Category Archives: Russia

Russia 2012

Presidential elections were held in Russia on March 4, 2012. The President of Russia, usually the most important political office in Russia (though that has not been the case since 2008, it will be the case again starting this year), is now elected for an extended term of 6 years. He may just serve two consecutive terms, but there is no other limit on the total number of terms which may be served. These high-stakes elections follow rigged legislative elections held on December 4, 2011.

Russia is a one-party dominant authoritarian regime. The boss of the Kremlin since 2000 is Vladimir Putin, who served as President between 2000 and 2008 and has served as Prime Minister since then, although in a change of traditional roles, Prime Minister Putin was the de-facto boss rather than his clone, President Dmitry Medvedev. In a cynical game of musical chairs, Putin, term-limited in 2008, ceded his office to Medvedev while becoming Prime Minister instead. While Medvedev would be constitutionally eligible for reelection, Putin emerged victorious from a behind-the-scenes game of power politics and imposed his presidential candidacy while relegating Medvedev to his current office of Prime Minister. Putin’s power is backed by United Russia (ER), the presidential and dominant party whose ideology, officially conservative, is that of any Party of Power in any authoritarian regime.

Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in 2000 and even his triumphant reelection in 2004 was met with much approval in Russia. Putin’s authoritarian regime brought political stability after the chaos of the Yelstin 90s, while an oil and gas-fueled economic boom has brought affluence to Russia’s rising middle-classes. However, the shine has begun to wear off on Putin’s regime. Oil prices are not what they once were and a balanced budget in Russia now requires the price of oil to be at $130 a barrel, against $30 in 2007. GDP growth, 4% in 2011 and 2012, does not hit the peaks of the pre-2009 era. Furthermore, the middle-classes, created and enriched by the regime in the past, is now turning against the regime under the rising liberal influences of the West and rising discontent with government corruption. Liberal, young middle-class Russians now tend to see the regime as corrupt, authoritarian and increasingly anachronistic.

The 2011 legislative elections have been called the dirtiest elections in Russia, because, despite ER’s underwhelming performance, there was still massive rigging. The 2011 elections were the last straw for a grassroots opposition which distrusts the other parties – largely joke parties run by clowns, cranks or crazies – and increasingly loathes Putin. Russia’s winter was marked by mass protests from large throngs of anti-Putin demonstrators, who are disunited in their goals but united in their willingness to get rid of him. The opposition protesters have largely been young, educated and middle-class and united a wide array of ideologies: liberals but also communists, nationalists, anarchists and monarchists. Despite these spectacular grassroots protests against the regime, it must be said that Putin can count on a motivated and equally as numerous base of supporters, something seldom reported by the foreign media. Putin, of course, can still rely on sizable public support but also a still-strong base of support from the establishment and higher echelons of power. ER is still a powerful party machine and some of its governors in the North Caucasus republics (notably Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov) fabricate the craziest of results for Putin’s personal pleasure.

The Kremlin has responded to the protests with a mix of public concessions and behind-the-scenes repressions. Medvedev announced a rather shallow pack of reforms which includes liberalizing laws on political party registration and reintroducing popular elections of governors, something scrapped by the Kremlin in 2005. On the other hand, behind the scenes, the Kremlin has been flexing its muscle and cracking down on the opposition: wiretapping phones, arresting key figures, sidelining opponents and tightly controlling the media. Putin, the ex-KGB man, has appeared to be even more traditionalist and authoritarian than the apparently more liberal Medvedev. He has increased anti-Western nationalistic rhetoric, talking about a final battle with the enemies of Russia, foreign and domestic, who are threatening the country. His record and rhetoric hardly allows us to think that Putin might heed the demands of protesters for political liberalization. He is rather more likely to pursue a course of repression, as he gets more desperate to hang on to power.

But repression alone cannot hold one’s power footing indefinitely. The Kremlin and its boss has also responded with promises of more extravagant spending and tax cuts. Their goal seems to be to placate the public into acquiescing to Putin’s rule for a bit longer.

Vladimir Putin faced five rivals in the race. There were, first of all, the two old clowns who are professionals in losing elections. You have Gennady Zyuganov, the old Soviet apparatchik and authoritarian boss of the Stalinist-nationalist Communist Party (KPRF), the traditional opposition party but which has long since given up on being a real opposition force and is content with playing the role of a not too-threatening fruitcake opposition. Then there is the old clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the insane nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). Zhirinovsky is almost a professional comedian and the LDPR is a creature of the KGB and a pretty loyal ally of the Kremlin. To this mix of old faces, you can add Sergey Mironov, the leader of the left-wing Just Russia (SR) party, another Kremlin creation.

The contender which got the Western media talking is Mikhail Prokhorov, a very wealthy businessman and industrialist in the nickel industry. Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets, is aspiring to be the leader of the liberal opposition to Putin. Unlike veteran liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky, the Kremlin did not block Prokhorov from running. This indicates that he has a base of support or at least acquiescence in the high spheres of the Kremlin, either because he is not threatening or because some of the more liberal elements of the Kremlin such as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin have an interest in him. However, the liberal Prokhorov has failed to appeal to the bulk of the electorate, and especially the anti-Kremlin protesters who perceive Prokhorov as a pal of the Kremlin or at least a part of the establishment.

Turnout was 65.3%, fairly low. The results were:

Vladimir Putin (ER) 63.6%
Gennady Zyuganov (KPRF) 17.18%
Mikhail Prokhorov 7.98%
Vladimir Zhirinovsky (LDPR) 6.23%
Sergey Mironov (SR) 3.85%

Without any suspense or surprise, Putin was easily (re)elected with a predictably big margin. However, compared to the dirty 2011 legislative elections, the general commentary on this election has been that while it certainly doesn’t live up to the standards of free and fair election, it was generally free and not too rigged. Putin had ordered the installation of security camera in all precincts, which might have helped matters somewhat. The Kremlin probably felt the need for a cleaner election to avoid the foreign hand wringing and PR crisis which a rigged election so shortly after a legislative election seen around the world as a joke would have afforded.

The Kremlin also manipulated the whole process in the run-up to the vote, which is oftentimes much more rigged than the actual vote. Threatening candidates were barred from running while the media and the state institutions remained controlled by the Kremlin. Putin ended up facing fairly non-threatening opposition, most of it from only half-serious candidates such as Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky; while Prokhorov’s appeal was limited to non-Russian westerners while being unable to develop a serious footing in Russia. Against these candidates, Putin would have won even a fairly free election. It is also very likely that Putin remains far more popular than his party, ER, which has a very bad image with most Russians and derided, famously, as the “party of crooks and thieves”. Putin understands that ER is unpopular and often goes to great lengths to build an image of himself as some non-partisan saviour of the motherland.

There was still, of course, major rigging in this election. Higher turnout once again showed a strong positive correlation with artificially high results for Putin. In Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov no longer even attempts subtlety, turnout was 94.89% and Putin won 99.73% of the vote. Putin performed very strongly in the bulk of the North Caucasus, where results are fabricated. He won 93.2% in Dagestan, 92.2% in tiny Ingushetia and 91.4% in Karachay–Cherkessia. Other “ethnic republics” also gave strong results to Vladimir Putin, because these regions are oftentimes the strongholds of Kadyrov-like strongmen who control their region with an iron fist and carry their region’s vote to Putin and ER. Putin won 90.2% in Tuva, 87.8% in Mordovia, 84% in Tatarstan (the local boss, Rustam Minnikhanov, is the right-hand man of longtime strongman Mintimer Shaimiev), 80% in Bashkortostan and 78% in Kabardino-Balkaria. The Yamalo-Nenets district, overrun by Gazprom, gave 85% to Putin while Roman Abramovich’s old Siberian desert of Chukotka gave Putin 72.6%.

One region where rigging was notoriously heavy in 2011 was the city of Moscow, which gave ER an artificially high 46% in a city which has a reputation as being a stronghold of the liberal opposition. This year, in contrast to other cities where Putin outperformed ER by up to 20%, Putin won his weakest result in Moscow city – 48.7% against 19.2% for Zyuganov and 19.1% for Prokhorov.

On the opposition side, Zyuganov’s performances in the old Red Belt south of Moscow were fairly weak, as they were in 2011. It seems as if the bulk of support in this poor, agrarian, conservative and ethnically Russian region has shifted towards Putin in recent years, which is of course not surprising. Zyuganov did win 29% in Orel and 26% in Kostroma, but in other parts of the Red Belt he performed below average.

Prokhorov did best in Moscow and St. Petersburg (19% and 14.4% respectively), the two big urban centres of European Russia with a fairly liberal political attitude – especially Moscow. He apparently beat Putin in some precincts near the university in Moscow. Otherwise he won 12.8% in Kaliningrad, 12.4% in Karelia and 11.7% in Sverdlovsk.

Despite his triumphant win, Putin returns to his old office in a far weaker position than in 2004 or 2008. His regime faces the most serious organized opposition force since Putin took office in 2000; and which despite the fact that its strength is overblown and its objectives all over the place, has voiced concerns held by a lot of Russians about political corruption, crony state capitalism and the lack of political liberties. The Putin-created middle-class, with its affluent western lifestyle and liberal European outlook, is no longer a loyal supporter of the regime. Putin’s objective is to rule until 2024, when his second six-year term will end, but he faces a fairly critical choice much sooner than that about the path he chooses for Russia: political liberalization or further repression. His rhetoric and career points to the second path, which observers fear will only lead to a vicious cycle of increased repression responding to increased opposition. Russia now enters a fairly momentous period in which Putin’s rule is no longer as solid as it was between 2004 and 2009, roughly the peak years of the regime.

Russia 2011

Legislative “elections” were held in Russia on December 4, 2011. All 450 members of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature, were up for reelection. Since 2007, members are elected by party-list PR in a single national constituency with a 7% threshold, but parties winning 5-6% win one seat and parties winning 6-7% win 2 seats.

Russia is a one-party dominant authoritarian regime. The man who calls the shots since 2000 is Vladimir Putin, who served as President between 2000 and 2008 and has served as Prime Minister since then, although in a change of traditional roles Putin was truly the top gun and not his clone, President Dmitry Medvedev. In a game of musical chairs, Putin intends to become President again in next year’s presidential election while Medvedev takes his boss’ old job as PM. Putin’s power is backed up by United Russia (ER), the presidential and dominant party whose ideology, officially conservative, is that of any similar Party of Power in any authoritarian regime.

ER, or rather Putin, has built up full control of the state, its institutions, the regions, regional executives (governors are now named by the Kremlin), the secret services and the state-run media. Elections are widely and correctly regarded as being neither free nor fair, but unlike in some of the sub-Saharan dictatorships, elections are not entirely a huge joke. Compared to some of those same authoritarian countries, the amount of fraud is not earth-shattering phenomenal and there is a semblance of actual voting going on. What is more rigged than the actual elections themselves are the process. The state runs the media, and blocks the opposition from accessing media outlets save the few independent ones still in existence. The state’s institutions can conveniently block the most vocal opposition parties from running. More importantly, ER resorts to intimidation, bribery, coercion, threats and group pressure to buy its votes. In a good number of cases, the sheer rigging of the process before the votes means that the regime does not need to sweat the election itself too much.

There is, of course, lots of rigging and fraud in the elections as well. Traditionally, the favoured process is having ER’s stooges (who are often, conveniently, from the electoral commission) fill out tons of ballots themselves with the ‘correct’ party. No surprise, therefore, that high turnout correlates very well with high returns for ER. In other cases, the official results just inflate ER’s vote share by 5-25 percentage points. There is also wide regional variation in rigging. In the republics of the North Caucasus and most ‘ethnic republics’ for that matter, the election ranges from excessively rigged to completely fraudulent fabrication. Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov is particularly good at making up election results, though he’s hardly subtle about it.

ER is the dominant party and is the Kremlin’s party, but the Kremlin has bankrolled, staged or created a good number of new parties outright. The biggest of these parties is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), which is neither liberal nor democratic. The LDPR is the one-man party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, its leader and founder. The LDPR was founded as a creature of the KGB and Zhirinovsky is a clown whose only use is making insanely eccentric pronouncements about the greatness of Russia and to run a party where the rednecks of Russia can park their vote. Its ideology is a populist mish-mash of far-right nationalism, some left-wing populism and general crazy stuff. In practice, the LDPR is probably bankrolled by the Kremlin and its MPs are reliable supporters of the Kremlin.

In 2006, the Kremlin staged the founding of “A Just Russia” (SR), an officially socialist party who has been a bit less pliant than the LDPR towards the Kremlin. Its actual position is a bit ambiguous, but there is little doubt that they are pro-Kremlin as well. In 2008, the Kremlin seized control of the old liberal opposition Union of Right Forces (SPS), sold the party off to a rich guy who turned out to be a bit of a thorn in the side, stole the party from him and turned into the “Right Cause”, a “liberal” outfit run by the Kremlin. Only the 90%-dead Yabloko, an old left-liberal party still exists as the main legal liberal opposition party.

The main legal opposition force is the Communist Party (KPRF). The KRPF is run by Gennady Zyuganov, an old hard-line Soviet apparatchik who has run the party with an iron hand. The KRPF receives affection from abroad as being the sole opposition party, but in reality the KPRF is as unsavoury as the other parties. It is an old Stalinist party full of nostalgia of the Soviet Union and also quite keen on invoking Russian nationalism, to the point where its critics have styled it a fascistoid party. Still, the KPRF is the only half-serious opposition party, but they have given up at being a competent opposition years ago and seems quite happy playing the role of an official opposition which opposes the regime but is too lazy to oppose it in a meaningful way.

Vladimir Putin built up his support because of Russia’s political stability under his reign, an oil-fueled economic boom (5-8% economic growth in his second term), an increase in the standard of living, restoring order (especially in Chechnya) and a nationalistic foreign policy which re-asserted Russia’s role in the concert of nations as a key world power. However, the charm has begun to wear off. The main culprit would be the economy: Russia’s economy was in recession in 2009 when it receded by nearly 8%. There is frustration and anger in rural Russia, where many people still live in poverty. There are other factors as well: the middle-classes who have enjoyed the fruits of the economic boom may now be hoping for democratization, of which there are no signs to date. Corruption is also a major issue, and there is much anger towards ER (branded the “party of crooks and thieves”) and Putin’s stalwarts who have lined their pockets.

Turnout fell to 60%, apparently an all-time low. Results are, with 99% reporting:

ER 49.29% (-15.01%) winning 238 seats (-77)
KPRF 19.2% (+7.63%) winning 92 seats (+35)
SR 13.35% (+5.61%) winning 64 seats (+26)
LDPR 11.68% (+3.54%) winning 56 seats (+16)
Yabloko 3.43% (+1.84%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Patriots 0.97% (+0.08%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Right Cause 0.6% (+0.36%) winning 0 seats (nc)

The election was marred by obvious cases of fraud, to which I’ll come back to in an instant. Yet, the results were still a significant blow to Putin, whose party suffered a pretty major setback. It is the obvious result of the regime’s increasing shakiness, which although not a direct threat to it right now indicates that the regime’s heyday might very well be gone. It is unlikely, however, that the results will be a “wake up call” for the regime, which is instead far more likely to resort to increased authoritarianism and heavy-handed tactic in a bid to maintain power which will only become more desperate as time goes. Yet, the opposition to the regime could only go on growing in such circumstances. Those who think that any of this means that the 2012 election will be closer than originally thought is obviously kidding themselves, because there is no way Putin will be allowed to lose – besides, his opponents will likely consist, as always, of a Stalinist and a stand-up comedian. However, the Kremlin’s gravy train is increasingly shaky, a renewed economic crisis seriously threatens the regime, and the factions within the Kremlin could prove harder to maintain under a united front. Putin’s reign-for-life, which I’m sure he’d like, could prove harder to maintain. But it’s unlikely he’ll leave by his own will, rather he’ll be forced out or his regime will trickle out once he disappears somehow.

ER’s vote was probably boosted through rigging by anywhere between 10 and 20%. Its real support is probably something like 30-35% at most. Again, there was much regional variation in the rigging and results. Northern European Russia around St. Petersburg and Karelia proved, probably, to have the ‘fairest’ process. In sharp contrast, Ramzan Kadyrov proved again that while he’s good at rigging, he’s hardly subtle about it. ER won 99.48% of the vote in Chechnya, although turnout was shockingly and dangerously low at 93.31%. Make a better effort in March, Ramzan! ER also won 91.62% in Mordovia, 91.44% in Dagestan, 90.96% in Ingushetia, 89.84% in Karachay-Cherkessia and 85.29% in Tuva. These are also the regions which saw some of the heaviest turnouts, proving that, in Russia, high turnout=vote fraud. In contrast, turnout was pretty low (often below 50%) in places where ER didn’t do “as well”.

Most of the places where ER did well tend to be autonomous republics, and by consequence tend to have a large ethnic minority population.  These places receive the most pork from the gravy train, their bosses are probably quite powerful on the ground and have tons of powers to do what they want with the elections. Two other places where ER did particularly well have benefited from the gravy train: Chukotka, the uber-remote Siberian wasteland which used to be run by Roman Abramovich and Yamalo-Nenetsia, where Gazprom is huge.

There was also some major vote fraud in Moscow City, where ER is claimed to have won 46% against 19% for the KPRF. In this case, the city’s new mayor Sergey Sobyanin is likely out to prove himself to the Kremlin as a good election manager. In contrast, ER won just 32.8% in Moscow oblast, which surrounds the city. An exit poll in Moscow had placed ER at 27.5% against 25.5% for the KPRF, with Yabloko winning 16%; but conveniently all traces of that exit poll were erased from the internets.

Moscow (Russia) 2009

Elections to the City Duma of the Russian capital, Moscow, were held on October 11 along with some other local elections across Russia. Moscow, as all major population centres in Russia, is actually one of the Medvedev-Putin administration’s weakest point, though the rigged 2008 election didn’t show that. Still, the Official Party, United Russia, won 54.2% of the vote in the 2007 legislative election with the Communists (KPRF) winning 13.8%, the Putinist-socialist outfit Just Russia won 7.7%, the ultra-nationalist crazy Liberal-Demorats (LDPR) won 7.1%, and the opposition liberal Yabloko won 5.6% (much above it’s bleak national average).

There were accusations of massive rigging and fraud in this election, and it was probably one of the dirtiest local elections in Russia to date. These accusations by the opposition resulted in the opposition walking out of Parliament, which is surprising given the tame and quiet nature of the parliamentary opposition.

The Moscow City Duma has 35 members, 17 of which are elected in single-member constituencies and the remaining 18 are elected by proportional representation with a 7% threshold. The official, rigged results are:

United Russia 66.3% winning 32 seats
Communist Party 13.3% winning 3 seats
Liberal Democratic Party 6.1% winning 0 seats
Fair Russia 5.3% winning 0 seats
Yabloko 4.7% winning 0 seats
Patriots of Russia 1.8% winning 0 seats
turnout 35%

They want us to believe that United Russia was all 17 SMDs and 15 PR seats, leaving the KPRF, the only other party to cross the 7% threshold, with 3 PR seats.

A Russian friend of mine, as well his colleague have calculated the so-called ‘real’ and ‘un-rigged’ results. They still show the obvious and undeniable popularity of Medvedev-Putin, but it isn’t as high as the State wants us to believe.

United Russia 46-50%
Communist Party 20-21%
Liberal Democratic Party 9-10%
Fair Russia 8%
Yabloko 7%
Patriots of Russia 3%
turnout 20% or so