The Storm Before the Calm

As I’m write, the last day of electioneering is closing in Moscow. Now we wait for Sunday to see the results of what some Western media outlets are speculating might be “Russia’s last,” “the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed,” and a symbol of Russia’s return to “a Byzantine form of state-society relations” where the national leader is transformed into a “semi-divine figure.” “Democracy” in Russia, says the Guardian, is about to depart. If it is departing, then what will it leave behind? Yes, United Russia’s recent media blitz has boosted Putin’s approval ratings as high as 80 percent, all but ensuring that it will sweep the elections with overwhelming force. Come Monday, can we expect Putin to make a statement similar to “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That’s what happened in the — after the 2000 election, I earned some capital. I’ve earned capital in this election.”? For as some are saying, this is less of a parliamentary election than a referendum on Putin himself.

Thank god we have the eXile to remind us a different time, roughly ten years ago, when the NY Times hailed Russia most corrupt election to date, the Presidential elections of 1996, “A Victory for Russian Democracy.” In an interview with the eXile, Michael Meadowcroft, who then headed the OSCE’s mission to monitor the Russian polls, explains how “he was pressured by OSCE and EU authorities to ignore serious irregularities in Boris Yeltsin’s heavily manipulated 1996 election victory, and how EU officials suppressed a report about the Russian media’s near-total subservience to pro-Yeltsin forces.” The story about how a politically embattled and unpopular Yeltsin beat Communist Party candidate Zyuganov is a staple in understanding 1990s Russia. And if the deluge of reports about election fraud in Sunday’s election are any indication, it’s also a tactic worth repeating with only a few minor upgrades.

It’s also a reminder of how the West’s problem with Russia’s democracy is not one about “democracy” as such. It’s about the for who democracy benefits. Now granted, the concern over Russian democracy has little to do with the Russian people, that is except for the few idealists who still hold on to its revolutionary potential. The Russian people are only rhetorically taken into consideration. The language of “human rights” is merely a linguistic truncheon wielded in the hope that Russia might bend to Western hegemony. The question of Russian democracy is not about all those moral trappings. It’s about who holds power and to what end. And if the election was a referendum on a Russian candidate that was more amendable to West’s collective economic and political interests, there is no doubt that much of the reporting on electoral fraud would be muted.

No, this won’t be Russia’s last election. Because if anything this election has proven that democracy is an effective way to rule. Just look at all the fancy tools it provides for coning the masses into thinking that the powerful actually have their best interests at heart. Advertising, opinion polls, focus groups, exit polls, internet campaigns, even phone messages to voters mobile phones are all deployed with market precision. Much is made of Russia’s virtual politics, but what is often forgotten is that there is nothing particularly Russian about it. One day, hopefully not far into the distant future, all of us on this planet will realize that democracy has lost its revolutionary potential and that through the nexus of technology and power it has become one with the various apparatuses of control. In the meantime, United Russia’s perfection of democracy’s deployment should make Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s own version of Karl Rove, smile at his greatest creation: managed democracy.

The word “managed” evokes images of performance. We see a whole host of managed performances taking shape on the eve of the polls opening. Since the results of Sunday’s poll will prove to be anti-climatic, the only potential snag in the election would be low voter turnout. Low turnout is proving to be Putin’s soft underbelly. And it’s a weakness that is partially his own making. It was Putin that declared the election to be a referendum on his rule. Low turnout, even if the margin of victory is vast, will be a dagger to Putin’s side. However, if polls conducted by the Levada Center are any indication the turnout will be more than adequate. It’s predicted that 63 percent of Russians plan on voting Sunday. This is despite that fact that 85 percent of television viewers pay no attention to political coverage.

However, a Russian “silent majority” won’t fly. While low turnout is a signal of the “satisfied voter” in the United States, in Russia, non-participation is a sign of protest and discontent. Mobilizing the vote therefore takes on special significance since when considering Russia’s history of democracy, whether “socialist” or otherwise, the ritual of participation has always been emphasized. You see this in efforts to mobilize voters to participate in elections for local soviets in the 1920s. Sure the elections were single candidate and rigged, but that didn’t stop the Soviet regime from dumping resources into going through the motions. The very form of democracy has always been more important than its content, and now is no different. As Boris Kagarlitsky rightly notes,

The authorities cannot control whom we give our votes to but in every possible way try to make us participate in the electoral process. They are more concerned with the turnout than with the electoral preferences. There is certain logic to this position. Compulsory social rituals like coming to the polls are important to the authorities despite all the futility of the polls themselves. They want us to act in certain situations blindly and without dissent. Training obedience is the central element to the domination system.

I couldn’t agree more. This makes for an interesting comparison with the United States. While in the latter control is administered via apathy, alienation, and individualist driven consumerism, in Russia, at least until commodity production has fully sown its alienating seeds, the ritual still matters. The system’s legitimacy is still dependent to some extent on civic participation. The very fact that Russians will vote at all helps to re-inscribe the system’s right to exist and do so as it sees fit.

One thing that shouldn’t slip from the observer’s eye is how this re-inscribing is facilitated by the wedding of Russian capital with “managed democracy.” Notice how mobile companies like Beeline, Megaphon, and Sky Link have all jumped on board to mobilize the vote. Their customers will receive unsolicited text messages like “Go vote on 2 December! Your vote is important to the entire country!” All of this is done at the behest of Russia’s Election Commission. Voter mobilization will also take on more analog forms. Polling stations around the country plan on doling out food, coupon booklets, medical exams, haircuts, prizes, and other items to wet the civil appetite.

Russia’s political and economic class will certainly led a hand. Industrialists big and small like Sergei Nedoroslev, the owner of Kaskol, see election day like a holiday where families gather and vote together. “I live and vote here [in Moscow],” he told Vedomosti. “And I have not missed one single election. It’s a holiday, buns will be given!” He plans on escorting his wife to the polls after lunch. So too this anonymous manager of a metallurgical firm. “I always go vote with my entire family. It’s like a holiday. [Voting] is everyone’s social duty.” Yes, the ritual of voting must be important. Even metro-sexual oligarch Roman Abramovich plans on traveling to his Siberian fiefdom of Chukota to cast his vote.

If voter turnout does surprise Russia watchers and ends up low, there is always Plan B. The lack of physical appearance will certainly be supplemented with a flood of absentee ballots. Absentee ballots allow one person to cast several votes in several different polling stations. Police in Komi have already confiscated 60 absentee ballots purchased on Kirov region. Defiant, the Communists have vowed to not stand for the counting of “dead souls.” But in reality, what are they going to do about it?

All of this engenders questions about the political nature of Putin’s system. The question of whether it is authoritarian or democratic is too polarizing. Thinking about Russia as one or the other masks more than it reveals. Russia’s inner workings seems be defy both categories. Like most modern states, it’s a mixture. A political pendulum that sways between the two poles, but never mustering enough power to swing all the way to one or the other, even briefly. So what kind of system are we talking about here? Does it require us to invent a new analytical language to describe it? Is “Putinism”–if we can even call it this–and all of its political trappings–“managed democracy” and “sovereign democracy”–the ideological substructure of Russia’s 21st century modernization? Is it really a perversion of democracy, or is it simply the vanguard of its global exhaustion?

On this I guess we’ll have to way and see.