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What Really Happened in the Russian Elections

by ISRAEL SHAMIR

Moscow is unusually warm: the temperature refuses to dip below zero degrees Centigrade, the freezing point.  Instead, it is wet and dark. The sun gets up late and goes to sleep early. To make matters worse, President Medvedev decided to keep Russia on daylight savings  time throughout winter. To offset this stupid decision, Christmas illumination was turned on a month before the usual time, in order to cheer up the voters. Now it lights the way for the armoured vans of the riot police sent in to pacify the cheery electorate.

The parliamentary elections were deemed in advance as a futile and vain exercise of no practical importance. “It does not matter how you vote, what matters is how they count”,  pundits said. But the results were quite impressive and they point to great changes ahead. The Russians have said to communism: “Come back, all is forgiven.” They effectively voted to restore the Soviet Union, in one form or another.  Perhaps this vote will not be acted upon, but now we know – the people are disappointed with capitalism, with the low place of post-Soviet Russia in the world and with the marriage of big business and government.

If communists proved the fallacy of their ideas in 70 years, the capitalists needed only twenty years to achieve this same result, joked Maxim Kantor, a prominent modern Russian painter, writer and thinker. The twentieth anniversary of the restoration of capitalism that Russia commemorated this year was not a cause for celebration but rather for sad second thoughts. The Russians loudly regretted the course taken by their country in 1991; the failed coup of August 1991, this last ditch attempt to preserve communism, has been reassessed in a positive light, while the brave Harvard boys of yesteryear who initiated the reforms are seen as criminals. Yeltsin and Gorbachev are out, Stalin is in.

Despite the falsifications of election results (discussed below), the communists (CPRF and their splinter party the Just Russia or SR) greatly increased their share and can be considered the true winners. The ruling United Russia (ER) party suffered huge losses. A loose confederation of power-seeking individuals, it could easily fall apart. There is a distinct possibility of the communists being able to form the government; that is, if they should be asked to do so by the President.

Pro-capitalist and right-wing parties were decimated by the voters. Neoliberal Right Cause (PD), the party of choice for market believers, languished with less than one per cent of the vote.  The liberal, pro-Western Apple Party (half-jokingly referred to as  “the Steve Jobs party”) did not cross the electoral threshold.  Many Russians think that, discounting falsifications, the communists “really” got over 50 per cent, while the ER actually got less, perhaps much less. Given the chance, the people voted for communists, as had been predicted a few months ago by VT Tretyakov, a senior Russian journalist and chief editor, during an address to a Washington DC think tank. He correctly said that in fairly honest elections, the communists will carry the day, and the liberals will be gone, and he was right. If this change of heart does not find its expression in political action, people will feel cheated.

This turn towards communism took place with Russia busily restoring its lost legacy:

  • The North Stream pipeline connected Russian gas with European consumers directly, leaving Poland (and by proxy, the US) without a point of leverage. Oil and gas pipelines are being built towards China, promising Russia a choice of customers.
  • Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union began to take shape. The Ukraine  has made friendly gestures, the crisis of Belarus is over, Kazakhstan is firmly inside.
  • The Russian Navy aircraft carrier went to the shores of Syria, in a rare display of power, while Qatar’s ambassador in Moscow has been sent packing, as this tiny but rich emirate is apparently leading the anti-Syrian campaign.
  • Last month, the fabulous Bolshoi theatre was lovingly and expensively restored to its purple-and-gold old glory. To conservative viewers’ chagrin, Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila opera (with the wonderful American singer Charles Workman) was directed in an avant-garde manner, showing that the theatre will not act as a museum piece but will produce up-to-date art.
  • Sochi is about to become the most expensive and luxurious sea-and-mountain resort ever in preparation for the Winter Olympics;
  • Moscow has been beautified; thirty-foot-high elaborately decorated Christmas trees have been placed at prominent locations around the city, making the darkness of its northern nights almost bearable. City parks have been granted huge budgets for improvement; skating rinks have been prepared. Even fountains that collapsed twenty years ago have been rebuilt.
  • But the most important recent sign of a resurgent Russia took place this month: A holy relic, the Virgin Mary’s Sash, has been brought to Moscow from its repository at  sacred Mount Athos.  A staggering three million Muscovites venerated it, lining up for twenty-four hours on average  in freezing temperatures. This was Russia’s asymmetric response to America’s Black Friday shopping-mall queues.

Russia is full of problems, too.  Russia lost twenty million lives in the transition to capitalism with little to show for it; its villages stand empty, a brain drain has sent the best and brightest overseas.  Capital flight bleeds Russia dry; every search for a company’s owners ends at a Cyprus-registered offshore trust.  Bribes and extortion are ubiquitous; infrastructure is worn down, de-industrialisation has undermined the working class; agricultural lands have been taken over by speculators. The army is demoralised, its weapons outmoded, and Russian education is as bad as anywhere.

The rich are too rich, and one per cent of Russia’s population owns much of the country’s wealth. This wealth is not considered legitimate by people: the ongoing Berezovsky vs. Abramovich court case offered legal proof that the fabulous riches of the New Russians were obtained by embezzling national wealth. What’s worse,  big business is fully integrated with the government; oligarchs and government officials intermarry and live separately from hoi polloi.

People are quite unhappy with what they see as a dictatorial or even an “occupation” regime. While Putin is considered a hostile leader by the West, the Russians think he is too obliging to the West, a centrepiece of the regime installed in the 90s. They would prefer a stronger anti-imperialist position any day.

The elections may have little direct consequence:  The Russian constitution was written by Boris Yeltsin after he shelled Parliament in 1993 and imposed his personal rule (to the standing ovation of the Western media). This constitution allows the president to disregard Parliament. But the election results show the changed public mood.

And if that’s not enough, a big demonstration of some ten thousand citizens flared up in the middle of Moscow – something unheard of since 1993. The demonstrators protested against massive falsifications of  election results. Three hundred were arrested, among them popular and populist blogger Alexei Navalny who created the soubriquee “Party of Thieves and Cheats” for  United Russia.  The next day police dispersed another demo in the centre.

With Arab Spring in the background, the authorities are worried. Troops have been dispatched to Moscow. Though there is no immediate prospect of riots,  the traditionally heavy-handed Russian authorities never use a few policemen if they can send a brigade, and so they deployed the fearsome Dzerzhinsky Special Force brigade.

Were the elections falsified? Independent observers reported many irregularities in Moscow; probably it was even worse elsewhere. It seems that the ruling ER party activists inserted many fake ballots, and probably skewed the results in their favour. A poll made by NGO Golos on the basis of a few polling places with no irregularities showed that the communists won big, while the ER almost collapsed at the polls. On the web, there are claims of massive distortions following the vote count. It is hard to extrapolate from the Moscow results to the whole country, but the Russians believe that the results were falsified. They are also tired of their Teflon rulers.

ER

SR

CPRF

LDPR

Official Results

49%

13%

19%

11%

Popularly believed

32%

17%

35%

11%  

This should provide a pretext for a revolution, but present-day communist leaders are not made of stern stuff like their legendary predecessors. They do not demand a recount, and generally accept their fate equivocally. In 1996, the communists won the elections, but accepted defeat as they were afraid of Yeltsin’s hit men led by the ruthless oligarch Boris Berezovsky. They are adamant about avoiding civil war; and it is doubted whether the super-wealthy will give up their wealth and positions just because ordinary people voted this or that way. Many people believe that communist leaders are just part of the same ruling system, a kind of HM loyal opposition.

It is the right-wing opposition that is more persistent in denouncing the electoral manipulations, though no polls, independent or otherwise, indicate that their parties were successful. Moreover, this opposition is not famous for its love of democracy. Prominent Russian right-wing journalist Ms Julia Latynina has already called for the termination of  “the farce of democracy”:  the Russian people are too poor,  she said, to be allowed the right to vote, as they are likely to vote against their betters. This opinion was published in the best-known opposition paper Novaya Gazeta (owned by oligarch Mr Lebedev,  owner of the British Independent). For the Right, this is a chance to attack Putin and his regime.

The right wing is strongly anti-Putin; not so the communists who are ready to work with Putin any time. Can Putin change his spots and become Putin-2, a pro-communist president who will restore the Soviet Union and break the power of the oligarchs? He could certainly adopt some communist rhetoric and use the communist support.  Judging by his recent utterances at the Valdai forum, he is likely to turn Russia leftwards, with communists or without.

But stability of his regime is not certain. Putin should act swiftly if he wants to ride the wave of popular feelings, instead of being swept away by it.  Armoured vans are the last things he needs.

ISRAEL SHAMIR can be reached at adam@israelshamir.net

Israel Shamir can be reached on adam@israelshamir

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