Elections -- or the semblance of elections -- remain a key feature of the Russian political system, perhaps the only one that enables the authorities to continue describing it as a "democracy," even if it has to qualify that term with opaque modifiers like "managed" and "sovereign." Giving up elections entirely -- and even the Soviet Union's "socialist democracy" didn't abandon the pretense of voting -- is not a realistic option, although suspending them under the pretext of some national emergency or to prevent interference by foreign "enemies" is always on the table in Russia. Russia under Vladimir Putin has done away with voting for executive-branch heads of federation subjects and is moving toward abolishing mayoral elections as well. But national legislative and executive elections seem obligatory -- and, therefore, the problem of managing them remains.
Election management, though, when done right, is not done during election season, but during the years between elections when attention is slight. And Russia's Central Election Commission (TsIK) has been busy. Earlier this summer it launched a broadside attack against the foundations of international election monitoring at a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This week, Janez Lenarcic -- the new head of the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which oversees election monitoring -- was in Moscow for talks with TsIK Chairman Vladimir Churov, at which he declared directly, "We are open to dialogue, but the basic principles on which our mandate is predicated cannot be a subject for that dialogue."
In addition, the TsIK has begun an intense series of "distance learning" seminars for journalists across the country on covering elections. The commission has conceded that the laws on media coverage of voting are so complex and open to interpretation -- and that the penalties are so draconian -- that many media outlets minimize their attention to elections. During a seminar on September 3, TsIK member Maiya Grishina told journalists not to be intimidated: "All you have to do is cover elections objectively and reliably."
Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics
The commission has also turned its attention to the problem of history. Russia held elections throughout the perestroika period and the reign of President Boris Yeltsin. Although those elections left much to be desired from the point of view of pure democracy, they were clearly much less "managed" than Russian elections have been since Putinism matured around 2003 or 2004. The mere fact that the party of power in the 1993 elections, Russia's Democratic Choice headed by acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, failed to poll the 5 percent required to gain seats in the Duma gives a pretty good idea of how things have changed. Putin's Unified Russia polled 70.7 percent in December 2007.
The pre-Putin elections left behind a rich legacy of data on voter registration, turnout, voting patterns, and so on that reached down to the level of each individual polling station. And this information provides countless opportunities for comparative analyse
Or, rather, once provided countless opportunities. Sometime in the last year, statistical information about all elections before 2003 was deleted from the websites of the TsIK and other state agencies. Independent election monitors on September 10 issued a statement deploring this move. "Free and broad access by citizens to electoral information, no matter how old, is a crucial element not only of a citizen's right to information, but of the foundation in the country of a proper political and legal culture. It is an element of civic control over the electoral process and the activities of state agencies. It is an essential condition of the public's confidence in the country's electoral system," they wrote.
The signers of the statement -- including Andrei Buzin, head of the Interregional Association of Voters; Grigory Golosov, chief analyst for the independent Merkator research group; political analyst Aleksandr Kynev; and Liliya Shibanova, head of the NGO Golos -- conducted fearless monitoring during the national elections last year and this spring that raised serious questions about their legitimacy.
Among the data now lost to posterity are those pertaining to the March 2000 election of Vladimir Putin. That vote was the subject of a compelling critique in September 2000 by "The Moscow Times" that argued the results had been grossly manipulated in order to secure a first-round win for Putin over Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov. According to official results, Putin won 52.94 percent of the vote, but the newspaper presented evidence of many of the manipulations that have become commonplace in the Putin era, including inflated voter roles, falsification of results in the so-called ethnic republics (particularly in the North Caucasus), and ballot-box stuffing at state enterprises. Ironically, the TsIK's refutation of "The Moscow Times" reports -- which was itself rebutted by the paper -- is among the documents that have been disappeared. Equally ironically, the OSCE -- whose election monitoring is now viewed so negatively by the Kremlin -- warmly endorsed Russia's 2000 presidential election and its monitoring report was also harshly criticized by "The Moscow Times."
During the last election cycle, the Kremlin was embarrassed by a statistical analysis of polling-station results carried out by a couple of independent bloggers. That analysis argued that turnout for the December 2007 Duma elections had been inflated by about 12 percent, giving the ruling Unified Russia party a constitutional majority of 315 seats in the Duma instead of the 277 that their analysis predicted.
Although wags are fond of saying there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics," Russia's experience shows that sometimes the statistics refuse to lie, even in the hands of master "managers." After the March 2008 presidential election that culminated the process of installing Putin's chosen heir Dmitry Medvedev as president, TsIK Chairman Churov crowed to journalists, "There is no more open, more transparent, and more organized election system than the election system of the Russian Federation." Although tactics like preventing election monitors from working and pushing the records of past elections into oblivion do nothing to make Churov's claim true, they do make it harder to demonstrate that it is false -- which is already a victory for a government of such flimsy legitimacy.