Next Sunday, Russians are expected to go to the polls and overwhelmingly endorse the candidates of the pro-Putin party, Edinaya Rossiya.* What I find surprising is the level to which the government feels it needs to engage in electoral hanky-panky: all signs suggest that Edinaya Rossiya would receive a comfortable majority, even without the blatant manipulation of the system. Kommersant reports that a recent poll shows that it is very likely that no party besides Edinaya Rossiya will clear the 7% threshold for Duma representation–in that case, a “loyal opposition” may actually need to be manufactured to preserve the pretense of a multiparty system. Is this a dictator’s fear that his popularity is merely illusory? Or is it based in a belief that greater legitimacy is derived from a manipulated landslide than a clean victory? It’s hard to tell from the outside.
Whatever the cause, the Russian state has thrown its considerable resources behind Edinaya Rossiya. Riot police break up the pathetically small opposition demonstrations and arrest the participants for creating “public disturbances”. Opposition parties find it next-to-impossible to register their candidates. One of the primary opposition parties, the Union of Right Forces, had millions of copies of their campaign literature seized around the country on pathetically flimsy justifications. The government announced that it would restrict the number of OSCE election observers to 70 (compared to over 400 in the last Duma elections), then dragged their feet for so long on issuing visas to the observers that the OSCE simply cancelled the mission. In recent weeks, there have been “spontaneous” demonstrations around Russia by an organization calling itself “Za Putina” (For Putin), which is apparently dominated by Edinaya Rossiya members.
The rhetoric of the campaign is also notable for its strong flavor of Russian nationalism, the theme of the restoration of Russian greatness, and a focus on the person of Vladimir Putin that borders on a personality cult, with Putin cast as a father-figure reminiscent of the Little Father Tsar or Papa Joe Stalin. Edinaya Rossiya has adopted the slogan “Putin’s Plan is Russia’s Victory,” though few Russian voters admit to having any concrete idea as to what Putin’s mysterious plan might actually be. At campaign rallies, Putin has claimed that opposition groups are treacherous and unpatriotic–receiving their marching order from “foreign powers” who want Russia to be “a weak and feeble state”. Today, he accused the United States of meddling in the Russian election by pressuring the OSCE to drop plans for election-monitoring (those same monitors who couldn’t get their visas) in order to delegitimize the election.
I have never believed that Vladimir Putin was a committed democrat. I have long taken the view that he has authoritarian tendencies that have steered Russia in a non-democratic direction. Never before, though, have I felt so pessimistic about Russia’s political future. With this election, it is quite possible that we will see the consolidation of true authoritarianism in Russia. The rhetoric of confrontation with the West is rising, and US officials seem completely at a loss as to how to effectively reduce tensions. Sixteen years ago, we breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War, and then turned our attention elsewhere. We’ve hardly turned it back since, and it shows.
* Edinaya Rossiya is usually translated as United Russia; I noticed the other day, though, that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty translates it as Unified Russia, which I like because it carries a slightly different nuance that better reflects the orientation of the party. “United” in English has the connotation of joining and coming together, but this is represented by altogether different words in Russian (soedinyonniy is used for “United States”, while “obedinyonniy” is used for “United Nations”). Ediniy, on the other hand, has alternate meanings of “indivisible” and “common” (as in “shared”).