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7 April, 2011  ▪  Serhiy Hrabovsky

Russian Prism, Ukrainian Future?

Local elections in Russia are an example of controlled elections for the Ukrainian government

Local elections were recently held in 12 regions of Russia. According to preliminary results, Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will win 375 out of 546 seats – or over two thirds of all mandates in regional parliaments based on voting by party lists and first-past-the-post constituencies. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) will win 71 seats, while Spravedlivaya Rossiya (a Just Russia), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and the Patriots of Russia will win 46, 33 and 10 seats respectively. Self-nominated candidates will take 11 seats.

The leaders of today’s Ukraine believe Kyiv must copy every move made by its “Big brother”. Ukrainians need to look closer at the Russian election experience to learn what could become their own future if political processes in Ukraine flow in the way the tycoon clan regime is planning. 

The “appropriate” legislation   

Most voters have grown accustomed to the Russian system. They may criticize the party in power, but they still vote for it since “the legitimate opposition” which is admitted to the electoral process does not look like a reliable force capable of running a state. Some vote for them as for government critics, but most people support the party in power seen in them  guarantee for stability and a force without which "things will get worse than they are now".

There was no need to use administrative leverage on a massive scale or “adjust” voting results in this election. Even the fact that Yedinaya Rossiya gained less than 50% in seven regions and under 40% in two regions did not ruin its convincing victory. Among other things, it was the result of a properly set electoral system which openly plays in favor of the big political forces by setting a 7% threshold for regional elections, while those who gain 5-7% get just one seat.

A threshold this high paralyzes a large group of voters and allows those in power to manipulate the public's general opinions by way of pre-election polls.

Manipulating social opinion

It’s enough to adjust a poll just once to create the impression that the real opposition has no chance and thus set off a chain reaction reinforced by pro-government media – primarily television. Every subsequent poll will show lower ratings for the opposition...

Indeed, those who would potentially vote for the radical opposition will grow more and more passive as voters believe their parties will not overcome the threshold. Some will switch to the legitimatized opposition which at least criticizes the government. After the media replay such ideas hundreds of times, the authorities will not need to adjust voting results other than in some extreme situations. This will also keep EC and EU observers happy just like in the latest election: the party in power will gain absolute victory in a totally democratic manner and without any major violations of the law, while the real opposition will lose yet again.

But the key thing is that most Russians now firmly believe that there are no alternatives to the party in power and its central and local leaders. As a result, many people do not vote at all – from 42% to 63% in various regions of the Russian Federation by official estimates. The real share could be even higher – non-voters give the government the easiest way to set up an “appropriate number” in favor of the party in power.   

In other words, even with many unhappy voters, the government has guaranteed itself success at elections of any scale. Well-known Russian sociologist Olga Krishtanovskaya claims, “Negative moods do exist, but it has no channel for distribution and there is no party able to unite these moods.” Still, the party in power uses the media to skillfully push the dissatisfied to vote if only to save Russia from the communist threat in the eyes of Europeans. The CPRF gained over 20% in some regions and almost 30% in Nizhnegorodskaya Region. It was popular in cities which still have some industrial potential, where politicians could talk to workers, including Kaliningrad, Tver, Kirov, and Nizhniy Novgorod. But in the end, Yedinaya Rossiya still won.

More than that, the party in power has forced other political forces in the Duma to walk a fine line in fear of falling under the threshold for getting into parliament. This makes them completely loyal despite occasional escapades by LDPR leader Vladimir Zhyrinovskiy. These parties have no chance of getting 15-17% of voters to elect them – a figure which would in theory make falsifications unnecessary. On the other hand, 8-10% is easy to fake by bolstering the number of voters using absentee ballots and assigning their votes to political groups that are not able to overcome the threshold.

Pressure and threatening 

Obviously, conventional methods are used, too. Tambov Region was a shining example in this sense. Yedinaya Rossiya took 65.1% of the vote, CPRF – 18.24% and LDPR came third with 7.31% followed by Spravedlivaya Rossiya with 5.75% in the regional Duma election. Yedinaya Rossiya had the best results exactly in those constituencies where most people voted at home. Some regions had over 50% of such voters. Clearly, this technique is not applicable to Moscow or St. Petersburg. But in the remote Tambov where Bolsheviks used to poison rebels from the countryside with gas, anything is possible because chances are close to zero that Western observers will ever witness anything there.

The action plan against popular opposition public activists who have a chance of being elected through first-past-the-post constituencies shows in the cynical pressure that was applied to Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist from Khimki, Moscow Region. First, child welfare agencies threatened to deprive her of her parental rights. When this failed, EZOP, a company co-owned by Chirikova, ran into trouble. EZOP has been in the hi-tech industry since 1992 and has never encountered any problems before.

If Chirikova and people like her do withstand the immediate pressure, they will face traps honed to perfection in many a previous election. One PhD was withdrawn from the campaign for having not indicated that he was a professor – officials said he had submitted incomplete information on his application – and another candidate was withdrawn for having stated that he was a professor – he was told this was redundant.

Even if all media, especially television, are under the total control of the government and business does not rush to help opposition political forces, there is still the Internet which was an efficient instrument for mobilizing people in Arab countries. Clearly, the web is a power, but the Russian Security Service, or FSB, long ago figured out its role and, in contrast to the special services in authoritarian Arab regimes, has been actively exploiting it ever since.

Since early 2000s, special brigades have been operating online with much success trying to denounce every good initiative and any politician, intellectual or public activist who is more or less discrete. And the FSB is truly brilliant in terms of misleading information and provocation.

Today’s Russia knows how to regulate election campaigns. This is what makes the party in power be so relaxed before the parliamentary election in December. Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) is convinced that no "uncomfortable personalities" will get elected. For now this assumption has been borne out in polls. As the Party of Regions scrutinizes "sovereign democracy" Russian-style the same could happen in Ukraine.

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