Russia’s Alice in Wonderland Democracy
Mikhail Myagkov and Peter C. Ordeshook
There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to Russian elections. The Kremlin lies about their democratic legitimacy, we know they are lying, they know we know they are lying … and so on. Yet we pretend that lies are truth, that Russia is a transitional democracy and legitimate member of the G8 and community of industrialized democracies, and the truth is something to be ignored.
Again we’ve been told that voters marched to the polls March 2 in unprecedented numbers to anoint Putin’s choice, Dimitry Mededvev, as president. Everyone knows it is absurd to call such events with their manipulations ‘elections’, even more so if we use the word ‘democratic’. With upwards of 10 million manufactured votes in 2004 and no fewer than that in the most recent balloting, the lie held sway along with a willingness to say and do anything to ensure a Kremlin landslide. We have for instance the ruling of a Moscow court denying a suit filed before the vote by an impotent Communist Party claiming unfair media coverage. The court justified its decision with words reminiscent of Alice’s Queen of Hearts: “election law does not define the term ‘equality of the candidates in campaign time in the mass media’ …the lack of a definition means that statistical analysis of the coverage is not admissible, and the only thing that matters is that all the candidates received some coverage.” Of course, not wanting to leave anything to chance and that all went according to plan, the Central Election Commission’s subcommittee to oversee vote counting consisted only of members of Putin’s party, United Russia.
Electoral fraud is a problem in developing democracies, and its isolated appearance in Russia in the 1990’s was ignored with the rationalization that the country had only recently stepped onto the road to democracy. Unfortunately, Putin moved things in a different direction. Electoral fraud metastasized to infect every region of the country and, in the form of outright ballot stuffing, is now conducted on an historic scale. At least this time Western organizations established to monitor elections refused to send observers to avoid being a part of the farce.
There is more to this, though, than a servile judiciary, intimidated voters, banned opponents, biased media, murdered journalists, jailed dissenters, and manipulated vote counts. We see here a manifestation of a Soviet-style regime that has taken root throughout Russia. In times past control was maintained thru the Communist Party wherein apparatchiks and functionaries knew their fates depended on subservience to the official state religion and to those who stood above them in the system’s hierarchy. Things are not much different today. Confronted by a Kremlin that controls all agents of coercion and where the lowest official can be imprisoned by Moscow for imaginary crimes, bureaucrats at every level strive to outdo each other in fidelity to the Kremlin.
There is little need, then, for the Kremlin to ‘officially’ demand a Soviet-style voter turnout in, say, war-torn Chechnya. Such a vote is forthcoming automatically by order of a Kremlin-appointed governor even if the final tally can be explained only by assuming that the mujahideen came down from their mountain hideaways to vote for their nemesis’s anointed successor. No official will be fined or jailed if it is proven that he manufactured votes, provided only that those votes went to the right candidate. Putin and Mededvev are popular and can win any free and fair vote, but the system is now incapable of such things.
This much is certain: Russia is not a democracy, transitional or otherwise. Allowing Putin or Mededvev to stand as a peer with the leaders of the industrialized democracies in the G8 or any other such entity is an undeserved gift borne of the lost promise of the 1990’s. If Russia warrants inclusion in this club, why not China which neither pretends to be something it isn’t nor demands that we accept a lie as the truth. Unique among authoritarian regimes, Russia pretends it is a democracy, and by acquiescing the West undermines its legitimacy when encouraging democracy elsewhere. It is time to acknowledge what Russia is and to do what the West can to keep its ‘autocratic disease’ from spreading. The spread of that disease is precisely what Putin sought when sending his election mechanics and spin doctors to Kiev in 2004 in the failed attempt to steal the Ukrainian presidency. That plan was foiled by the Ukrainian people, who found hope in the West’s refusal to treat a fraudulent outcome as legitimate. Since it isn’t in the character of the current Russian regime to resist pressing on with such attempts, the question is whether the true democracies of the world will continue to pretend that flamingos are croquet mallets, that Alice’s Queen of Hearts is a benevolent monarch, and that Russia is on a road to democracy.
Mikhail Myagkov is Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon, Eugene Oregon USA and Peter C. Ordeshook is Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena California, USA. They are coauthors of the forthcoming book The Forensics of Electoral Fraud: With Applications to Russia and Ukraine.