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Russian elections: who needs them?

[Alexei Levinson is a sociologist and senior researcher at the Levada Center, Moscow]
In the course of twelve months, Russians will go to the polls twice ­ first, the parliamentary elections and then the big one: the presidential. Comparisons between Medvedev at this stage of his presidency and his predecessors are interesting, explains Alexei Levinson. Yet the Putin-Medvedev situation is unique and it's difficult to see how it might develop.

The final stretch of Medvedev's first presidential term has just begun. A comparison between the state of affairs at this stage for him and at equivalent stages for his predecessors has, for many, revealed a certain similarity with the final year of Yeltsin's first term. In neither case was there agreement amongst the elites as to whether it would be worth the president putting himself forward for a second term. In neither case did the polls offer any guarantee of victory. Both cases are in sharp contrast with the corresponding situation around President Putin, when the forecasts promised a clear victory over his rivals.

At the same time, Yeltsin's situation at the end of his first term was much more complicated. His ratings were falling, and we know that one camp suggested he prolong his tenure by introducing a state of emergency, since allowing the public to freely express a view in an election would be far too risky. In the end, the "no election" camp did not win out. Instead, Yeltsin opted for an ultra-powerful PR campaign. "Ultra" since it relied both on its own propaganda machine and on depriving the opponents of all possible opportunities. With the move, "democrats" demonstrated a belief that the end justifies the means, and thereby brought to an end the short history of Russian electoral democracy. Their political heirs, to whom Yeltsin handed over the nation, took up that initiative and developed the technology of victory on many fronts: voter harassment, ballot stuffing, the falsification of the results and so on. All this is relevant to today since now the voters too are used to mass manipulation and infringements during elections. Indeed, they actually expect them.

When Putin prepared for his second election, everyone knew that his ratings were unshakeable. This did not, however, prevent the same "no-election" enthusiasts from making their presence felt yet again. According to the eminent sociologist Yuri Levada, polls were even falsified in the hope of persuading the President that his popularity had been exaggerated and that, actually, everyone hated him. Once again, this camp was unable to dictate the game this time either. Yet the elections were not cancelled, neither were they allowed to take a normal, legal course either. By finessing delicate electoral technology and the ruthless use of lobbying, the grey cardinals managed to bump up the real victory totals.

Why did they decide go to such trouble? There are two schools of thought here. One, that the pack of Kremlin political strategists feeds off elections and will therefore do anything to prove that they are essential for victory. The other says that the authorities wouldn't want an honest election even if it were to bring victory to their candidate. After all, the candidate might not win honestly the next time, and that would make for complications. If the people know that all elections are invariably dishonest, such problems simply don't arise. And as yet they haven't.

Returning to Medvedev's chances of being re-elected, it can be said that at the moment they still remain, though are not particularly substantial. The data we have indicates that 19% of people would give their votes to him, compared with 22% for Putin. That said, 48% of respondents wanted Medvedev to take part in the elections. There is a question mark over whether he will put himself forward or not and in the cases of his predecessors there was no such doubt.

So this could mean that the remaining year will be the end of Medvedev's presidency, rather than of his first term. This makes it reasonable to compare the current situation the end of Yeltsin's rule in 1999, and the end of Putin's second term in 2008: after all, for them these were times when tension was beginning to build, or was already in full swing. The tension was both in society and among the elites.

In Yeltsin's case there was growing discontent in society with what he had done and what he failed to do, his gestures and his style. There was general disillusionment with capitalism and democracy ­ or those versions of both which had presented themselves very clearly by the end of Yeltsin's presidency. The tension was building up among the elites as well. People in power who felt that they would not manage to hold on to it through the election told Yeltsin he had to find a successor. This was one more way of getting round the awkward slings and arrows of democracy and, unlike the idea of introducing a state of emergency, was at least a peaceful way forward.

Yeltsin made his search for a successor a public event, which turned into a fascinating political game not only for the elites, but for the general public too. Suddenly, the most important question in Russia was who would be the next president, and that was a question that would be decided in public, though not by the public. Yeltsin considered the options, the public waited expectantly, and eventually his choice fell on the head of the FSB. As soon as this became public knowledge, the unknown colonel's popularity ratings soared to 60%. They have never fallen below this figure.

In other words, society swallowed the trick of a successor being appointed. There were no objections to the fact that such a change overrode the main point of the election, and turned it into a demonstration of popular support. On more than one occasion Putin has stated that the next president after Medvedev will be appointed by the government in power. The strongest reaction to this has been curiosity ­ who will be appointed? The second reaction is indifference ­ who cares? The idea that it's the prerogative of society to propose, promote and approve the head of state has, it seems, long been forgotten.

At the end of the second Putin term, the choice was between Ivanov and Medvedev. Neither were high in the ratings, but they were about equal (to judge from the support expressed for them later). The nuanced differences in their political profiles enable the public to cast them as symbols of two principles which are profoundly traditional for Russian political culture and re-appear every century under different names. At the imperial court, for instance, they were Slavophiles and Westernisers; at another time they were liberals and conservatives in the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. After that came minorities and majorities at the congresses of People's Deputies, then the democrats and communists in the Duma, then... Then they became an attribute of power, which became stronger with each claimant. In this respect Putin's choice of Medvedev was interpreted as a sign of a move towards the liberals. Medvedev's career had started as a "soft" manager. The fact that Medvedev passed laws and acted in a way that was nakedly anti-liberal had no effect on the liberal leanings with which he was credited. It makes no difference either that now Mevedev more and more often shows a liberal face to the public, yet takes almost no real steps in that direction.

By indicating that Medvedev would be his successor Putin bypassed the obstacle of elections as Yeltsin had done before him. More importantly, and with the complete agreement of society and the elites, he managed to overcome the obstacle created by the Constitution to a long reign commensurate with a long life in the oriental manner. A third term was not possible and Medvedev was appointed to keep the seat warm for Putin until such time as the Constitution would permit him to return. This was the informal arrangement between Putin and Medvedev agreed by society ­ not unlike a holy, but entirely fictional, marriage.

In the Putin age this deal between the authorities and the people was excellently honed to a kind of unity against outsiders, whether they were foreign powers, international organisations or foreign journalists. There was one message for domestic consumption, even if it was only conveyed by signs, and another for the outsiders. In the election situation the role of the "other" who had to be outwitted was played by the provisions of the constitution ­ and those people who insisted that they should be observed in the spirit as well as in the letter. An heir was identified and a solution found.

But the existence of two figures at the top of the power tree triggered the mechanism of political imputation discussed above. Medvedev was forced to become a liberal, whether he wanted to or not, and Putin had to row in the opposite direction. Those are the laws of this tradition. The result is that significantly more Russians consider Medvedev more inclined to "political dialogue and compromise" than Putin. The majority of Russians think Putin, rather than Medvedev, can "support Russia's proper position in the world" (43% and 31% respectively), but Medvedev is more able than Putin to modernise (37% and 29% respectively) and "guarantee political freedoms" (27% and 24%).

So Putin has been presented with an alternative. The two traditional principles are personified by the figures at the top, whose potential becomes comparable. This makes the situation in the run up to the presidential election unlike any of those we have looked at. It is different too from the fairly usual situation in many Western countries, where two leaders with diametrically opposing views battle it out in the election and the result is decided by the voters. Not what people expect from elections in Russia.

The situation now is also unlike the oriental variant, where the father of the nation, whose authority is unquestioned, agrees to serve his people, that is not to leave his post, until he dies. But history has shown that even the East is starting to move away from this model.

What is to be done? The elites will not permit the system of dual power to be extended for another term. No one believes that Putin will stand down of his own accord, and even if he could get rid of Medvedev as simply as he appointed him, it would be a risky thing to do. Some groups have pinned their hopes on Medvedev and they have to be taken into account.

The public is also in a tight spot. There's no belief in honest elections and, on the whole, no perceived need for them. But now the public actually wants to choose between Putin and Medvedev. A real honest election would be just the job.

First appeared at http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/alexei-levinson/russian-elections-who-needs-them bearing the following notice:

Creative CommonsThis article is published by Alexei Levinson, and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it with attribution for non-commercial purposes following the CC guidelines. For other queries about reuse, click here. Some articles on this site are published under different terms. No images on the site or in articles may be re-used without permission unless specifically licensed under Creative Commons.

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