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Reflections on elections in Russia: based on 30 years of my observations

Blog | Andrei Buzin
Co-chairman of the Golos movement, head of the expert advisory group affiliated with the chairman of the Central Election Commission of Russia

Russia has gone through another federal election, the election of Vladimir Putin. As far as I remember, it was the fourteenth federal elections in Russia. Apart from those, I can also recall elections of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR and the Deputies of the Supreme Council of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, as well as numberless regional and local elections that I either observed, sometimes organised or even participated in as a candidate (in 1990). They were all different, of course; however, the closer to today, the more often our elections shared an important characteristic of being strongly controlled by the executive administration that lies on the top of the so-called ‘power vertical’. 

Notably, methods of administrative management of the elections are improving and becoming less visible. The judiciary is very helpful in justifying these practices through laws that the legislative power is adjusting in a similarly helpful manner. The majority of the electoral commissions now count votes honestly, in contrary to the period between 2007 and 2011; the most recent federal and many regional or local elections saw the departure from previous barbarian practices that prevailed between 1999 and 2012, such as absurd denials of registration or cancellations thereof. Primitive technologies pass into history as superfluous and give way to more subtle and propaedeutic ones, such as holding the political and civic structures under control, neutralisation of the most active politicians, and massive propaganda sold as information. 

Political technologists and even some politicians openly refer to our elections as ‘referenda’, meaning there is no actual choice among more than one options. Not all elections are like this; yet, the recent presidential election comes as an apparent example of ‘referendum-style’ polling. After the experiment at Moscow elections in 2013, the government decided to stop experimenting. Rather than a fear of losing the top position in Russia, the reason for this was the harmful effects of such experiments on the existing power design that imitates political competition and elections. The political competition does not emerge overnight; it takes years for political platforms and leaders to grow and become well-known to citizens. It takes more than years, actually. 

The presence of political leaders and platforms is not enough for political competition to exist. After all, the oppositional Yabloko has been existing for years in Russia, with no major problems, a clear platform and a well-known leader. In the Duma, three more parties have even fewer problems (though also less clarity regarding their platforms). Yet, it is so much too little for a real political competition: there is no separation of powers, no independent legislatures or judiciary bodies, no economy free of government control, which could produce diversity in media, and no uncorrupted law enforcement. Decentralised distribution of economic assets and reducing state’s influence in economy could pave the way to these missing elements, though not immediately. However, our country got out of this track in early 2000s by turning back toward the centralisation of economy, though switching from Soviet to Latin American, or oligarch, model. The centralisation brought us back to paternalist relations between the state 

and the public, the re-nationalisation of media, power concentration and reunification, and the political domination of just one group. 

The constitutional powers of the president played an important role in the centralisation; other major factors included the public traditions of Soviet times, a huge army of staff in security services (led by the future president, by the way), and, trivially, the greed of the power group. 

The Soviet system had a very well-articulated hierarchy dominated by the Communist Party, the political group enshrined in the Constitution. It left no space for public elections; though the USSR had regular events labelled as elections, they were not fit for the purpose, a commonly accepted fact nowadays. 

After the removal of the Communist Party from the power, confusion and vacillation period came, with many opportunities for political freedoms and competition. In early 90ies, we had a chance of proceeding toward a natural balance of several more or less equal political groups competing in a more or less civilised manner at real elections. Having observed the beginning of this process, I would claim that the current government’s propaganda is strongly exaggerating the myth about ‘wild 90ies’. As a participant, an organiser and an observer of elections in 90ies, I saw that they were much fairer than today and fully competitive.

Moscow saw the emergence of the new political dominant group earlier than other parts of Russia. This trend made itself felt in 1996 during the mayor elections and grew stronger with each next polls. On the background of the new political system, with many political and civil organisations participating and amid the legal definition of parties as key participants of elections, the actual dominant force was the ‘non-political’ association of Moscow high-level officials run by Luzhkov, commonly referred to as ‘experienced public manager’. Luzhkov List was never registered as a party; yet, it won all elections in Moscow in an increasingly sweeping manner: 27 out of 35 seats in 1997, 33 out of 35 in 2001, 15 out of 15 in 2005 and 17 out of 17 in 2009 (in two latter cases, elections were organised through single-seat districts). 

The corporation of officials, or the administration, emerged as a new dominant political group in Moscow after 1996. Without registering as a political party, this group was both the key participant and the key organiser of the elections, just like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The group included right people to electoral commissions, ran courts and the police, selected right candidates, and endorsed them at elections. While doing this, it stayed under the radar. 

Invitations to elections 

Analogous practices spread around the country after 2000. With Putin learning a lot from Luzhkov, the methods were amazingly similar everywhere. It started with anti-constitutional rearrangement of administrative hierarchy by establishing federal districts around Russia and administrative ones in Moscow. Capturing media, businesses, courts, legislatures, and electoral commissions, came next. Subjugating law enforcement was even easier, since prosecutors’ offices, FSB and other security services were under federal rule from the very beginning. The inventor of the method had to be eliminated, of course. 

Reconstruction of elections was finished by 2011 everywhere in Russia. Scandalous Duma elections outlined a need for finer tuning. After a change of an election manager in Kremlin, elections in 2012 saw a lower level of fraud. The system had been prepared for it. The political design was so well fixed that elections seized to be a self-sufficient mechanism for country’s political life. 

Before 1993, Russian constitutions failed to indicate the public meaning of elections, despite many other election-related provisions. On the contrary, the Constitution of 1993 had a very brief and essential provision on elections: “The supreme direct expression of the power of the people shall be referendum and free elections” (Part 3, Article 3). I leave it to my readers to compare this phrase to our reality and ask themselves about the degree in which elections reflect the will of the people. Do elected bodies represent their interests and ideas about dignified life? Do the elected legislators pass good laws and are the elected leaders running the country properly? 

I am sure the majority of our citizens would answer “no”, which means that our elections are far from accomplishing their constitutional purpose. 

The question is whether the elections are possible to reform to make them comply with our Constitution. In other ways, can we count on elections to make our life better? This question is of particular relevance for me, as someone who works on improving our elections. Recently, the new leadership of our electoral system seems more reliable, the connection between real observers and critics of our elections is established, and direct falsifications are rarer. However, elections still feel neither real nor compliant with the Constitution. 

 As said above, elections are not a self-sufficient mechanism. It is extensively integrated into country’s political and state system. Adjusting at least some subsystems is key for making them meaningful. Therefore, improving elections demands advocating for many other things, which brings us very close to involvement in politics. 

Yet, let us come back to the topic of the electoral system. Making elections a real rather than decorative process requires addressing, at any rate, two crucial issues of obviously political, as opposed to technical, nature.  

First, many restrictions on passive electoral right must be lifted, making it easier to nominate and register candidates. It includes a large bulk of issues, ranging from legal registration of parties that cause a threat to the current administration and political persecution of oppositionists, to very flexible provisions on grounds for denied registration and almost prohibitive requirements to signature collection. 

Second, drastic change in composition of all commissions above the precinct level is necessary. The current members of these commissions were appointed by the administration that is also a key participant of the elections. The commissions are politically biased because of either financial dependence or members’ political and mental beliefs. They cannot be neutral in their decisions, resulting in a lack of equal rights for the candidates. Members can have different considerations during decision-making; not always are they primitively conformist, but the result stays the same. Without being as conformist as previous one, the new Central Electoral Commission of Russia still turns a blind eye to the huge misbalance in ‘information’ about the candidate-number-one; it also consults administrations when appointing members of regional commissions. The whole system of the electoral commissions is under executive control, making it impossible to treat it as an independent institution. It is pre-programmed to produce elections leading to the government’s self-reproduction, regardless of people’s will. It is definitely a complicated task to reform the electoral commissions; yet, solving it is essential to depart from the practice of for-show elections. 

Unfortunately, only political will of the government can make these wishes come true. We are stuck in a vicious circle: elections can change the government, but it is the government who runs the elections. This situation is dangerous because it deprives the elections of its function to regulate country’s persistent development. Democratic procedures become pointless for solving real life problems.