Politics in Russia over the past few months has been dominated by surprising developments in regional elections. In Nizhny Novgorod, until recently the showcase for reform, elections went ahead without the leading candidate, who was removed at the eleventh hour. In Krasnoyarsk Krai, an election fought between two oligarchs was declared invalid. And in St. Petersburg, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev was banned from running for another term, adding extra spice to the city’s Legislative Assembly elections. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has signed an amendment to the law on referenda, banning them in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections.
Coincidence or otherwise that these scandals cropped up simultaneously, they provide an opportunity to investigate the state of electoral democracy in Russia one year ahead of the big battles of the four-year political cycle: those for the State Duma and, later, the presidency (see Elena Chinyaeva, "Russia’s electoral system," Russia Eurasia Review, October 22, 2002).
September’s events in Nizhny Novgorod and Krasnoyarsk were driven by the presidential envoy for the federal district in which they are located–with, in the case of Krasnoyarsk, some direct help from the president. This is a perfectly logical outcome of Vladimir Putin’s reform of the structure of state power. Unlike a 1917-style revolution, which involves seizing control of the post office and railways, the first priority in changing a regime by stealth is to take control of the courts, procuracy, law enforcement agencies, electoral commissions and media.
Nizhny Novgorod’s mayoral elections took place with serious procedural violations. On the eve of the first round, the favorite, businessman Andrei Klimentiev, was removed from the race. In the second round, the federal district’s chief inspectors were sent in to monitor the regional and city electoral commissions. Then again, in Nizhny none of the mayoral elections (and these were the fifth) have proceeded normally. The first elections, in 1994, were cancelled because of the nonregistration of several candidates, and the withdrawal of the incumbent’s sole opponent. The winner of the 1998 election, Klimentiev, was jailed on corruption charges on Moscow’s orders. He was replaced as mayor by the president’s former representative Yury Lebedev, who had been disciplined a few months earlier for "allowing criminal elements access to power."
In Krasnoyarsk, the gubernatorial elections were declared invalid by the electoral commission a few days after the second round. The same thing had happened in 1996 in Amur Oblast and Evenkiya, where contenders only narrowly behind in the first "incorrect" elections were then spectacularly defeated in the re-runs. The only new element was the absence of an incumbent: This was an unscheduled by-election following the death of Governor Aleksandr Lebed in a helicopter crash.
In St. Petersburg, the City Charter Court effectively banned Governor Vladimir Yakovlev from standing for a further term in 2004. This was done in line with a judgment handed down by the Constitutional Court on the "Yakutsk affair," the essence of which is that any discrepancy between federal and local laws is to be resolved by the local legislature. What’s new here is that previously local courts and parliaments had never once spoken out against their regional chief on such an issue. But this is no ordinary region–it is the second capital, and Putin’s birthplace. Passions run high between the governor’s team ("the party for a third term") and an anti-Yakovlev coalition of democrats and centrists, who are backed by the presidential envoy. Neither side was able to prevail in the Legislative Assembly election that took place in December, with a typically lackluster voter turnout of 29 percent.
In Kalmykia, President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov won re-election in October. In 1995, he had been elected unopposed for a seven-year term, despite being taken to the Constitutional Court by President Boris Yeltsin for gross violations of federal law. The next year, Kalmykia delivered Yeltsin a massive majority in the Russian presidential election; Yeltsin then decided to "pardon" Ilyumzhinov and drop the case. In the latest elections the region provided an opportunity for a flexing of muscles between rival Kremlin clans. The old Yeltsin ‘Family’ supported the incumbent "president-khan," while the new Petersburgers backed the Moscow-Kalmyk banker, Baatyr Shondzhiev. Just before the elections, there were rumors that the republic’s police chief was to be replaced by General Valery Ochirov, a long-standing opponent of Ilyumzhinov. A series of anti-Ilyumzhinov reports ran on national TV stations. Ilyumzhinov was forced into a run-off, but managed to prevail. Due to the peculiarities of local legislation, the Kalmyk president, who has already been in office for nine years, can serve the same period again–this term and one more.
The Central Electoral Commission has not yet finished its overhaul of election law, but the character of elections has already changed substantially. The gubernatorial elections have seen a lot more match-fixing, to use soccer terminology, and the role of the referee has grown dramatically. Election results are increasingly being decided not at the ballot box, but in the courts and electoral commissions. One sees not "rule of law" but "use of law." This is not a new phenomenon, but now the courts are more frequently deciding election results prior to voting rather than afterwards, and increasingly they are implementing the wishes of the center.
It is worth taking a look at events from the standpoint of the three main players: the authorities, the elites and society.
Although the authorities are not encroaching on fundamentals, including the constitution, they are simplifying the decisionmaking system: ridding themselves of "checks and balances" and eliminating the duplication of power inherent in Yeltsin’s system of "center-regions." The authorities’ credo on elections seems to be "free expression of the will of the people, on condition that the right result is guaranteed."
There is no longer any of the spontaneous social protest and activism that characterized the early 1990s. Neither is there yet any mature civil society. Elections have been discredited in the eyes of society for a range of reasons: the willingness to put their faith in a strong leader, the prevalence of smear campaigns, the perception that the results are predetermined and the realization of just how weak the electoral bodies are. Society is not completely indifferent–in Nizhny Novgorod around a third of the electorate voted "against all" the candidates: a uniquely Russian (Soviet) election option.
Yet, things never go further than this sort of spontaneous protest and outburst of emotion. Why? Partly because of the political elites.
The political elites look after their own narrow concept of corporate interests. Their actions flow not from any fixed common principles, but from their division of people into "ours and theirs." For example, even the "Duma democrats," who made their principled objections to the Kremlin’s pact with the Duma communists in January 2000, cheerfully entered into exactly the same sort of pact against the communists two years later. Similarly, having used a referendum on land ownership for their own devices on the eve of the last Duma elections, they then put a stop to "insidious" plans by the Communist Party to organize a referendum on the eve of the forthcoming elections.
Neither the authorities nor the elites have any interest in direct democracy that they cannot regulate themselves, or in rules not open to interpretation and therefore political bargaining. And if either the authorities or the elites advocate some restraint, then it will be in respect of their political opponents, not themselves. There are laws–often obscure and contradictory–and there are "rules of the game," more or less observed by the authorities and the elites, but bearing only the faintest relation to the law. This is well illustrated by the reaction of elites to the local electoral commission’s declaration that the Krasnoyarsk elections were invalid: They quickly concluded that the commission had been bought off, because the violations recorded were "no worse than usual." The law is always there in the background. The authorities turn a blind eye to violations as long as it suits them, but may suddenly invoke the rules in some specific case and use them to selectively punish an undesirable candidate.
Some warn of insidious Kremlin plans to abolish the entire electoral process, though that would run counter to the Kremlin’s interests. Far better for it to maintain its image as the "defender of democracy." More elegant is the variant that the United Russia party put forward a while ago: set a high ceiling for the election turnout, and, if voting falls short, appoint the governor or mayor by presidential decree instead. This is more or less what happened with Aleksandr Khloponin in Krasnoyarsk.
So the real threat to the electoral process–which is the main achievement of Russia’s young and faltering democracy–is not the prospect of an outright ban, but the fact that the process is rapidly being emasculated.
The view has also been expressed that recent regional elections are proof, not of the Kremlin’s strength, but of its weakness. Never before, it is said, have internal Kremlin conflicts spilt over into open opposition at the elections, as happened in Kalmykiya. However, the conflict between the old and the new Muscovites is not weakening the center in relation to the regions, but the reverse. And if a governor should manage to remain in office, it is only after making a great deal of concessions, from property assets to control over key posts in the region and to the Federation Council.
There is no easy technical fix to this situation. Improving the law would not be much help, because written law is already more comprehensive than its enforcement. Improvements to electoral legislation are pointless given the absence of any division of authority either in its classical horizontal form, or in the quasi-division along vertical lines, characteristic of pre-Putin Russia. The law enforcement agencies and courts are already almost universally controlled by the center, while the electoral commission "vertical" has begun to take effect this year. And the presidential envoys are playing an ever-more-energetic part in the election process.
Global experience shows that clean elections with neutral, public oversight are a vital component of the transition to democracy. But in Russia there was no public control in the first "revolutionary" elections of 1989-1990, and there is none now. In 1995 the Duma was on the brink of introducing a law on the issue, but the governors in the Federation Council didn’t want to cede any control and the president rejected the bill. Instead of public control, the country’s main political forces use the instruments of control to blackmail each other. In the 1996 presidential election, for example, the Communists were caught committing violations in some regions, and in turn pointed to the violations of the Yeltsin camp in others.
Russian society needs to listen to the alarm bells from the provinces, or it may soon find itself in quite another country. And for a change it will be society’s own fault, rather than that of the latest "wicked Tsar."
Nikolai Petrov is head of the Center for Political Geographic Research and leading research associate with the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
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