The March 2 election of Dmitry Medvedev to replace Russian President Vladimir Putin was as crooked as any election in Soviet times. The dull campaign and the inevitable result generated mass annoyance in the Russian public. This in turn led to an extremely low actual turnout of voters that was supplemented by mass vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing by local officials anxious to report the best possible turnout and the best possible result in favor of Medvedev. There are hundreds of eyewitness reports of ballot boxes stuffed ahead of the vote with ballot papers marked in favor of Medvedev, individuals allowed to vote five or more times, mass voter intimidation, and bribery (Moscow Times, Vedomosti, March 3). In addition, the Kremlin-controlled media shamelessly promoted Medvedev in an unscrupulous propaganda campaign. Observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated, “An election where there is not a level playing field for all contestants can hardly be considered as fair” (RIA-Novosti, March 3).
The overall results – a turnout of just under 70% and a vote for Medvedev of just over 70% – are entirely misleading. The official results of the poll in the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, for example, gave a turnout of 92% with some 92% in favor of Medvedev. Independent observers in Ingushetia report that the true turnout was 3.5%. (NEWSru.com, March 3). Exit polls are as misleading as the election results. In Moscow up to 40% of voters refused to answer exit-poll questions, while others loudly announced they had voted for Medvedev, while off the record confessing they did not (Vedomosti, March 3).
Most Russians are intimidated and felt helpless. Attempts at public protest are brutally crushed. On Monday, March 3, riot police (OMON) broke up an opposition march in the center of Moscow. Secret police (FSB) agents pointed out activists so the OMON could grab them before they could begin to demonstrate. My son Oleg, 25, an activist with the United Civil Front opposition alliance headed by former chess champion Garry Kasparov, was arrested, along with scores of others.
In a recent comment posted on Johnson’s Russia List, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock states, “If most Russians are more comfortable with a more authoritarian government at home than Americans would be, that is their business.” Matlock adds that it is time to tone down the rhetoric, “to stop sniping at each other and concentrate on our mutual interests” (www.cdi.org/russia/johnson, March 3). In fact, the majority of Russians are not at all “comfortable” to live in an authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt police state.
Russia today is ruled by a tiny group of extremely rich bureaucrats who came to power with Putin and have lined their pockets with billions of dollars. A relatively small middle class consists of lower-level officials who have accumulated considerable sums from bribes under Putin. These two classes definitely want “stability,” i.e., a continuation of the present regime that would guarantee their loot. During an election night talk-show on pro-Kremlin TV Channel One (March 2) Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin-connected president of the Effective Policy Foundation, announced, “Putin is 30% of our national market capitalization,” which, if true, would make him the richest man in the world. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation is intimidated and impoverished.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to address a visiting group of Dutch parliamentarians during an informal dinner in Barvikha on Rublyevskoe Shosse, a suburb community of Moscow’s super-rich. The dinner was at a local restaurant often frequented by Putin, who lives nearby. The keynote speaker was the richest Dutchman in Russia, Derk Sauer, who came to Moscow in the late 1980s, started the Moscow Times, and founded the Independent Media publishing group that is now part of Finnish Sanoma Magazines. Sauer made hundreds of millions of dollars and is now a member of Moscow’s billionaire community.
Before the dinner, the Dutch parliamentarians requested a visit to the most expensive mall in the world, Barvikha Luxury Village, which sells the best cars, furniture, jewelry, and clothing money can buy. The mall is open 24 hours a day, but there did not seem to be any buyers there that evening. Guards stopped our humble van, not wanting to let us in without consulting management . Sauer later explained that the lack of buyers was OK, since most customers would ring up huge bills. There was not a single item in the mall that cost less than $15,000 he said, and anyone going shopping would spends over $100,000 in one sweep (in most cases many times more). Thus business could be “brisk” with only a handful of shoppers a day.
Sauer scorned Western politicians that speak of Russia as a “young” democracy. According to him, Russia is not a democracy at all and should not be treated as such, but it is still a wonderful place to make money. Sauer agreed with me that our military generals have little real influence in the Kremlin and that Russia’s rulers do not want a new Cold War or arms race. “All of them are business people as well as top officials, they are primarily interested in making money and are open to do deals with the West,” said Sauer.
With Medvedev in charge of Russian foreign policy, the Kremlin will once again offer to tone down the anti-Western rhetoric and get back to business in exchange for turning a blind eye to how Russia’s rulers run the nation’s affairs and those of its close neighbors. But there is another important point the West should not overlook: Russian businessmen-bureaucrats are crooks, and the deals they offer are usually crooked, as well.