The dissection of the mayoral election in Sochi is proceeding vigorously, with some arguing that opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov’s insistence on running and his securing, by official numbers, nearly 14 percent of the vote in a rigged, antidemocratic process already amount to something of a victory for the opposition. Others are arguing that even participating in such farcical “elections” is a mistake that allows the ruling elite to continue acting as if some sort of democracy (albeit, “managed”) exists in Russia.
Leaving aside for a moment what the election means for Solidarity, there are conclusions to be drawn from the Kremlin’s point of view. First, the victory-producing machine is in perfect working order, with local officials, police, Kremlin-friendly activists and thugs, the courts, the media, the local election commission, and the Central Election Commission all working like gears in a well-engineered machine in a way that is as impressive as it is frightening.
That machine took a faceless bureaucrat who refused to campaign and produced a figure of 77 percent support that will no doubt withstand scrutiny all the way up through the Russian Supreme Court (what happens in Strasbourg is less certain, although it's a safe bet only our children or grandchildren will be around to find out).
Incidentally, Solidarity activist Garry Kasparov told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the decision not to have United Russia candidate Anatoly Pakhomov appear in public during the campaign was a very smart one. Kasparov crossed paths with Pakhomov at a gathering to mark the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire and had this to say: “Having seen Pakhomov and having heard his short, confused speech, I understood why he was not allowed to step in front of a microphone in front of a large number of people, because this would have alienated even United Russia supporters.”
That lesson, of course, is nothing new. United Russia has been running stiffs for ages now and maintains its record as the only political party in Russia that has never participated in a campaign debate. (In fairness, there have been some media reports in recent weeks that Kremlin domestic-politics overseer Vladislav Surkov has been holding seminars among United Russia officials with the goal of teaching them how to speak in public; so far, though, this effort has borne no fruit and Surkov is almost certainly smart enough to realize quickly what a hopeless task it is). Its candidates have a tradition of disdaining contact with voters and maybe Kasparov has put his finger on why.
More importantly, the Sochi election has drawn the ruling elite's attention to two tactics that have certainly been tried before, but never on this scale and with such devastating effect -- turnout suppression and early voting. A near total local-media blackout on the election and other devices were used to make sure that as few voters as possible turned out to vote. Kasparov told RFE/RL that polling stations stopped playing music over the loudspeakers at about noon in order not to attract the attention of passersby. Election officials also closed down buffets and stopped the reduced-price sale of foodstuffs – a leftover from the Soviet days when voters had to be bribed to come to the polls -- by midday. In the end, turnout for this high-profile election was just 37 percent.
The success of the effort to suppress turnout made the tactic of early voting all the more important. In Sochi, at least 11 percent of all voters and more than 25 percent of those who actually voted were recorded as “early voters.” That figure is about 100 times greater than the average for Russian elections from 1996-2007, “Vedomosti” reported today. In addition, some 12 percent of voters voted from home, according to official figures. These were mostly the elderly and the handicapped.
And more than 90 percent of the “early voters” cast their ballots for Pakhomov. In short, the idea was to do everything possible to make sure that people who could be intimidated into voting for United Russia (by assuring them that their votes were not secret and that they would face consequences on the job if they voted “incorrectly”), while at the same time doing everything possible to make sure other voters did not come to the polls or even know about the election. This was the essence of the election that President Dmitry Medvedev lauded as a healthy indication of the state of Russian democracy.
The “Vedomosti” article is fascinating because the daily interviewed Central Election Commission member Yelena Dubrovina, who pointed out that the practice of early voting was sharply curtailed in 1996 because it was an antidemocratic practice that was subject to massive abuse. Dubrovina even acknowledged that the practice reduces public faith in the electoral system.
But the very next words out of her mouth are that the commission is now inclined to expand the practice for all elections! United Russia Duma Deputy Aleksandr Moskalets, deputy chairman of the Constitutional Law Committee, told the daily election law might well be amended to expand early voting before the next national Duma elections.
Testing this system prior to institutionalizing it nationally may ultimately have been the reason why Nemtsov was allowed to run in the first place. Nemtsov himself, speaking to RFE/RL, attributed that decision to the fact that “there was no agreement between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev” on how to handle the Sochi election. That would imply that Medvedev overruled Putin, which seems like a stretch. More likely, Surkov convinced Putin that allowing Nemtsov into the race and then putting him in a box was the most “managed-democratic” way to go.
Mikhail Tulsky, head of the Political Analysis Foundation, told RFE/RL bluntly: “Among experts and analysts, early voting is a direct synonym for falsification.” No wonder Surkov likes it.
Strangely, Nikolai Petrov, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, views the shift from refusing to allow opposition candidates to run to mass falsification of the voting results as a positive thing. Speaking to “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Petrov said: “It is no longer necessary to harshly eliminate from a campaign candidates who are inconvenient for the Kremlin. This experiment by the authorities has been carried out to the end: Nemtsov did not run against Pakhomov, but against the Kremlin. And the result that he ended up with turned out to be more than respectable. In this sense, the Kremlin, the opposition, and the public can all consider this election a sort of victory.”