The consequences of Barack Obama’s miserably failed “reset” policy with Russia became horrifyingly clear last weekend. The Russian people did their part in fighting for American values, but America itself did not meet them halfway, and so an iron curtain came clanging down across Russia.
Last Sunday, Russians went to the polls in a parliamentary election that former parliament member Vladimir Ryzhkov predicted would be “the dirtiest in post-Soviet history.” As if to prove him right, in the days leading up to the vote Lilya Shibanova — leader of the country’s only independent polling place monitor, Golos — was arrested and her laptop confiscated. State-owned media also aired a vicious (and false) attack on her organization’s integrity. Also, one of Russia’s most independent and outspoken foreign correspondents, John Helmer, was summarily booted out of the country, and a full-scale crackdown was launched everywhere against Russian media.
Clearly, the Kremlin planned unprecedented ballot box stuffing and wanted to minimize the blowback.
The campaign tactics of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party of power, were truly shameless. They posted billboards which were exact copies of government efforts to encourage voter turnout, making it seem the party was state-endorsed. They infiltrated schools from first grade to colleges with ominous propaganda agents. They deluged the Internet with racist and sexist videos meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
When opposition activists tried to stage a concert in Ekaterinburg, the power went suddenly, mysteriously dead.
Election fraud is so commonplace in Russia that a leading Russian paper, Vedomosti, produced a lengthy analysis of all the ways it is carried out. The article scarcely raised an eyebrow.
So-called “president” Dmitri Medvedev stated:
Every adult citizen of our country has the right to come to the polling station and freely cast their vote for the political party of their choice.
It’s hard to square that comment with Medvedev’s actual policy, which has been to exclude parties led by all the major opposition figures (Boris Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, Garry Kasparov, Lyudmila Alexeeva) from registering for a place on the ballot. Medvedev has also refused to allow opposition parties access to the airwaves, and there are no major debates between leading representatives of United Russia and the opposition forces.
There was good reason for such desperate actions, though. For the first time — in the wake of his decision to declare himself president for life, and after being outed as an “enthusiastic womanizer and violent bully who beat his wife” — Vladimir Putin was humiliated by being loudly booed at a heavyweight fight. Later, the losing fighter exposed the horrific conditions of Russia’s health care system. United Russia’s support in polls has plummeted. A Twitter account mocking Medvedev has almost as many followers as he does.
Life on the street in Putin’s Russia gets worse by the day, and no amount of regime propaganda can change that reality.
More and more young Russians are declaring their intention to abandon their country, and are doing so. The Russian stock market, supposedly a safe haven because of Russian oil reserves, is down over 20% since the beginning of the year, and entry to the WTO looks to severely undermine Russia’s domestic manufacturing industry due to the lack of protective tariffs. The country faces a horrifying demographic crisis due to an almost complete breakdown in social policy. It recently faced yet another in a long string of embarrassing failures in its space program. There was even a humiliating electoral setback in occupied Ossetia. Everywhere you look, there is bad news for Putin and United Russia.
Was it also a campaign tactic that the Kremlin began aggressively supporting the anti-West dictatorships in Syria and Iran, siding with both rogue regimes against concerted Western efforts to sanction reckless nuclear weapons development and ruthless anti-democratic crackdowns? That’s unlikely, because Russia has been pursuing that same policy for years, though surely without any significant popular pushback. It’s certain, however, that the Kremlin’s actions both at home and abroad confirm the total failure of the Obama “reset.” The Kremlin has not moderated its anti-U.S. policies, nor has it become more willing to listen to criticism of its domestic crackdown. Instead, on the Obama watch, we are only seeing those problems worsen.
On the day of the election, United Russia did not let up. Its agents actively campaigned at polling places across the country in clear violation of election laws. Internet platforms from Live Journal to Golos to Voice of Moscow radio to the Moscow Times and Novaya Gazeta newspapers came under determined DDOS attacks. Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front political party, was arrested on the street without charges before he could engage in any political activity. Golos representatives were barred from access to the polling stations. And Putin even got the Highest Authority on his side, ordering Orthodox priests to fan out across Russia and lobby in support of votes for United Russia.
Exit polls showed United Russia losing its majority, having collected 45 to 48% of the votes. And they were accurate. The party did not win a majority of the popular vote, although because of the gap between itself and the second-place party, Russia’s Byzantine electoral system will allocate it just enough seats to hold sway with a bare majority. But the party will end up with a shocking one-third fewer seats than it had in the last parliament.
The Communist Party’s presence in parliament will nearly double. The Communists won a fifth of the total votes cast. There won’t be another legislative election in Russia until 2016, since members serve five-year terms.
Both international and Russian poll observers proclaimed the election dirty and illegitimate. If United Russia did so badly despite overwhelming fraud in its favor, what would have happened if American pressure had forced Russia to allow real opposition parties onto the ballot and had guaranteed those parties access to media and an honest vote count? In that case, we might have seen a whole new chapter in Russian history being written.
Instead, what happened was that America failed to lead. Instead of confronting Putin, Obama gave him aid and comfort, helped him pretend that Dmitri Medvedev was a real president rather than a sham, and helped him sweep his anti-democratic crackdown under the carpet. When the people of Russia looked to America for a beacon light of democracy, they got the cold shoulder.
If Obama’s policy remains in place, Putin will repeat this atrocity again in a few months, this time for his own personal benefit, and Russia’s transformation to a neo-Soviet dictatorship will be complete. And let’s be clear about what that means: a proud KGB spy, who spent his whole life learning how to hate America, will be given power for life.
We will see continued Russian efforts to roil the Middle East, both to keep the price of oil on the rise and to foment terror against American targets around the world. We will see increasing trouble for the nations in post-Soviet space, like Ukraine and Georgia, and increasingly brutal repression for those who stand up for American values behind the new iron curtain.