New Internationalist

Fraud, rebellion and the decline of Putinism

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Allegations of ballot stuffing in this year’s Duma elections have sparked the biggest protests in Russia in almost two decades. Andrew Bowman travels to Bashkortostan, a Republic in the southern Urals which has been a hotspot for fraud in previous years, to investigate.

Photo by Dmitry Medvedev under a CC Licence
Putin and Medvedev. The popularity of Putinism has reached its limits Photo by Dmitry Medvedev under a CC Licence

Galina Ivanovna Kulakova is having a difficult day. It’s 4 December and as citizens across Russia vote in the Duma elections, the 62 year old Communist Party secretary for Kumertau, a small town in the southern corner of Bashkortostan, an oil-rich Republic in the Southern Urals, is trying to coordinate her party’s elections monitors spread around the district’s 27 polling stations.

As Galina’s fellow party faithful shuffle in and out of the office, her mobile phone rings continuously. Complaints of irregularities at the polling stations are piling up: bribery, ballot stuffing, and the falsification of data, she tells me, have already been reported to her today. During previous legislative elections in 2003, international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe described the electoral process in Bashkortostan as ‘blatant fraud’. This year, Galina says with a sigh, ‘evidently it has increased’.

More is at stake this time round. The 4 December elections served not just as a test of public opinion on the dominant political party United Russia, who have controlled the Duma since 2003, but also on Putinism, the political system Putin has built for Russia since gaining the presidency in late 1999.

In the run up to the elections this year, it was apparent that the popularity of Putinism was reaching its limits. Russia’s mineral wealth has not been sufficient to shield it from the impact of the global economic slowdown. GDP contracted by a record 7.8 per cent per cent in 2009, and though it has since rebounded, growth is at only 3.4 per cent - well below that of other BRIC economies and insufficient to continue the pace of promised improvements in living standards.

The boos which greeted Putin at a wrestling match in Moscow in November underlined the growing public hostility towards the prospect of a further 12 years of his rule

If, as expected, oil prices fall significantly from their $110 per barrel high and financial contagion spreads from the Eurozone crisis, the problems will mount. The inevitable popular impatience brought by economic deceleration mingles potently with the dissatisfaction of social elites over corruption. Widely referred to as ‘the party of thieves and crooks’ – a phrase borrowed from the influential blogger Alexei Navalny, who has received a 15-day prison sentence for his role in the post-election protests – United Russia’s rule has seen the country remain close to the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index.

Regardless of elections, those who can are voting with their feet and wallets: capital flight has been increasing and is expected to top $85 billion this year. Around 1.25 million Russians have emigrated in the last decade, and polls conducted earlier this year show more than half of Russia’s students wish to live elsewhere in the world.

Replacing the puppet

The announcement of Putin’s succession to Medvedev at a United Russia congress in September provided a further significant blow to the democratic image. It was widely known that Medvedev was not his own man, and widely expected that he would stand aside, and yet the cynically theatrical manner in which this was foisted upon the assembled delegates and the watching public offended even some of those within the party. The boos which greeted Putin’s similarly theatrical appearance at a wrestling match in Moscow in November underlined the growing public hostility towards the prospect of a further 12 years of his rule.

Going into the elections, the Russian power elite were thus presented with a difficult balancing act: maintaining the image of fair elections in a time of fragile legitimacy, while delivering votes at a time of plummeting support.

Electoral fraud is commonly at its most barefaced in the Russian Federation’s scattered Republics. Concerned with reigning in nationalist sentiment, the Kremlin tends to take a firmer grip on power in the Republics and during elections uses them as a means of vote harvesting. In war-torn Chechnya, for example, the official results this year state that 99.5 per cent of voters backed United Russia, with a turnout of 94 per cent.

Election observers face a difficult task, for while allegations of fraud are easy to make, they are hard to prove

Following the collapse of the USSR, Mutaza Rakhimov ruled as the elected head of Bashkortostan until 2010. An ethnic Bashkir, Rakhimov turned the republic into something of a personal fiefdom. While resisting the drive towards a unified legal system for the Russian Federation and attempting for a while to monopolise control of the territories oil, he nonetheless provided Putin with votes at election time. In the 2007 Duma elections, United Russia won 82 per cent of the vote, and all 35 of the seats in the Republican parliament in 2009.

Rakhimov’s successor is Rustem Khamitov. A former manager of the energy company RusHydro, Khamitov follows a line of technocrats appointed as regional leaders since powers of nomination were passed to the Kremlin in another of the Putin-era political reforms. Amid rumors of bureaucratic ruptures caused by the transition between leaders, delivering a favorable election result without the controversy of previous years was to be his first major challenge.

Though its effectiveness in the role is questionable at best, the Communist Party are the main opposition at both a national and local level, and the only organization in the area with the capacity to send observers to all of the 27 polling stations around the town. These observers face a difficult task, for while allegations of fraud are easy to make, they are hard to prove.

Ballot stuffing

At a polling station close to the town centre, a gleaming new government administration office, a quarrel has been taking place throughout the day. A row of election officials, the election committee, sit facing two ballot boxes, sitting directly opposite them, five metres from the boxes, are the three election observers.

Anna Nazagova, a young and self-assured Communist Party observer, immediately begins to tell me that she has witnessed ballot stuffing from voters she believes to be in the employ of United Russia. She explains that this has happened with the complicity of the election committee, who have also forbidden her from using her camera inside the polling station. Another Communist Party member, who sits on the election committee, claims to have been offered bribes to remain silent about the incidents.

Photo by Fred Weir.
Vote counters at a polling stations in Bashkortostan. Photo by Fred Weir.

Presently, other committee members and suited men claiming to be representatives of United Russia gather around us and begin loudly rebuking the observers for disrupting the election process, later explaining to me that they have poor eyesight and have made a mistake. If they were to carry out their observers role properly, the chairwoman of the polling station says to me, they would wait until 8pm, when voting officially closes, and submit a written complaint.

Countless accusations of fraud, intimidation and various other infringements of the democratic process pour in from opposition party branches and civil society organisations across Russia

Open intimidation of observers is rare, Galina explained to me earlier in the day, but those who create a fuss can still face problems, particularly in terms of their employment prospects. In Bashkortostan, as in many other parts of Russia, major employers strike deals with the ruling party, exchanging the votes of their employees for favourable treatment.

Other journalists working in the Republic that day recount numerous similar incidents. One reporter from the Moscow Times witnesses a Communist Party observer who made a complaint being removed for having the wrong size badge. The reporter was herself ejected from the polling station on the grounds of disrupting the electoral process.

The first ten protocols announced at the Territorial Commission in the nearby town of Millius showed United Russia winning close to 90 per cent of the vote at each polling station. In the official results for Bashkiria produced the following day United Russia win 70 per cent of the vote – a startling figure in itself, but more so when placed alongside the national results. Overall, United Russia managed to win just under 50 per cent of the vote nationwide, a fall of nearly 15 per cent from 2007, allowing them to maintain control of the Duma by only the narrowest of margins as they lose 77 seats.

‘A complete fraud’

Speaking to Fred Weir from the Christian Science Monitor, the leader of the Communist Party for Bashkortostan, Rifgat Gordanov, claimed that exit polls on the evening of the elections showed United Russia to have won 46 per cent of the vote in the Republic, with the Communist Party on 21 per cent. The following morning the official results put United Russia on 70.6 per cent, and the Communist Party on 15.6 per cent. Gordanov described the result to the CSM as ‘a complete fraud. Our observers were everywhere, they saw what was happening … There were unbelievable violations of the rules.’

The vote count was ‘characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation, including several serious indications of ballot box stuffing’

As results across the country were produced, it became clear that he was not alone in his concerns. Countless accusations of fraud, intimidation and various other infringements of the democratic process pour in from opposition party branches and civil society organisations across Russia. They range from the bizarre to the sinister. In some areas, turn out is listed as above 100 per cent of the voting population. Numerous eyewitnesses report ballot stuffing, and opposition observers claim to have been expelled from polling stations. Some opposition election observers claimed to have had the doors of their homes glued shut.

On 5 December, as fraud allegations begin to be reported in the international media, the OSCE release a damning preliminary statement. Noting that ‘the elections were marked by the convergence of the State and the governing party’, they state that the vote count was ‘characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation, including several serious indications of ballot box stuffing’, alongside curtailment of freedom of assembly and interference with election monitors.

The three largest exit polls all show United Russia receiving between 2 and 12 per cent less of the vote than their final total. Opposition leaders and election monitoring NGOs claimed a fair result would have lowered United Russia’s total by 20 to 25 per cent.

A range of malcontents

That evening several thousand people take to the streets of Moscow to protest against the fraud, demanding a re-run of the elections. Most are linked to the liberal opposition party Yabloko, which failed to reach the seven per cent threshold which would have afforded it representation in the Duma, but the demonstrations pull in a range of malcontents ranging from nationalists to democratic socialists. Demonstrations in Russia are infrequent, and small. Pulling 500 people onto the streets of the capital, activists in tell me, is considered a major success. A physical style of policing and the use of mass arrests mean that most dissent in Russia is channelled through the internet, which remains largely free from restrictions.

Despite the predictable arbitrary arrests, people come back out the following night, and by Saturday 10 December, an estimated 50,000 people take to the streets of Moscow, with protests spreading to 50 other towns around the country.

The cracks in the image of Russian democracy have become gaping fissures, and all of a sudden Putin’s re-election looks far less certain than it did on 3 December

It has become the largest outbreak of civil unrest since the constitutional crisis of 1993, when tens of thousands marched in the capital in defence of parliament after Boris Yeltsin sought to have it dissolved, first by decree, and then by military force. For Putin, whose presidential election campaign now looks far less of a done deal than it did a week ago, it represents the most serious challenge of his political career.

Although the protesters’ demands centre around the election fraud, the energy which drives them is dissatisfaction with more deep rooted problems in Russian society. Continued economic malaise will mean that Putin will not be able to rely on the apathy induced by rising prosperity to cool the anger. It is unlikely, therefore, that minor concessions will suffice to restore calm – either major concessions or major repressive force will be required.

The cracks in the image of Russian democracy have become gaping fissures, and although it is too early to talk of Russia’s Arab Spring or Orange Revolution, all of a sudden Putin’s re-election looks far less certain than it did on 3 December.

Andrew Bowman was part of a delegation of journalists sent by the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization and Social Movements to observe the election process in Bashkortostan.

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