#9 - JRL 7225
June 17, 2003
By Nikolai Petrov
Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political and Geographical Research, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.
Much has been said about the predictability and lack of intrigue in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The reality will be far more colorful than we imagine. This is not to say that something will happen to upset the apple cart, as happened the last time around -- though this can't be ruled out. The real surprises will come on the technical side of the elections, which has unfortunately attracted little attention from the public or the pundits. In effect, we are witnessing Russia's transition from a disorderly managed democracy to an orderly one.
While the politicians rehearse their various roles and the press focuses on the shifting preferences of the audience, the stage managers have been making drastic changes behind the scenes. Although their handiwork has not yet been unveiled in full, we can get an idea of what they're up to by studying recent regional elections.
Where will the deus ex machina appear this fall? The four most important factors affecting the upcoming elections are: the reformed regional electoral commissions; the regional courts and law enforcement agencies, now under increased control from Moscow; and the presidential envoys' recently created system of local outreach centers.
The regional electoral commissions are currently being organized into a single, vertical structure under the direct control of the Central Election Commission. The CEC has completed its transformation into an "elections ministry" that drafts the rules of the game, lobbies for their adoption, and controls their implementation. Russia's convoluted election laws allow for just about any candidate to be struck from the ballot for exceeding campaign spending limits, violating the rules on campaign activities, etc. They also make it very easy to shut down newspapers and television stations. By law, the CEC now installs two members on each and every regional election commission, including its chairman. The CEC also has the right to dissolve regional commissions through the courts -- a procedure that has already been tested in Krasnoyarsk.
Even during the 1999 parliamentary elections and subsequent regional elections, results were increasingly determined not by the voters, but by the courts and the regional election commissions. Think back to the last gubernatorial races in the Kursk, Saratov and Rostov regions. Now that the federal government has taken full control of the courts and the prosecutors, this practice will become more widespread.
Law enforcement agencies are another critical piece of the election puzzle. They are used to put pressure on candidates, and to collect and circulate information that has an impact on the course of elections. The only thing new this time around is that regional law enforcement agencies are now much more loyal to Moscow both at a personal level (during Vladimir Putin's first term, two-thirds of the top regional officers in the Interior Ministry and the FSB have been replaced) as well as institutionally. Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, head of the country's largest law enforcement agency, is also a leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.
The presidential envoys' outreach centers, which have sprung up across Russia in the last two years, provide an ideal mechanism for gathering vital information about the situation in the regions, campaigning, raising money and for bypassing governors to work directly with local leaders.
The resources and influence of the state have been brought to bear in past elections. Now they will simply be better consolidated and controlled from the Kremlin. The sharp increase in federal strategic and operational control of regional election commissions, law enforcement agencies and the courts will allow the Kremlin to radically alter the balance of forces in all elections.
The biggest impact will be felt in the single-mandate districts, where the opposition could lose its collective shirt, leaving the Kremlin to reap the benefits. Opposition incumbents would not necessarily be discarded, provided they switch camps and swear their allegiance to the Kremlin.
All of this raises the question: What does the Kremlin have to worry about? And what can its opponents, and the public as a whole, hope for come election day?
For starters, they still haven't figured out how to hold elections without voters. Low voter turnout is a common problem of managed democracy. The trick is to dupe the voters in a clever way, so that they don't swear off voting altogether. You've got to allow at least a semblance of a contest, a clash of opposing political forces and platforms. This necessity helps to explain the fashion of this political season, the so-called expert discussion groups attached to the various parties. The electorate must also be mobilized. In Duma elections, which require a 25 percent minimum turnout, voter participation is important not so much to ensure that the elections are valid as to maximize the legitimacy of the legislature. Low turnout would also swing the results in favor of the opposition.
The Kremlin, with its wealthy backers, is not monolithic, neither are the other oligarchs. Divisions and conflicts within the ruling elite are almost inevitable, and they add a touch of drama to any election. The alliances between clans in the Kremlin, the oligarchs and regional leaders shift over time. Political parties are becoming less and less independent, but as "brands" they remain extremely useful. This competition between "brands" provides the democratic window dressing for the elections. How skilful the Kremlin has become at marketing we will find out in December.