the percentage of that small Caucasian republic's voter turnout has been conspicuous in its criticism of Putinism. The country lags behind only Iraq as the deadliest for media. Plus, there's more bad news for citizen journalism.
One of the only free and uncensored resources for civic opinion is the social networking and blogging site LiveJournal, which, though based in the United States and owned by the company SixApart, was granted a Russian license in 2006 and has become one of the most popular Internet landing sites in the country. It posted thousands of user diaries all throughout this election cycle, chronicling the average Russian's complaints about specific instances of fraud and overall disillusionment. As of Monday, LiveJournal became the sole property of the man who bought that license a year ago, a billionaire oligarch named Alexander Mamut, who, as a former advisor to Boris Yeltsin, was implicated in the Sobinbank/Bank of New York scandal of 1999. Well, guess who's now the favorite politician in Mamuk's Rolodex--yet more proof that Putin's self-congratulatory spiel about rescuing Russia from its not-too-distant kleptocracy is as genuine as everything else he says.
The much-bruited voter turnout figure is also subject to scrutiny given the spate of auctioned-off and unlawfully distributed absentee ballots for candidates who were by no means far from their registered districts. As I wrote last week for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, the mere issuance of an absentee ballot in Russia is recorded statistically as an actual vote, and the Central Election Commission, which is corrupt to begin with, put the number of absentee ballots this year at 1,350,000 (ridiculously high by any measure). Apparently, 40 percent of the voters of one district in Moscow used them, while a United Russia stooge officiated over the entire proceeding. Voting multiple times was also pervasive. My favorite anecdote so far comes from The Other Russia's website: "One call to a hotline for electoral fraud revealed that a high-ranking employee of the Regional Electoral Commission of the city of Krasnoyarsk arrived at the polling station, took two ballots, and walked into the voting booth. Observers stopped her from voting twice, yet the Commission took no action, and did not suspend her from duties."
The excellent blog La Russophobe intercepted and translated a letter United Russia members in the city of Kemerov evidently sent to A.K. Logionov, executive director of the Siberian Coal Energy Company. It read, "I am taking your refusal to provide financial support to the regional branch of the 'United Russia' party for the upcoming parliament elections as a refusal to support President V.V. Putin and his policy direction. I consider it my obligation to relay this to the Presidential Administration and the Governor of the Keremov Oblast." That charming Keremov governor stands accused of threatening to turn off the heat in his district if United Russia polled less than 70 percent there.
The Economist's Moscow correspondent:
spotted several "tourist" buses stuffed with people from far-flung regions. They voted early and often. The buses were guarded by men in black leather coats and ski hats who, every few minutes, would let a small group out of the vehicle to cast their ballots. They would move to the next polling station and repeat the exercise. The "leader" of the group said the men were workers from a nearby factory. But, despite strict instruction to keep silent, some admitted that they were free labourers and came from as far away as the Kemerovo region, some 3500 km from Moscow. "We have been going around polling stations since lunch time," grumbled one man, "and they have not paid us yet".
Many have asked why Putin went to so much trouble to shore up a victory that was inevitable and that, on the surface, only earned United Russia 12 additional seats in an obsolescent legislature. One reason he broke with the post-Soviet presidential custom and aligned himself with a party at all had to do with the governors of Russia's 89 administrative regions. These were, remember, formerly elected until Putin decided it would be much easier to appoint them directly--a "reform" he railroaded through in 2004 under the pretext of waging unrestricted war against terrorism in Chechnya, a republic which, incidentally, boasted a 99.5 percent voter turnout in this election. (The other .5 percent must have overslept.) Sixty-five governors led local United Russia lists this year, giving the party and its new figurehead unfettered control over every regional apparatus, "from police to tax inspectors," as the Washington Post put it.
What's particularly interesting about this development is that, instead of the tyranny of the party devolving into the tyranny of the lone dictator, the consolidation of power in the new Russia has progressed, strangely, in reverse. The strongman has purchased himself a loyal army of hirelings after the fact. The current state may therefore be seen as even more of a mafia outfit than its Soviet predecessor, a characteristic that also renders it, thankfully, more vulnerable and ephemeral. Whereas with Stalinism there was an abiding ideology, secured by a generation of indoctrination and terror, that vouchsafed the continuance of at least some version of the status quo, with Putinism, there is only Putin. As such, United Russia should not be so ecstatic about its thralldom because, like Milton's famous villain:
"If he whom mutual league
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd
In equal ruin."
Andrei Illarionov, the former economic advisor to Putin, published an essay a few days ago in Yezhednevniy Zhurnal, in which he declared, "December 2 is nothing but a special operation." Illarionov grimly analogized the now-concluded campaign to the ones preceding the Supreme Soviet election in 1937 and the Reichstag election in 1933.
And the temptation for Western media to draw Stalinist analogies to the weekend's events has been even harder to suppress (the Guardian headlined its editorial, "The shadow of Stalin that hangs over Mr Putin") particularly with omnipresent banners and images of Dear Leader blighting the Russian landscape.
Still, if there is one auspicious takeaway from the enormous sham just perpetrated over eleven time zones, it is that the Russian people can still make the Kremlin nervous. Moreover, we are hearing from them more frequently and loudly than we had before. As Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinksy phrased it about a year ago, Russia is not yet the Soviet Union Redux. "You can criticize, you can write essays, you can write books. But only if you don't cross the line." Crossing the line, of course, means defying the economic and political hegemony exercised by the head of state and his tiny circle of silovik antagonists. Culture, too, is subject to creeping encroachments from the almighty center. Still, we are not quite at the point of historical, let alone moral, equivalence between Russia's past and present.
As it happens, this year Robert Conquest, the great historian of Stalinism, is releasing a 40th anniversary edition of his seminal work The Great Terror. In it, he has a new preface, from which a small section bears quoting:
"Today's Russia is not totalitarian. The Terror is not denied. The economy is viable. But one can have 'reform' without liberalism--as with Peter the Great and Pytor Stolypin. Above all we are still far from the rule of law--much more important than 'democracy.' As elsewhere, the problem seems to be to free the idea of the 'nation' from both archaic barbarism and from the more recently bankrupted verbalisms that have partly melded into it. To turn inward, outward, and upward?"
Yes, but it hasn't happened yet.
Michael Weiss is associate editor at Jewcy magazine.