Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 19

By Ilya Malyakin

Any election campaign gives rise to a myriad of myths. The dominant myth at the 1993 State Duma elections concerned a radical change of regime and the need to defeat fascism (or, to be precise, the so-called “red-brown brigade”). This persisted in a slightly evolved form–as the myth of the struggle between “democrats and communists”–until the 1995 elections, and then until the presidential election of 1996. The current campaign does not have such a central, system-forming myth. Lacking cohesion, its value system has broken down into an array of themes which do not correspond to each other very well. However, some important themes can be identified here, the most characteristic of which is perhaps one which has not been developed fully enough in previous campaigns: dirty tricks.

Before they even began, the 1999 State Duma elections were branded the “dirtiest election campaign in the history of Russia’s fledgling democracy.” The process by which this idea was rooted in people’s minds was a gradual one. The elections to the St. Petersburg city Duma can undoubtedly be taken as the starting point. Leaving aside the fact that there was indeed widespread use of techniques quickly dubbed “dirty electioneering tricks,” there were several characteristics which invite attention. First, this was the first time that the St. Petersburg elections (certainly not the first election campaign in the city) found themselves the focus of such critical scrutiny in the Russian national press. Second, before they even began, they came to be known symbolically as the “dress rehearsal for the next elections to the Russian State Duma.” Third, the way in which information about these elections was presented was notable: Election reports were essentially a detailed review of the main news from the realm of “dirty tricks,” including an exposition of the methods used and emphasizing the impunity of the perpetrators.

This was all accompanied by a harsh and emotional rather than a logical condemnation, which by the end of the election campaign could be encapsulated in a few points: Despite the outrageous nature of the election campaign, a Duma was nevertheless elected; the Duma includes a large number of deputies whose powers look very dubious from a moral perspective, because they were obtained dishonestly, but this does not hamper their work; existing electoral legislation in the Russian Federation is deficient, and even if it is reworked it will not be able to provide for all possible “dirty” tricks, but no one is making any real attempt to undertake even a cosmetic review of it. All this led to the clear conclusion that dirty tricks would play an equally major part in the forthcoming federal elections. But there was a second and equally important conclusion, which received less coverage but without which the first would look rather questionable: Dirty tricks are extremely effective, and are possibly the most effective tool of all those at the disposal of Russian election campaign strategists. Having assimilated all of this, the voters simply had to wait for the scenario they were given in the federal media to be translated into real events.

Now that the campaign is actually underway, first impressions may be that events are unfolding along the very lines of the St. Petersburg scenario. At least, this is what the actions of the central Russian media (particularly the television channels) seem to suggest, in many ways confirming the fears that they themselves expressed so emotionally. But even a relatively superficial glance at what is happening suggests that everything being said applies above all to how the campaign is proceeding at a federal level. It is difficult to get any coherent picture of what is happening outside Moscow from the central media, which tend to imply by default that the situation in the capital is simply projected onto the regions and reproduced there reasonably faithfully. In this sense, the only new theme is the division of governors into electoral blocs, which the public is aware of, thanks to the very same media outlets. However, even here the confrontation between blocs on a federal level (or, to be more precise, the confrontation between their leaders) impedes a correct assessment of this phenomenon, which is not only of fundamental importance for an understanding of the processes at work in these elections, but is becoming the key issue. The essence of this issue was summed up neatly by the anchorman of one current affairs television program recently: “The country is divided up between gubernatorial blocs.”

Typically, Russian society reacts very calmly to direct interference by the executive in the elections for the legislature, interference which is not limited to private support for this or that candidate or political group, but takes the form of direct participation in the elections, up to and including the blatantly fictitious appearance of governors at the top of party lists. However, this article is not concerned with the legal aspect of this interaction between the two branches of power. I consider the political aspect of what is happening to be far more important. For the first time, the governors and presidents of national autonomies have emerged as an independent political force, standing above parties and the principles of the distribution of power and authority between Moscow and the subjects of the Russian Federation, a force which intends to defend its collective and–to an even greater extent–its individual interests at a federal level. This event has a number of practical consequences that are of fundamental significance to the outcome of the elections.

It would be appropriate here to return to the phrase about “the division of the country.” Its author probably intended this as a rhetorical turn of phrase, but he was right in a literal sense as well: The division of the Russian Federation between gubernatorial political blocs has taken a literal form at these elections. The important thing here is that, unlike at the federal center, the authority of the governor or president in each subject of the federation is far from nominal. The scope of this authority is enormous even in that aspect of it enshrined in law, and when one considers the powers obtained by “informal” means, it can surely be said that state power in the Russian provinces lies entirely with the regional leaders. More often than not this power is rather authoritarian, based on principles of direct action and direct subordination, and rests on a so-called “rigid executive hierarchy.” This, essentially, is the practical incarnation of what the Russian president planned to do in late 1993 but was unable to implement fully.

The “regional centralism” established by the governors is so rigid that it hardly leaves any room for the federal organs to function: Technically subordinate to Moscow, they are in effect completely controlled by the local governors/presidents. In subjects of the Russian Federation which have a strong leader (the number of which has been steadily rising and which topped 50 percent in the run-up to these elections), political life becomes semiparalyzed: The domination of the governor/president gives him such opportunities of both a political and nonpolitical nature that no party is able to produce anything to match it. Legislative guarantees are capable of altering little here–as noted above, the authority of regional leaders goes beyond the powers legally entrusted to them. If the governor/president decides to support a particular political bloc, then this bloc immediately finds itself rival-free. But at the same time it does not become a key player in the political process: All its capabilities and resources are essentially borrowed, delegated to them by the executive and not controlled by the bloc itself. Essentially, the regional authorities use such blocs as a cover to help them formalize those informal powers mentioned above, taking the concept of the “party of power” from the world of imagery into political reality. Furthermore, the choice of organization on which to confer “special status” is determined by considerations totally unrelated to the situation in the region; what is important here are the ambitions of the regional leader as a federal politician, his Moscow contacts and preferences. The state–and even the very existence–of the local organizations of the prospective “party of power” in his region is of no importance. If necessary they can be set up quickly, and it is not even essential that they play an active part in the election campaign–whatever happens, most of the campaign work will not be done by them and will not be done on their behalf.

These circumstances could not fail to have an influence on the electoral process: A new model for running election campaigns, which had previously only been tried in individual regions such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan or Kalmykia, is being implemented in a whole range of federation subjects whose regimes political scientists have termed “neo-patrimonial.” This model is based on the conscious and entirely rationally motivated use by the regional executive of the whole range of its capabilities to secure victory for the chosen political faction and its individual representatives in the okrugs. This model for running election campaigns (which I shall call neo-patrimonial) leaves little room for “dirty tricks,” rendering them almost pointless. In fact, it also renders electioneering pointless, in its generally accepted meaning. The resources of the “election teams” mobilized by the authoritarian regional leadership, the organizational capabilities they have at their disposal, the system of explicit and implicit benefits granted them–all of this together makes it nigh-on impossible to compete in the single-mandate constituencies against the candidates supported by the party of power.

There are several phases in an election campaign run according to the neo-patrimonial model. The main contest unfolds during the first phase, which takes place long before the registration of candidates takes place. This is the selection phase, when the regional leader’s team chooses the candidates to represent its interests. Usually, the choice is between several candidates, and the best chance of securing support lies with the one who has the best chance of being elected independently. However, this is not always an essential condition for selection: The individual qualities of the candidate and his own team are not determining factors here; they may merely ease or complicate the progress of the campaign. As already mentioned, the capabilities and resources of the “party of power” are enormous, so it is unlikely that any candidate or lobbying group would be capable of making a significant qualitative contribution to them. In this phase, the candidates vying for support enter into negotiations with the representatives of the regional leadership, mobilizing the existing lobbyists they already have in place and recruiting new ones, gathering compromising material on their rivals… In other words, this process is somewhat reminiscent of the actual election campaign, but it goes on behind the scenes, out of the public’s eyeshot. The final decision on whom to support is taken directly by the regional leader, though it may be subject to review, so this phase ends only when the registration of candidates is over. It is too difficult to switch candidates after this (technically it is impossible after the candidates have been agreed at the national congress of the “party of power,” but in practice the regional leader only complies with the federal leadership as far as he himself sees fit). However, if the candidate does something which has not been sanctioned, it is possible that support may be withdrawn right up to the last moment.

The second phase–the organizational phase–partially overlaps with the first. An election team is formed, whose task is to ensure victory for the chosen candidates. It is put together under the direct supervision of the executive bodies, who may carry out their electoral work in two ways.

First, they may set up a specialized, multilevel system of election units–structures which are not legislated and which partially replace election commissions. It is officially declared that the main function of these units is to establish normal conditions for holding the elections. In practice, however, they also coordinate the campaign as a whole, and are particularly responsible for the success of the campaign of the “party of power” candidates. Second, the executive organs may become directly involved in the battle, whereby the entire executive hierarchy focuses on participation in the elections: Staff members organize publicity events, assist in setting up resource databases for the candidates, take steps to make conditions unfavorable for their rivals and so on. As a rule, the executive appoints people, unofficially, to supervise each aspect of the work. Just as unofficially, they are granted accompanying powers which are naturally illegal but which are backed up by the regional authorities and their informal punitive capabilities. Staff members apply for official leave–by law they can only undertake political activities in their spare time–and are seconded directly to the official election offices of the candidates. Both methods may be implemented at the same time, and then the election units coordinate the electoral activity of the executive bodies.

For the day-to-day running of the campaign, which entails openness and publicity, the existing or specially formed structures of the party of power in the region are mobilized, but, as mentioned above, they play the decidedly secondary role of functionaries and play almost no part in strategy development and decisionmaking. It is during this phase that the governor/president’s team and its peripheral structures begin canvassing on behalf of “their” candidates. However, this is achieved predominantly by methods which are not governed by legislation–directly through employers, influential groups, “bigwigs” and so on.

In the third phase, as the actual election campaign begins, the electioneering continues and intensifies, in some respects adopting forms which are provided for in electoral legislation. But simultaneously another important aspect of the work begins, related to the isolation and suppression of opponents’ activities, the disruption of their resource and organizational base, and other activities designed to limit their ability to run a productive campaign.

The Russian Federation has now entered this third phase, and it is for it that the mass consciousness has been prepared by the creation of the myth of “dirty tricks.” As far as one can tell, the myth has been fully assimilated and is being intensively exploited by the election teams of the regional elites. One would be hard pushed to find a governor or president of a federation subject who has not declared his intention to prevent the use of the aforementioned tricks in his region. The methods of prevention are not usually made public, but in view of what has been described, it may be assumed that the regional leaders will not find it too difficult to fulfill their intentions. They are certainly not inclined to describe their own electoral techniques as “dirty,” though the ploys they use often go beyond current legislation or exploit loopholes in it: staff from the executive participating in the campaign, establishing “special terms” in the media, putting pressure on businessmen to ensure funding for certain candidates, directly obstructing the canvassing activities of opposition electoral blocs and much more. Against this background, talk of dirty tricks looks like a simple smoke screen designed to hide the real processes which are characterizing the current campaign in most of Russia. The very concept of “dirty tricks,” which does not lend itself to a full and correct legal definition, becomes just a phrase with no concrete meaning, and as such is a very convenient one for anyone who wants to use it against his or her political enemies.

In this context, many of the comments, made in conversation with me by a member of the staff of the election team–who wished to remain anonymous–of a Volga region governor, no longer seem extraordinary. According to him, candidates who had the governor’s support were basically denied access to the services of qualified Moscow PR specialists. They were told: “Your job is to win the election, not to spend as much money as possible.” The same source described the use of the press and election leaflets for canvassing purposes as a “concession” to candidates, because “nobody trusts” the media, and “electioneering in the media only irritates people.” As for the leaflets, “nobody reads them.” His assessment is that most electioneering is done via unofficial briefings for a relatively small circle of influential and authoritative figures who are simply given information as to whom they should voice their support for during the elections. Also, he did not rule out the possibility of direct manipulation of the final election results, but stressed that the job he and his colleagues had to do was to ensure that there was no need to resort to such a base and somewhat dangerous act.

With about a month to go to election day, the use of “dirty tricks” has not reached the nationwide scale that so many people forecast. It is still quite closely associated in Russian’s minds with the information war being waged in the federal media. The regions are not meeting “expectations,” and some Moscow analysts are even expressing some bewilderment at this. In all likelihood, people will realize that in many ways the results of the campaign are already decided, and that the relatively accessible “dirty tricks” have simply been defeated by the neo-patrimonial election model, which is geared exclusively towards the regional elites. But this realization will only come later.

Ilya Malyakin is editor-in-chief for the Volga Information Agency.