Putin Wins, Russia Loses

Until this weekend's parliamentary "elections" in Russia, one of the strangest facts in all the nation's long history was that when Russian President Boris Yeltsin advised his countrymen to elect his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, the Russian people overwhelmingly followed his advice - even though Yeltsin himself had single-digit approval in public opinion polls when he left office on New Year's Eve in 1999,

Putin, a proud KGB spy, was elected just a few years after the system created by the KGB for governing Russia had collapsed like a house of marked cards.

Things got even stranger last weekend. On Friday, the only man who could claim an even lower level of popularity in Russia than Yeltsin during the past decade - the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - endorsed Putin in the International Herald Tribune, writing that "I see nothing wrong in Putin's desire to influence the course of events in Russia after his second presidential term ends. I think he has shown wisdom and courage. Russia will need his experience in addressing the challenges of modernization and continued democratization."

This came on the heels of the former Communist Gorbachev doing print ads for Louis Vuitton (complete with secret messages about the Litvinenko murder) and an endorsement of Putin several months ago by former arch anti-Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The irony was intense. Even as these former lights of the Soviet darkness praised Putin, his number-one fan in the West, U.S. Presdident George Bush, was trashing him. Commenting on Putin's behavior in the run-up to the elections, Bush said: "I am deeply concerned about the detention of numerous human rights activists and political leaders who participated in peaceful rallies in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, and Nazran. I am particularly troubled by the use of force by law enforcement authorities to stop these peaceful activities and to prevent some journalists and human rights activists from covering them. The freedoms of expression, assembly and press, as well as due process, are fundamental to any democratic society. I am hopeful that the government of Russia will honor its international obligations in these areas, investigate allegations of abuses and free those who remain in detention." Bush stopped short of saying he might have been wrong with he famously "looked into Putin's eyes," saw his soul and found him "trustworthy," but not far short.

In any type of rational electoral system, Gorbachev's endorsement should have been the kiss of death for Putin. Once again, though, Russia seemed to prove itself capable of setting aside rationality in favor of an abstract hope for prestige and stability.

And so the apparent irrationality continued. Though Russian law forbids the president, supposedly a non-partisan figure, from taking actions to influence the outcome of parliamentary voting, and though his party, United Russia, was already leading its nearest rival by a factor of six in public opinion polls, Putin still appeared on national television two days in advance of the elections and demanded that the country support him on pain of "disintegration" and "humiliation"

Just after his speech was broadcast Russia's leading opposition figure, Garry Kasparov, was released from prison after serving a five day stretch for marching with his party without Putin's permission. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he warned: "For years the governments of the U.S. and Europe have tried to accept Vladimir Putin's Russia as an equal. Western diplomats now acknowledge that there are differences between Russia and the West, but say these differences are minor, and -- in the words of one European Union official -- within an 'acceptable range.'All of the 'minor differences' between Mr. Putin's Russia and the nations of the free world add up to one very large difference: that between democracy and tyranny." He saw irony too, writing: "Why is Mr. Putin so scared if things are going so well?"

Though Putin had promised a "transparent" election "without systemic flaws" such that no foreign observers would be needed at its polling places, even as he spoke there were already complaints of aggressive efforts to coerce Russian state employees, a vast cadre in Russia, to vote for United Russia or lose their jobs. Serious pressure was also brought to bear on groups that depend heavily on government largesse, like students (virtually all of Russia's significant universities are state-owned). The BBC quoted one civil servant as follows: "On voting day, all of them have to call me by midday to say that they have voted for United Russia. I was told it was serious. It was like a warning." It then quoted Vladislav Korolyov, a liberal opposition party leader, complaining that his phone had been bugged, he had been followed and had 2 million of his campaign leaflets confiscated.

A major push was uncovered to issue absentee ballots, easily manipulated, to a legion of state employees, with the number distributed already three times higher than in the last parliamentary ballot. Many polling places were being outfitted with miniature department stores stocked with discounted merchandise, and even makeshift medical clinics, to draw in voters. Although Putin pledged to rid Russia of its much-complained-of "oligarchy" when he first came to power, allegedly a product of Yeltsin's malfeasance, Newsweek quoted Kremlin-connected analyst Stanislav Belkovsky as saying recent: "Russia is much more of an oligarchy now than under Yeltsin."

Putin had still more surprises in store. On Friday, the Moscow Times reported that a poll showed 69% of those who watched televised parliamentary debates thought United Russia did a good job in them. The only problem: the party had refused to participate, on Putin's orders, so the voters had been neatly duped. The paper stated: "United Russia received from 57 percent to 62 percent of all prime-time political news coverage from Oct. 1 to Nov. 22, according to the CJES study. United Russia receiv[ed] twice as many mentions as the Communist Party, its closest competitor. Only 1.5 percent of the television audience watched the debates, which were broadcast at 7 a.m. and after midnight." There were other marked Soviet overtones. Just as in Soviet times, a barrage of gifts were offered to voters who showed up at the polling place.

Then finally, after an election cycle whose history will read more like pulp fiction than political science, the people of Russia went to the polls and had their say.

Perhaps a 42-year-old woman named Valentina, voting in Moscow and quoted by Reuters, best summed up the proceedings "I voted for Putin. I worship him. I like that he is a young president -- and in any case there is no alternative." The elections had been called a "sham" and an "insult to democracy" and "ludicrous" and "farce." These words set up a marked contrast between Russia's internal domestic political enviornment and its membership on the G-8 group, supposedly a "a forum for the world's major industrialised democracies." For this reason, Senator John McCain and others have called for Russia's ejection from the group.

While the results won't be official certified until the end of the week, they've been a foregone conclusion for months now, ever since Putin announced he would assume leadership of United Russia and might seek the prime ministry after the elections. The only open question was just how ruthless Putin was prepared to be in denying any other party as much as a token presence in the Duma. It was thought that the best Putin's opponenents could hope for was a less than a 60% landslide for his party (especially if combined with turnout of less than 50%). The bare minimum for Putin to claim his "mandate" was "60-60" -- 60% turnout and 60% of that vote going to Putin.

Preliminary results showed Putin had achieved or slightly exceed this minimum goal. His party of choice, United Russia, was seen taking roughy 63% of the seats with exactly 60% voter turnout, while "Just Russia" -- a second party slavishly loyal to Putin -- was securing about 8% and fourth place out of four parties who will likely qualify for seats.. This gave parties expressly devoted to Putin around 70% of the vote, basically the same share of the ballots carried by Putin himself in his reelection four years ago, with the Communist Party taking about 12% in a distant second place. Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's "Liberal Democrats" appeared to be in third place, right behind the Communists with about 10%. Zhirinovsky, too, is reliably in Putin's camp. Since only parties taking 7% or more of the vote will actually receieve seats, the percentages of parties clearing the barrier will end up getting exanded somewhat in the final allcoation of seats, and it seems that the parties loyal to Putin will end up with about 400 of the 450 available Duma seats - close to 90% of the body, with at least three-quarters officially pledged to Putin and perhaps a constitutional majority of two-thirds going to United Russia itself. The only "opposition" to Putin, the proud KGB spy, will be card-carrying communists, with all the pro-West, pro-democracy parties now totally purged from the Duma. United Russia will name its presidential candidate in two weeks, on December 17.

An editorial in the Moscow Times spoke of "paranoia from a Kremlin intent on controlling every aspect of politics" and declared the obvious: "No Western election observer is needed to determine that this vote did not meet the common standards of being free and transparent." But the issue of fraud seems largely moot. If the results were not fraudulent, it means the population of Russia is willingly embracing what can only be called a neo-Soviet dictatorship (or perhaps paleo-Soviet would be a better term, since this version is not as rich in ideology and purported idealism as its predecessor). If they were significantly fraudulent, it means we already see before us a fully realized totalitarian state. Either way, it's a dark new age for Russia.

Many Russians express disappointment with democracy as Russia has become a mere shadow of the mighty USSR, they clearly miss two points, and their recent vote expresses profound contempt for the institution. But this disappointment is without grounding in fact, for two reasons. First, much of the voters' current misery (less than $3 an hour for an average wage, less than 60 years for an average male lifetime) is obviously attributable to the failures of the USSR itself. Second, they've never really experienced democracy. In every "election" since the fall of the USSR the only major opposition party has been the Communists, and the party of power has consisted mostly of those who came of age in the USSR. Not once have there been presidential debates, much less has a party in power surrendered it to a rival.

Russians have, in short, seated themselves in the democratic bathtub but they've never turned on the faucet. So it's ironic that, now, they blame democracy for the fact that they're not yet clean.

Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin's Russia.