In September, the Russian electoral system was dealt a major blow: The results of two elections, for the posts of Krasnoyarsk governor and Nizhny Novgorod mayor, were placed in doubt because they appeared to have been rigged.
The system appears to be in crisis: The application of the so-called black electoral technologies is said to be matched in scope only by the so-called administrative resources, leaving a small window of opportunity for the vox populi to determine the best man to win.
A closer look at recent electorial results, however, suggests that elections, despite attempts to manipulate them, are impossible to control fully. While sometimes speculations about potential winners in gubernatorial and municipal races prove accurate, just as often they do not. Still, to the extent that elections are manipulated, a few tendencies are identifiable: a frequent use of the courts to neutralize a candidate or even question the results, a Kremlin preference for candidates with a history of managing business enterprises, and an almost open involvement of large businesses in election campaigns.
The first time that the court intervened conspicuously was October 2000, when Kursk Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi was banned from running a re-election campaign on the basis of violating various electoral regulations. Thanks to a long string of scandals associated with him, in fact, Rutskoi was known to have been already highly unpopular in the Kremlin. A general and former vice president who staged a putsch against Boris Yeltsin in October 1993, in Kursk Rutskoi put relatives in profitable places, launched questionable projects and was in a constant row with the regional prosecutor’s office. Yet, even in his absence the winner was not Security Services General Viktor Surzhikov, as some speculated, with the KGB background of President Vladimir Putin himself in mind, but the Communist-supported candidate Aleksandr Mikhailov, who immediately embarrassed himself by making anti-Semitic remarks and a criminal assault on one of the former administration’s officials.
Since then, the courts have often been resorted to for neutralization of one candidate or another, yet the trick hasn’t always worked. Thus, during the gubernatorial elections in Marii-El, incumbent President Vyacheslav Kislitsyn successfully withstood the assault undertaken against him in the courts, but lost nonetheless in the second round to Leonid Markelov, vice president of a large insurance company, Rosgosstrakh.
Mikhail Nikolaev, president of Yakutia-Sakha, a diamond-rich republic in eastern Siberia, which for the first half of the 1990s paid virtually no taxes to the federal coffers, did not wait for the court to remove him from the race. The Main Accounting Office of the Russian Federation gave him a negative review after the floods that struck the republic in the spring of 2001, particularly in regard to the distribution of state funds to help the suffering region. Given that the Kremlin disapproved of him, and to avoid a possible criminal investigation, Novikov pulled out of the race himself. Vyacheslav Shtyrov, head of the diamond mining monopoly ALROSA, won the election.
Interestingly enough, on January 9, 2002, the Main Accounting Office and the Central Election Commission signed an agreement to cooperate, which included exchanging information. Clearly, Accounting Office audit results could provide plenty of material that could be used against governors.
In Russia’s political calendar, the elections in both Krasnoyarsk and Nizhny Novgorod have traditionally been especially important. Krasnoyarsk is a large, resource-rich province in Western Siberia, and is usually an indicator of the electoral mood for all of Russia. Nizhny Novgorod, the capital of the same-named province on the Volga and an important center for scientific research and manufacturing industry, has been nicknamed the “third capital” of Russia (after Moscow and St. Petersburg). No wonder that the elections of the Krasnoyarsk governor and the Nizhny Novgorod mayor gave rise to a furious battle that the mass media followed closely.
The circumstances surrounding both elections evoked additional attention. In Krasnoyarsk the election was held early, incumbent Governor Aleksandr Lebed having died unexpectedly in a helicopter crash in April 2002. Lebed, a general and a political maverick, came third in the first round of the 1996 presidential elections and helped to tip the fragile balance in favor of Boris Yeltsin in the second round. While governor, he and the local oligarchs feuded constantly, leaving the politics and economics of the region in disarray.
The main battle for the Krasnoyarsk post was fought between Aleksandr Uss, chairman of the regional legislature, and Aleksandr Khloponin, governor of Taimyr Province (Krasnoyarsk region) and former head of Norilsk Nickel, a large nickel and platinum producer in Taimyr. Although Uss was backed by another large enterprise (Russian Aluminum, which has factories in Krasnoyarsk city), he lost in the second round to Aleksandr Khloponin. The regional electoral commission first published the results, then declared them invalid, then (following a court order) revoked the decision, proclaiming the results invalid. The head of the commission insisted that it was impossible to determine whether the voting rights of 200,000 voters had been violated, but was unable to prove the point in court. Putin intervened personally and appointed Aleksandr Khloponin acting governor until the issue was resolved.
One of the Nizhny Novgorod mayoral candidates was the notorious Andrei Klimentiev, an entrepreneur with two criminal convictions, who ran for the post a second time and was, for the second time, banned–for campaign violations–from participating.
The primary fight was between incumbent Mayor Yury Lebedev and State Duma deputy Vadim Bulavinov, who was supported by former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, Putin’s representative to the Povolzhie federal region. As the votes were being counted, Lebedev appeared to lead the race, at which point the ballots were confiscated by a court decision taken late at night. When the counting process resumed after Bulavinov himself had appealed the court decision, the leader changed and Bulavinov won the race by 1.5 percent. What happened to the ballots during “confiscation” is anybody’s guess. No wonder, the amount of votes “against all candidates” was particularly high–about 30 percent. The speculation has it that Bulavinov was a more convenient candidate for Sergei Kirienko, who on the eve of the elections proposed that a nominal mayor with representative functions be elected and a city manager be appointed to run the city.
Following these two scandals, criticism ran rampant that the electoral system is in deep crisis. CEC head Aleksandr Veshnyakov vigorously denies this (For instance, a new law prohibits the courts to revoke any candidacies from the race five days before it is due). Draft legislation is being discussed to put Kirienko’s idea into law, so that municipal resources would not be a temptation for mayoral candidates.
Yet another governatorial election just held in Kalmykia on October 20 was marred by the same problems. Its incumbent president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, known locally as Khan, has governed the republic for almost ten years unchallenged–ten years during which Kalmykia has become known as one of Russia’s most corrupt and poverty-stricken provinces. Many would like to see Ilyumzhinov gone, but his ‘administrative resources’ made this difficult to achieve through the ballot. The courts were engaged again to ban Ilyumzhinov and his main rival, an entrepreneur Baatr Shondzhiev, from participating in the race. The supreme court, however, allowed all eleven candidates to participate. But despite his resources and this break, Ilyumshinov did not win outright (by gaining more than 50 percent of the votes) in the first round. There is now a real chance that he will lose in the second.
At the beginning of his term, Putin proclaimed that his goal was a “dictatorship of law.” Yet, as practice has shown, applying the law and court procedure creatively can be as effective as direct vote rigging. The second is rare in Russia, but the first does just as much harm to the democratic process. That the dilemma during the elections is often tough–a corrupt incumbent, (a criminal) or his neutralization by any means–is a weak consolation.
Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.