Elections in Russia are not about selling a vision or swaying the electorate, they concern showing who is the boss – and demonstrating that the boss means business. In this crucial respect, the ongoing election campaign is a complete mess, and not because it is still unclear whether President Dmitry Medvedev will cling to his slim chance to stay for the second term, but because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seen by the whole country as the “real boss,” cannot assert control over the self-serving bureaucracy. Putin has been busy filling and dressing the ranks of the Popular Front, which is supposed to secure an electoral triumph of the discredited United Russia party, and is not responding to the embarrassing scandals that leak out of numerous cracks in the executive pyramid with increasing intensity (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 7).
Perhaps the highest resonance scandal spins around the defense ministry, which is loudly accused by industrial lobbyists of sabotaging the implementation of the armaments procurement program, first of all in the top priority area of strategic missiles (Kommersant, July 6; Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 8). Allegations of gross incompetence appear more convincing due to the resignation of several top brass, and Medvedev provides Serdyukov no defense perhaps assuming that a scapegoat would be needed closer to the elections (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 6). That might cool some tempers but will not resolve the core problem created by the plain fact that the stretched state budget in years of slow growth could not possibly sustain the over-ambitious rearmament program.
Several juicy scandals unfold simultaneously between the interior ministry and the state prosecution as the investigation of the protection racket involving illegal casinos in the Moscow region produces more compromising evidence (Vedomosti, July 7). Medvedev has launched a campaign to clean up the ranks of law enforcement but it has deteriorated into back-stabbing between various services and agencies and all attempts to put a lead on revealing these feuds to the public have only made the quarrels noisier (www.gazeta.ru, July 6). On the local level, the merger between police and organized crime has left many municipalities defenseless, and only in rare cases – such as the village of Sagra near Yekaterinburg – dare the inhabitants to take a stand against the violent gangs, much as in old Western movies (www.lenta.ru, Ekho Moskvy, July 7).
Medvedev is sensitive to the impression that he has lost control over the marauding siloviki and is trying to compensate by making small steps that should prove his commitment to the rule of law. The Supreme Court has ruled for a revision of the case against Aleksei Kozlov, an entrepreneur thrown behind bars three years ago, and the Russian blogosphere rejoiced for his wife Olga Romanova, a journalist who has bravely waged a one-woman war against the corrupt prosecution (Novaya Gazeta, www.gazeta.ru, July 7). Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, leaders of the democratic opposition, were surprised by the ban to travel outside the country – and even more surprised to find it miraculously lifted in just one day (Moskovskiy Novosti, July 7). Medvedev patiently listened to human rights activists who presented a detailed account of violations of legal norms in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison in November 2009 (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 8). He apparently cannot break this cabal of abusing police power but without a convincing execution of justice in the high-profile case, as well as in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, all the symbolic steps only prove Medvedev’s helplessness (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 8).
Putin cares little about pretences of liberalization but he is concerned about the diminishing effectiveness of his control, which slackens every time Medvedev disparages the “manual management.” Small steps in tightening the leash are thus also necessary, and one of these was the rejection in registration issued by the justice ministry to the PARNAS proto-party that seeks to unite various pro-democracy groups (www.gazeta.ru, July 1). The European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing concern about that curtailing of political competition, and the Russian foreign ministry with typically Soviet indignation condemned it as interference in its internal affairs (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, www.grani.ru, July 8). Putin also made sure that Yuri Chaika is reappointed as the Prosecutor-General despite all the scandals in his department; and he reassured the defense ministry of the further increases in funding whatever the budget deficits (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 8).
Putin’s steps follow the logic of his system of power that requires progressively tougher control as popular support is dissipating. PARNAS may be a marginal contribution to this trend; indeed 70 percent of Russians have not heard about this unrecognized opposition. It is Putin’s own shrinking popularity that is a far more serious problem, and only 27 percent of the potential electorate want to see his name on the ballot. Medvedev can count on only 15 percent, and another 19 percent want to have a choice between the two, while 23 percent express the seditious wish that neither man would be a candidate for the next presidency (www.levada.ru, July 8, 1). Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus enjoys significantly deeper support but he has to unleash brutal repressions against the discontents, which are widely covered by the Russian media (RIA Novosti, July 8). A major difference is that the law enforcement structures in Belarus are less corrupt and more loyal to the boss than the Russian criminalized police, racketeering prosecution and rent-harvesting Federal Security Service (FSB).
Putin’s half-hearted efforts at tightening control are in fact as helpless as Medvedev’s attempts to assert his authority. Russia’s “national leader” can no more discipline the “power structures” than he can control Ramzan Kadyrov, whom he appointed to rule Chechnya – and who has turned it into a personal fiefdom prospering from the ransom paid by Moscow. It is the predatory behavior of the uncontrollable siloviki that increasingly compels successful Russians to consider emigration and drives the capital flight. This outflow of people and money may erode the support base for democratic opposition but it hardly prolongs the regime’s durability. Putin cannot allow the elections to expose the weakness of his grasp on power, or mobilize the self-serving repression apparatus – he can only rely on the lack of alternatives, which is never a lasting advantage.