You needn’t make your vote count- We’ll do that for you!
Local elections have just been held across Russia. Millions of Russians have had the opportunity to go and vote for their local representatives. This is modern Russian democracy in action.
“Of course United Russia will win. I won’t bother voting because it will make no difference, but that’s not so bad is it?”
Such is the view of my landlord’s representative, in her twenties, who came to collect the rent a few days ago. It’s typical of so many Muscovites and Russians I’ve talked to. Let’s examine each of the three things she said.
1. Of course United Russia will win.
This was (barring a popular uprising) a certainty. They won with a large majority in most seats. The fact that this can be said is a ringing indictment of the state of Russian ‘democracy’. The United Russia government removed all independent candidates from ballot sheets using the tried and tested method of ‘invalid application forms’. Apparently ALL the independent candidates wanting to stand made mistakes on their forms or had faked the signatures needed to support them. Only opposition parties were allowed to stand, and only because United Russia doesn’t consider them a threat. They briefly walked out of the Duma when they heard about the farcical vote. The Communists, meanwhile, are one of the main complainants about the lack of democracy. Nikolai Gubenko, a communist sitting on the Moscow Assembly, has complained that the ordinary fare of political campaigning – holding gatherings, meeting voters, and putting up posters – has been made very difficult. If this evidence is anything to go by then opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was right to call the election ‘fraud, farce, 100%’. Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was outraged by the vote.
2. I won’t bother voting because it will make no difference.
Voter apathy is widespread in Russia. The population’s democratic muscle had never really been flexed before and was only starting to be used by the time Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999. He stopped it again quickly. Many think Russians have had a voice so rarely in the country’s authoritarian past they don’t feel it’s their business who runs the country or how they do it. It’s a different viewpoint which some in the West may find anathema. On the other hand these are only local and municipal elections, which are less prominent than parliamentary or presidential elections in most countries. We must also respect a population’s viewpoint. There are other points of view: who is to say that Western bickering and media frenzies (3rd paragraph) over elections are a useful waste of a population’s time?
3. But neither of the above is so bad is it.
Here we see a greater reason for the (shall we call it a) pact between many Russians and United Russia (or Vladimir Putin). When you ask Russians about the 1990s, especially the late 90s, you receive a pretty much universal answer. The scene depicted is heartbreaking. A once proud nation falling apart at the seams. Rampant crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, a miserable slaughter of hapless conscripts in Chechnya, and the greatest catastrophe of all, the collapse of the rouble. Many people’s life savings were wiped out overnight. Oligarchs bought up people’s money ‘coupons’ for a fraction of their value and were handed empires on a silver platter out of old Soviet industries. The Russian people were shell-shocked by a tragedy many found difficult to comprehend. This was their first experience of democracy and capitalism and it was an awful experience.
In response they coined the term ‘shitocracy’. If this was what democracy brought, then the West could keep it!
Capitalism is making slow and unsteady progress in Russia, but at least it’s crawling in the right direction. Democracy is now ‘managed’ by United Russia, and some observers hold that the Russian people are just fine with that.
So it’s not as simple as democratic crusaders in the West would like to see it. For Russia (as, in fact, for the establishment of all the Western democracies), order comes first. Not servitude to Tsar or the party, but order with capitalism. Russia is not China but it’s found some inspiration from there. Russia taught China how to get into Communism, now it seems China has helped show Russia how to get out. Order allows people to make money, and with that comes higher expectations for living standards and democratic rights. Russia has long had a way of defying prediction, so no doubt the country and people will find a different way of progressing. For the moment though, Russians seem happy to let massive electoral fraud go unchecked, and waive their democratic rights in exchange for some stability.
The West, with the kindest of post Cold War intentions, messed Russia up enough in the 1990s. It might be difficult for us to stand by and watch this happen to a potential democracy, and when it leads to people getting hurt the democratic world is as entitled as ever to show its alarm. But I’m sure if we take a look at the histories of most democratic countries we can find periods where they resembled modern Russia. History is never a straight spectrum of ‘progress’.
That said, let’s hope Russians realise why each vote does matter. The link between free and fair elections and more moderate and benevolent forms of government is not perfect, but it’s more identifiable than in systems of authoritarian or dictatorial power where the people have no say in government. On that basis, let’s hope this century won’t be as tragic for Russia as the previous one.