Monday 23 January 2012

Russian Elections

Graham Knight

People attend For Fair Elections rally in Moscow December 24, 2011
Russia’s widespread popular protests against Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party, following the disputed parliamentary elections in December 2011, have rightly grabbed international attention.  As many as 50,000 protestors gathered in Moscow to demand a re-run of the disputed elections.  Throughout 2012 Western commentators had been predicting a landslide victory for United Russia and were confident that one of two scenarios would play out in the Presidential elections of March 2012.  Either a smooth transfer of presidential power from Dmitry Medvedev to Vladimir Putin would take place allowing the later to serve at least one six year term with the possibility of re-election in 2018, or Medvedev would remain in power to dispel the widely held view that he was simply a stop-gap President lending greater legitimacy to Putin’s return in 2018.  Yet the recent protests have suggested it might not be as easy as Putin and United Russia think.

The announcement in November 2011 that Putin would run as United Russia’s candidate was a clear indication of the extent to which Russia’s political elite refuse to acknowledge the so-called ‘will of the people’.  Cronyism is endemic in Russian politics and allegations of government fraud are widespread.  Wikileaks document released in 2010, for example, estimated Putin’s personal wealth at almost $40 billion but Russian election officials dismissed this figure in 2011 confirming the official figure to be only $180,000.  This seems unlikely.  Ultimately, public perceptions of corruption have served to chip away at the popularity of Putin’s government and as recent parliamentary elections have shown, United Russia’s share of the popular vote has decreased from 64% in 2007 to just under 50% in 2011. Many believe that excessive vote rigging served to hide the true extent of peoples’ disenfranchisement.  Putin’s personal approval rating has also dropped significantly from 88% in September 2008 to 67% in November 2011.  The fact that it has failed to drop further is primarily due to the lack of a credible presidential alternative.  Individuals such as Alexander Navalny, a 35 year-old anti-corruption fighter who emerged as the leader of the post-2011 election protests, or Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire entrepreneur who recently founded the opposition Right-Cause party, lack the strong-man character that Russian voters’ seem to love.

The international community must play a role in addressing this ongoing problem.  Firstly, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) must seek to ensure that the presidential elections in 2012 conform to international democratic standards and in doing so must highlight cases of vote rigging.  In addition, Western leaders must be quick to acknowledge how their public statements may be manipulated by the Russian government.  The Russian public on the whole distrusts the intentions of Western leaders, and grandiose statements or criticisms of events taking place in Russia are interpreted as yet another attempt by the West to impose its views and values onto other countries.  Thus, Hilary Clinton’s misguided decision to publically call for an investigation into allegations of election fraud in November, although perhaps designed as a play to anti-Russian opinion within the US, was nonetheless used by Putin to blame America for inciting Russia’s recent domestic unrest.  By doing so he deflected attention away from the deficiencies of his own government.  If allegations of election fraud do emerge in March 2012, and one must suspect this will be the case, Western leaders must raise concerns both publically and privately without making comment on Russia’s internal institutions or election processes.  
Masked Russian protesters in London. Photograph: Alexey Kovalev Guardian

Secondly, Western leaders must privately use their diplomatic weight to pressure Putin and Medvedev into ensuring opposition politicians are provided with the media access required to mount a credible election campaign.  As has been widely reported the contemporary Russian media landscape is led by three conglomerates: The Russian Federation Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), a state-run organisation, Gazprom-media, a public-private joint venture, and Prof-Media which is a purely commercial organisation.  The result is that the majority of media sources within Russia are either directly or indirectly controlled by governmental or government-controlled structures; hence media coverage prior to elections is heavily pro-government i.e. pro-Putin.  In fact, in 2008, Russia was ranked 170th in the Global Press Freedom Rankings, alongside Sudan, Yemen and Kazakhstan.  Interestingly, Russia’s recent accession to the WTO might precipitate the growth of alternative media sources. But for the time being countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and France must urge Putin to play fair. 

Finally, Western leaders must ignore the temptation to lend support to opposition candidates as this will only serve to deligitimise them in the eyes of the Russian public.  Such a step would represent a significant faux-pas providing Putin with the ammunition required to label his opponents as Western stooges.

The ultimate aim of Western governments should not be to influence any form of regime change.  In reality, the Russian public may decide Putin still represents the figure they wish to lead their country.  However, such a decision should be the result of fair, legitimate and democratic elections.  This should be what the West desires.  Ultimately though, it must be the Russian public that facilitates a radical change in how their country is governed. Interestingly enough such a scenario is not as unlikely as it may have seemed only six months earlier.

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