Oct 16, 2012

The Idiot?

Some time ago I read a magazine article written by a scholar who was an expert on Tolstoy’s work and life. She was telling of her visit to Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate not too far from Moscow, now a museum. The academician describes with awe the moment the tourist guide showed a group of visitors into Tolstoy’s studio and saw the desk where he wrote works such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Then, the walk through moved to his bedroom where, despite some physical pain due to a heavy pneumonia, he died peacefully, surrounded by his wife, after having tranquilly reflected on his life and spiritually prepared himself for the change he was about to undergo. Here the Tolstoy expert asks, apparently with some disappointment, how was it possible that the man who wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich could have left this world just like that. Did she have the sensation that Tolstoy failed to meet his own standards at the moment of his death?

Last Sunday Russia went to the polls, five months after Vladimir Putin took office for the third time. The positions in contest were five out of 83 provincial governors, the first after Putin suspended their election during his first term, six regional legislatures, as well as municipal majors. The most immediate antecedent for these exercises is the Presidential election from March 2012, which allowed Putin back into power (if he ever actually left since he served as the country’s Prime Minister under the four year term of Dmitri Medvedev). On that occasion, many activists were detained when protesting against a largely shared perception of fraud. One of the government responses to those demonstrations was to eliminate the presidential appointment of provincial governors and to have them again elected by popular vote.

The elections of two days ago, if not challenged with the same public contestation, were surrounded by suspicions of open fraud and intimidation. Putin’s party, United Russia, won the five provincial governments in dispute, absolute majorities in the six regional legislatures where election took place, and most majors. Many people had to cast their ballots at their working places under some kind of supervision from their bosses, “spoiler” candidates and parties were financed by the Kremlin to maintain the image of an existing opposition, and there were accusations of “carrousel” voting, where people are transported from one polling station to the other to vote again and again.

Almost thirteen years ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) labeled the 1999 elections that first brought Putin to power as “conducted under a constitutional and legislative framework that is consistent with internationally recognized democratic standards.” Then, he won 53.4% of the popular vote, whereas his closest competitor got 29.5%. It is widely acknowledged that Putin restored political and economic order to Russia, which had met constant turmoil, uncertainty and instability the decade after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, factors which translated into a boost in his popularity. However, Putin’s first reelection, in 2004, did not meet such a positive evaluation. The OSCE commented that “the process failed to meet important commitments for a healthy democratic election”, including a State-controlled media, unequal distribution of campaign resources in favor of the incumbent, and an unguaranteed ballot secrecy. Putin got 71.9% of the popular vote for him. This perception repeated in the 2008 electoral exercise, when President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev exchanged positions (71.2% for the latter), and back again in the March elections this year (63.6% for Putin). Each time, unfairness and rigging went in crescendo.

Regarding the stability of the regime, perhaps a main problem with the growing unfairness and rigging of the elections, along with the centralization of the Russian political system under the figure of Putin, was that the methods also became grosser and less sophisticated. In the first chapter of his book The Dictator’s Learning Curve, William Dobson talks about Putin’s efforts to control his country’s politics. At the beginning of the Presidency, the symptom of centralization was a series of corrupt contracts between government officials and businessmen, exchanging economic rent (maybe accompanied with a vague promise to contribute to good economic performance) for political support. Afterwards, it was the control of the media and the co-option of political parties, if not the imposition of legal barriers to prevent them from participating in elections. The next target were NGOs, which were seriously weakened by cutting their government funds and by creating the “government-operated NGOs (GONGOS)”. Earlier this year, members of the Pussy Riot band received seven-year prison sentences after a performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior denouncing the links between Putin and the Orthodox Church. And now the blatant alteration of ballots. Dobson mentions that it is a great risk for the regime to do things like that. In the early years, dark deeds between elites or the exclusion of opposition were seen as somewhat distant issues. “But when the state has stolen your vote, the battle becomes far more personal [… because people] feel as though something personal has been stolen from them.”

What does it mean that the regime’s techniques to secure elections and centralize the system have become as mundane as buying votes? Certainly now Putin does not meet the same levels of approval as when he was a candidate for the first time. Are they using desperate measures because they are afraid of the opposition? Or have they become so hypocritical that they just do not care to go back to the basics? In any case, it seems that, to some disappointment, Putin has failed himself as much as Tolstoy did on his deathbed.


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