It certainly won’t come as news to Power Vertical readers that the electoral system in Russia is a rigged sham. We can’t say it any better than former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (thanks to La Russophobe for the citation), who said on May 21: “The electoral system has been revised to serve the interests of a single party, the interests of those who are now at the helm. Step by step, we have been going back to the past.”
But maintaining the kind of monolithic hold on power that United Russia has established isn’t always easy. President Dmitry Medvedev has been trying, for instance, to expand the political elite, to bring in fresh faces brimming with initiative. Some of these fresh faces don’t like the way the political game is played in Russia and a few have been willing to say enough is enough.
For instance, Anton Chumachenko was a Unified Russia candidate for a district board in St. Petersburg who resigned his mandate after he learned his election had been falsified (we wrote about it here and here). A St. Petersburg court on May 19 awarded his seat to the Yabloko candidate, “Novaya gazeta” columnist Boris Vishnevsky (Yabloko is solidly supported in the relatively liberal St. Petersburg, so the authorities there have been merciless in disqualifying them and otherwise preventing them from sharing in local government).
And that brings us to a quotation that is interesting to compare with Gorbachev’s remark. “In this case, we saw something that is rarely seen in Russia in recent years – a legal and just court,” Vishnevsky told his newspaper. “Could it be that something in this country and in our city is changing? I’d like to thank my supporters, who attended every session of the court. I’d also like to thank Anton Chumachenko, who not only went public about the falsification of the election in the Morskoi district, writing an open letter about it to voters, but who also supported my assertions during the trial…. Not many people believed that we could win in court. This is a very important precedent: there have been cases when the results of elections have been overturned, but this is the first time the new results have been to the advantage of a member of the opposition.”
The same court this week began hearing a second case involving falsification in the Morskoi district, in which Yabloko candidate Tatyana Sharagina hopes to win another seat for her party.
Of course, there is no news in Russia that is completely good. True, the local election commission (normally a loyal lapdog of United Russia and the powers that be) has said it will not appeal the court’s ruling. “Truth prevailed,” one commission member said! But she added that the falsification was due to the “inexperience” of polling-station officials; i.e., she will not concede there is a systemic problem. Also, no one apparently is being held criminally responsible for the falsification, a move that would send a clear signal through the system if, as Vishnevsky hopes, “something in this country and in our city is changing.”
But maybe this signal came in Saratov. The following day, May 20, a court there found a district polling-station official, Svetlana Minayeva, guilty of election fraud and sentenced her to pay a 200,000 ruble fine. The court ruled Minayeva had rewritten the polling-station protocol and falsified 300 votes in favor of the Unified Russia candidate for a city council position. The results of that election were already overturned by an earlier court decision. I wonder if some intrepid journalist in Saratov will look into whether United Russia pays Minayeva’s fine….
Meanwhile, a court in Tuva has opened a criminal case involving alleged election fraud in a local executive-branch race. That decision comes after the court nullified the election there following a recount in which it was found that 324 of the 1,035 votes officially awarded to the winner had been falsified. The court gave the post to the second-place candidate, Diinmei Balban-ool, on the basis of the recount. Initial media reports that I’ve seen did not identify the party affiliations of the candidates, but I’m guessing the original winner, Aldyn-ool Tyulyush, was part of the vertical.
And there are other signs of restlessness in the bottom ranks of the power vertical. “Kommersant” reported today that businessman Aleksandr Temnyshev has resigned from United Russia and will run as an independent candidate for mayor of Petrozavodsk in Karelia. Temnyshev is unhappy with the closed-door way the local party branch selects candidates for such posts, saying the party has become the equivalent of the stagnation-era Communist Party of the Soviet Union and is holding onto power solely by its command of “administrative resources” and the influence of Moscow.
The local leader of the Kremlin-friendly right-leaning Right Cause party said his party will back Temnyshev in the June 5 vote and lead a local anti-United Russia coalition. Like the mayoral election in Murmansk earlier this year, the Petrozavodsk race could be worth keeping an eye on.
In Ulyanovsk Oblast, a public initiative is under way to remove regional legislator (United Russia!) Sergei Glebov. It was revealed that Glebov claimed a false degree in ecology in his election-registration documents. Prosecutors ruled that the lie did not influence the outcome of the voting, so residents have begun a recall initiative. Aleksandr Fadeyev, who ran against Glebov and is organizing the recall drive, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that it will be successful, unless the authorities interfere. “The one big ‘but’ in all this is whether the authorities will exert their influence, find ways of applying pressure that will enable him to avoid taking responsibility,” Fadeyev said. “The whole problem is how strongly will the authorities oppose us.”
According to the RFE/RL report, signs promoting the recall have been systematically taken down across the city as soon as they are posted and at least one person who was posting them was assaulted and had his flyers stolen. Ulyanovsk municipal authorities refused to allow the recall group to hold an organizing meeting in any public building – it was held on the steps of the local Dom Kultury instead (the building was empty at the time).
The recall effort must now secure official registration and then collect 2,000 signatures to force a recall vote. That vote must draw at least 40 percent of registered voters in order to be valid and a majority of them must support the effort for Glebov to be removed. There are plenty of opportunities for the authorities to throw wrenches in the works.
So, are these tiny signs that a new wind is blowing in Russia, that President Medvedev and his supporters are tired and ashamed of rigged elections, such as the ones that brought them to power? Could they be trying to change things in a stealthy way, at the bottom, where nobody is watching?
It’s hard to say. Certainly, if these are the fabled green shoots of a liberal spring, they are so miniscule that you need a magnifying glass to find them. They can’t compare with the gross falsification that we saw in the high-profile mayoral race in Sochi, which clearly sent very different signals through the political system.