Kremlinology 2012

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style

Election Hardball, Kremlin Style

On Sunday, Nov. 27, when Vladimir Putin accepted United Russia’s nomination to be its presidential candidate, he mentioned something in his acceptance speech that seemed to come out of left field. "The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money — so-called ‘grantees’ — whom they instruct, find them ‘suitable work’ in order to influence the result of the election campaign in our country," he said, adding that "Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people." It was old-school, West-bashing, Cold War-invoking Putin at his best.

It was also, it turns out, very carefully aimed. Over the weekend, as United Russia waved its flags and cheered its leader, two journalists from state-controlled television station NTV showed up at the offices of Golos ("Voice" or "Vote"), the only Russian NGO with the means and credibility to monitor elections. The uninvited film crew came to sit in on a training session for volunteers and, according to Golos’s accounts, made quite the entrance. They watched a Golos training video and interviewed the organization’s director, Lilia Shibanova (as she told me, "aggressively"), asking her about her organization’s connection to the CIA.

The next day, the same journalists arrived to find Grigory Melkonyants, Golos’s deputy director. They stuck a camera in his face and started yelling at him about the etiology of his salary (the United States, naturally) and alleging that Golos was attempting to disrupt Sunday, Dec. 4’s parliamentary elections. The resultant video, recorded on Melkonyants’s phone, quickly went viral when it made it onto the web a couple of days later. It shows the two screaming at each other: NTV insinuating sordid connections to shadowy Western organizations, Melkonyants repeating over and over and over again: "You are Surkov’s propaganda." (He was referring to Vladislav Surkov, the architect of the power vertical, creator of United Russia and Nashi, and a man who makes Karl Rove look like a professional dilettante.) The repetition of the phrase — 84 times in all — was designed to make the footage unusable for the kind of hatchet pieces NTV airs on figures who suddenly fall from official grace.

The half-hour film segment, called "Voice Out of Nowhere," finally made it onto the air Friday, but not before three Duma deputies wrote a letter to Russia’s prosecutor general, alleging that Golos’s newspaper breaks the law by "giving direct assessments of the progress of the election campaign in our country." Furthermore, the organization, the deputies allege, is merely a shell organization for the U.S. Congress and State Department to influence internal Russian politics. The deputies’ demand? Shut Golos down.

A statement by Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission and loyal Putin defender, followed, claiming that Golos was waging a campaign against United Russia. There was the sudden removal of a banner on Wednesday from the liberal Internet newspaper Gazeta.ru advertising its joint project with Golos: an interactive map tracking all election law violations submitted by users. (Asked whether Gazeta.ru had been pressured to remove this banner, Editor in Chief Mikhail Kotov only said, "I’d rather leave this without comment.") Then, Friday, in a hastily scheduled court hearing and verdict, Golos was found guilty, during just one morning session, of abusing media privileges — and ordered to pay a roughly $1,000 fine.

Golos, which, with its vast network of volunteers carpeting Russia, has been an invaluable resource to journalists covering Russian elections, has never denied that it receives foreign funding. "We survive on foreign grants because the government will never finance the kind of work we do," Shibanova told me this week. "But the money does not influence our results." She readily listed the mosaic of grants, large and small, that make up Golos’s roughly $2.5 million election-year budget: the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Democratic Institute, British and Scandinavian embassies, the European Commission. Nor does she deny that Golos observers often pose as journalists in order to get into the polling stations, something she says is impossible to avoid after the passage of a law, in 2005, banning all election monitors except those sent by the parties themselves, or journalists. "Of course we pose as journalists!" Shibanova said. "What else can we do if you ban any public observers and allow in only representatives from the parties themselves?"

This is not the first time election observers have faced trouble in Russia — European monitors generally have a difficult time getting accredited to cover Russian elections, and this year was no exception — but the scale of the attack on Golos is unprecedented. It also fits into the context of an increasingly brazen campaign in which government officials and offices — like Churov’s Central Election Commission — openly and unapologetically use their positions to campaign for United Russia. Or in which United Russia officials openly promise voters money directly proportional to election results. It is rather odd, for instance, that Churov steps in so openly for just one party — United Russia — which clearly has the lion’s share of the advantage, as well as the financial, administrative, and media resources of the state, essentially, at its behest. "Before, they at least tried to hide this," says political analyst Maria Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Now, not only are they not hiding the fact that they’re waging electoral campaigns from their desks and offices inside the government — they’re showing it off."

But heading into Sunday’s vote, the Kremlin isn’t just showing off its political will, administrative might, or even hubris and blunt honesty about what the process really is; it’s also flaunting, albeit inadvertently, a fear of what that vote on Sunday might reveal. How else can one explain an otherwise sophisticated, cleverly nuanced system — Surkov, unlike Rove, fetishizes the post-modern — suddenly falling back on the crassest of methods? How else can one explain the explicit directive given to the foreign-news translation service within the state RIA news agency not to publish pieces critical of Putin and United Russia ahead of the elections? What happened to the state media system’s brilliant shortcut of self-censorship? And what to make of the sudden prominence given to Western spooks, in Putin’s speech, in the official letters to the prosecutor’s office, and in nearly identical language? ("We have special services, and we have all the data about NGOs’ being sponsored by foreign states," Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary told me. "We have all the information, let’s say, about some recommendations coming from the foreign states. Already we know NGOs that will start shouting on the 5th of December" — the day after the elections — "that these elections are not legitimate without paying any respect to the results.")

On Friday, still-president Dmitry Medvedev issued an appeal to his subjects. "How long will it take you to go and vote?" he asked. "Half an hour? An hour? But this hour will determine what kind of parliament the country will live with for five whole years." Will it be a parliament "torn apart by constant contradiction, unable to solve anything, as we’ve already seen in our history?" Medvedev asked, invoking the old bogeyman of the 1990s. Or will it be a parliament where "the majority will be responsible politicians [read: United Russia deputies] who can actually improve the quality of life?"

Whatever kind of parliament the Kremlin gets on Sunday, Surkov will find a way to work with it or around it. But, given the public rumblings of the last two months as well as the Kremlin’s crass response, it seems that the Kremlin is increasingly uncertain about how its citizens will spend that hour.