Yabloko Rots, Rodina’s Racism

The Moscow City Duma elections are finished. Their lead up was filled with trepidation, controversy, and speculation. All proved to be sound and predictable concerns. But there was no need took look up one of the many soothsayers and warlocks that are advertised in Moscow tabloids to predict the outcome. No palms needed to be read. No chicken bones interpreted. If Moscow gypsies earned their keep solely on giving political advice, they would have been put out of business. Indeed, nobody doubted that United Russia was going to come out more politically secure in the nation’s capital. Rather the question was where the losers stand, if anywhere, after the electoral smoke cleared.

United Russia swept all but 7 seats, dominating 28 of the 35 seats up for grab on the ballot. Out of the 34.8% (2.4 million) of registered voters who bothered to vote, they received 47.3%, the Communist Party got 16.8% or 4 seats, whole Yabloko 11.1% or 3 seats.

Moscow is the heart of Russia and pumps vital juices to the rest of the nation. Given its importance as an economic and political center, there is no doubt that the City Duma results are a preview of the 2007 Parliamentary and 2008 Presidential elections. The fact that United Russia came out so handedly, also reveals that Russian politics remains a contest between them and the Communist Party. The liberal forces and extreme right and left parties are thoroughly marginalized. With this election, Yabloko and its new ally the Union of Right Forces barely escaped shrinking into obscurity. Many felt that if Yabloko couldn’t garner 10% of the vote, there was no political future for the party. They survived by 1.1%.

However, the Western media has yet to come to terms with the utter insignificance of Yabloko. One need only turn to today’s reporting on the elections to get a full frontal of lament for Yabloko’s political collapse. It seems that everything but the truth is being used to explain why United Russia won so handedly, while Yabloko barely made a showing. Take Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for example. Yabloko’s poor showing was “because so many voters chose to stay at home” rather than because they have no constituency. If they had so much support wouldn’t they have come out to vote? Or are the Yabloko supporters voting with silence? Also predictably are charges of voter falsification and malfeasance. At least that is the analysis of Yabloko deputy chairman, Sergei Mitrokhin,

“We have come to the conclusion that the level of falsification in today’s Moscow election exceeds anything that has ever been observed in the city before. What’s more, this has been done openly, shamelessly and, I would say, insolently. A well-targeted campaign was run against Yabloko and the United Democrats of Russia throughout the election campaign, which was, in fact, run from within the Kremlin and this gives us grounds to suggest that this will now continue in the electoral constituencies by other means.”

Now granted there is no doubt in my mind that such falsification occurred. Nor do I doubt that the Kremlin has liberal parties in its sights. According to Kommersant, Mitrokhin went on to charge that the tactics for voter fraud resembled that used in Ukraine by Viktor Yanukovich’s camp:

[At one polling station] at 9:25 a.m. 107 people arrived at the same time in one of the voting places and all of them had absentee ballots. If these statements are true — the same technology, which was used by Viktor Yanukovich supporters during Ukrainian elections, was applied in Moscow. In Ukraine there were buses full of voters driving around the country and people were voting outside of their registered locations.”

Among other cited incidents, one member of local electoral commission No. 2409 was removed for “re-arranging the furniture, which was creating a fire hazard and groundless conversations with chairman and members of the commission.” In another incident, a Yabloko observer named Vitaly Reznikov tore off Vladimir Putin’s portrait from the wall at voting booth No. 2658. Reznikov considered the portrait “hidden propaganda of United Russia.” He was subsequently fined 1500 ($50) rubles for violating the Criminal Article “Petty Hooliganism.” But what is an election without a little hooliganism?

So yes strange things happened during this election but as Kommersant soberly adds, “It is highly doubtful that such technology would be effective in Moscow. Even if the Yabloko statements about the issue of 70,000 absentee ballots are true, they would not make much difference among over 2 million voters who participated in the elections.”

If the election’s end signaled the beginning of the end for Yabloko, the pre-election period showed that the nationalist party Rodina might have a firm finger on the pulse of many Muscovites. Rodina was banned from participating in the election on November26 for its advertisement (which you can watch here) that depicted some dark-skinned fellows throwing watermelon rinds on the ground as a blond Russian woman walks past them. Then two Rodina leaders, one which is chairman Dmitrii Rogozin, walk up and ask if the men “understand Russian” and to pick up the rinds. The ad ends with the Rodina banner with “Let’s clean up the garbage from our city.” The racism in the ad was lost on no one.

But Rodina didn’t stop there. According to an excellent piece by LA Times’ Moscow correspondent Kim Murphy, when the Paris race riots exploded, Rodina re-dubbed the ad in French and changed the slogan to read “France, One Year Ago.” The Moscow City Court ruled that the ad incited racial hatred and banned Rodina from participating in the elections. Most people saw right through the fact Rodina was banned for “inciting racial hatred” and correctly recognized that the move was entirely political. But the more interesting aspect of this story is the reactions from the public about the ad. Today’s LA Times story on the elections quotes a pensioner named Zoya Danilova, 63, would have voted for Rodina because “they had this ad that was very good. . . It had very good ideas in it, but someone upstairs didn’t like it so they were struck from the ballot. It’s a joy to me,” she added, “that I was born in Russia, and there’s no place I’d rather live. I love my homeland.”

Her “I was born in Russia” statement is what complicates the issue of citizenship. Most people were born not in Russia but the Soviet Union, and whether you were born in Russia, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan it didn’t matter, you were a citizen then and many non-Russians think so should you be now. Mekhti, a 40 year old native of Baku, who Murphy interviewed agrees,

“What are you talking about? “I’m not a foreigner. I was born in this country, in the Soviet Union. I served in the Soviet army in East Germany for this country. And now Rogozin is saying that I am garbage? We are working hard, selling fruit and vegetables to people in this city, and if they could do without us, we would not be here, believe me.”

As Murphy’s article points out many Russians view blame many of society’s ills on immigrants. Tensions have risen sharply as more people from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Tajikistan immigrate to Russia as cheap labor. In recent months, there have been several incidents of racial violence perpetrated by skinheads in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Voronezh, to name a few. The question now becomes if Rodina’s ad could curry favor among voters now, what will role will race play in the 2007 and 2008 elections?