Another Sign of the Neo-Soviet Apocalypse

Jurist reports that last Wednesday “President” Putin signed a bill eliminating the minimum turnout requirement for presidential elections.

Russian President Vladimir Putin [official profile] on Wednesday signed into law [press release] a controversial bill that eliminates a rule requiring at least 50 percent of voters to turn out in order for poll results to be validated. Putin signed the measure despite opposition by Ella Pamfilova [official profile], the chairwoman of Putin’s Human Rights Council [official website], and other critics who argued that the minimum turnout rule is an important means of political protest because people can express discontent with the system by not voting. The new law also expands the list of people who are ineligible to run for election and bans political parties and candidates from campaigning against their opponents on television. Putin’s opponents say his actions are part of a plan to decrease democratic freedoms in Russia. Putin has also signed laws making it more difficult for certain candidates and small parties to register and run in elections, changes critics say are part of an effort by the Kremlin [official website] to ensure Putin is replaced by an approved successor when his term ends in 2008. Putin has, however, ruled out a constitutional amendment [JURIST report] that would allow him to pursue a third term in office. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 2007 with presidential elections following in March 2008. Reuters has more.

So the upshot is that Putin is now free to do whatever he likes to drive down turnout among any voter groups not likely to vote for him (or his chosen successor) and no matter how few people go to the polls the results will still be valid.

It’s a true hallmark of Putin’s fundamental illegitimacy that he feels this measure is necessary after he has already totally obliterated opposition political parties, removed the “against all ” option from the ballot, seized control over all the television networks and terrified all possible opponents with a string of brutal killings. Apparently, he still thinks he might lose. There would be some hope in that, if not for the fact that like cowardly lemmings the Russian people have sat idly by watching their electoral system be destroyed.

Here is the brilliant Masha Lipman’s commentary, from the Washington Post (Masha is the editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Pro et Contra journal and writes a monthly column for The Post):

MOSCOW — “Give the elections back to the people, bastards!” These words were emblazoned on a bright yellow banner more than 30 feet long that hung over the Moscow River facing the Kremlin. A couple of young activists positioned themselves in the ropework holding up the banner for about 30 minutes, until they were taken off and delivered to a police station.

Such extravagant political performances may be typical at, say, a Greenpeace protest but not over something that has in fact become increasingly common: a government encroachment on voting rights.

Russia is undergoing yet another round of election-rule tightening — as usual, a product of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature. The protesters see it as marking the “virtual elimination of the system of free elections” in Russia, as they said in their statement. Over the past two years, election rules have been repeatedly refashioned and readjusted so that no undesired forces or figures can slip through the process.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has managed to obstruct the financing of unwelcome political projects. Russian businessmen, while afraid to sponsor autonomous political activity, have given generously to pro-Kremlin political groups, movements and initiatives. With the best and biggest companies increasingly coming under the Kremlin’s control, pro-Kremlin political forces are assured of virtually unlimited budgets. In addition, political loyalists can draw on what’s called the “administrative resource” — a network of administrators at various levels who are eager to do the regime’s bidding.

In such a political environment, election results are preordained. There is a flatness about campaigns — a lack of enthusiasm and emotion. Which is the way the Kremlin likes it.

One of the innovations of the new election bill is a ban on creating a “negative image” of political opponents. This is one way of depriving a campaign of any meaning whatsoever, as just challenging the policies of the incumbent authorities can now be interpreted as a violation of the law.

So while there is always a constituency that dutifully turns out on Election Day to vote “as the bosses say,” a great many others will choose to stay home, since they assume their vote will make no difference.

Of course, a low turnout might call into question the legitimacy of the representative branch, but apparently the Kremlin thinks it can live with this image problem. Another provision of the new bill eliminates the minimum percentage turnout requirement for an election to be valid. The ruling elite thus largely reduces its power base to the core of Soviet-style voters who accept a no-choice vote — while alienating the more advanced and entrepreneurial elements of the population.

Essentially, the protesters hanging on the ropes with their banner over the Moscow River can do nothing about all this. A boycott of elections — proposed in their statement as the “only real means of political struggle left in the opposition’s arsenal” — will make no sense if there is no minimum-turnout requirement. The authority of the Kremlin, on the other hand, is unconstrained.

And thus the encroachment on political rights will continue. One recent initiative has been to abolish mayoral elections. With gubernatorial elections already replaced by Kremlin appointments, this is a logical next step in the dismantling of representative democracy.

A common argument has it that President Vladimir Putin may have cracked down on freedoms and democracy and recentralized power in the Kremlin, but at least he has ensured order and stability. In fact, Putin may have “stabilized” public politics, but there’s no more law or order about his regime than there was in Boris Yeltsin’s “chaotic” Russia.

The political scene has been fully cleared of genuine competition, and the executive and legislative branches filled with loyalists who need not worry about public accountability. As a result, the members of this greedy bureaucracy have become a privileged circle in which they seek to amass power, which in Russia is closely linked to property and wealth. In the process, they force those with less clout to sell their lucrative properties, as happened not long ago with a Urals titanium factory. If the owner doesn’t accept the deal, he can expect the tax police to “discover” huge instances of evasion, the environmental agency to reveal improper use of his lands or the prosecutor’s office to begin proceedings against him. All these government agencies would be working on behalf of the powerful buyer. This is hardly law and order.

Meanwhile, the regime’s loyalists are themselves engaged in a fierce struggle, especially as the crucial 2007-08 elections draw near. All are wondering what the power shifts that Putin has in mind will mean for them personally. Thus, disputes among them grow ever more intense and vicious, creating an atmosphere of rampant corruption and crime. Court rulings are commonly twisted as a result of bribery or pressure from the executive. Contract killings are used to settle scores with rivals and adversaries.

Aside from the recent high-profile assassinations, there have been the killings, in a period of less than three months, of three bankers, one of them deputy chairman of the central bank. All were slain by contract murderers. A contender for the mayoralty in a Far Eastern town was killed at the height of the election campaign. A pro-Moscow Chechen commander was shot by a group of Chechen law enforcers in broad daylight in the middle of Moscow — in front of passersby and a group of Moscow militiamen who, according to newspaper reports, watched from across the street. None of the perpetrators was arrested.

Real competitive politics, if they were ever allowed, might be a threat to the ruling elite. Fierce infighting within the regime is a threat to the entire nation and its future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s