The Potemkin Duma

Parliamentarians in Moscow this week reacted with surprising integrity to obvious election-fixing by the Kremlin. But is this the beginning of a revolution, or just another level of the charade?


The Kremlin doesn’t rig elections; it engineers them. This is something everyone in Russia, no matter what their rhetoric or political persuasion, knows and accepts. So when recent local elections returned some unusual results, the only surprise was the intensity of the backlash.

On Sunday, Oct. 11, 76 of Russia’s 83 regions went to the polls in some 7,000 regional and municipal elections. In the weeks leading up to the event, the government pushed and pushed Russians to register to vote. But because these were local elections in a country where everything is centered on the so-called Kremlin "power vertical," and because Russians, long shut out of the process, don’t much believe in participatory democracy anymore, only about 30 million (out of 140 million) registered. And when the day came, even fewer showed up to vote. On Election Day in Moscow, which was holding elections for the Moscow Duma, turnout was a meager 29 percent. If government employees and their families hadn’t been forced to vote, the figure would have been much, much lower.

All of which is to say: No one cares. Russian elections are a known and tightly choreographed quantity. The joke making the rounds in Moscow when Dmitry Medvedev was up for election in the spring of 2008 was Medvedev’s mom calling on election night, frantically asking if he’d won. "Mom," he says, "don’t you fuck with me, too." Even the opposition parties — the "loyal opposition" successfully co-opted and neutered by the Kremlin — don’t mind the fraud as long as they still get to play ball.

Because no one cares, it’s the same every time: An election is held, a few dedicated pensioners vote, and United Russia — the party of power, the party of the Kremlin, the party of Putin — reasserts its overwhelming primacy.

And this time, at least at first, it seemed like everything would unfold as planned. On Oct. 11, United Russia swept back into control of political offices up and down the country’s command chain by huge, double-digit margins. In the Moscow Duma elections, for instance, United Russia took 32 of the 35 seats (that is, 91 percent), leaving three seats to the Communists, and forcing out the Kremlin-engineered A Just Russia Party (SR) and the liberal Yabloko Party entirely. The number of parties in the chamber was cut in half. (A United Russia deputy told me, somewhat disingenuously, that his party colleagues in the Moscow Duma were dismayed to be stuck with just the Communists. "Before, Yabloko just sat there and criticized us. But so what? It was food for thought," he said. "Now we have to listen to three Communists. And their criticism isn’t usually constructive.")

The fact that two parties were forced out of the Moscow Duma was suspicious, as was the fact that the results trickling in on Oct. 11 so obviously diverged with exit polls. Several elections across the country also smelled a little funny. From Derbent, in Dagestan, came tales of a third of polling stations never opening, while others closed early. In Astrakhan, observers were beaten and forced from the stations while whole ballot boxes were tossed out. Moscow was, as always, the epicenter. A video of a young man emerged detailing how he facilitated "carouseling" voters around town to vote multiple times, using the Moscow mayor’s name as a password. (A few days later, he reappeared and claimed he had been drunk when he made the statement. Someone had clearly gotten to him.)

Most egregious was the result in the Khamovniki neighborhood of Moscow, where Yabloko chairman Sergei Mitrokhin and his family went to vote — and where not a single vote was registered for Yabloko. (Yesterday, a local court annulled the results in Khamovniki and ruled for a recount.)

It was a bit much even for those used to such Kremlin antics. But still, it all could have passed without remark, because, still, no one cares. And absolutely no one expected the plot twist: On October 14, three days after the elections, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist right-wing LDPR party, stood up before the federal Duma and declared the election results unacceptable. He and his party, he said, were leaving, and they wouldn’t come back until the Central Election Committee chairman was fired and until they could secure a face-to-face with Medvedev. Then the leader of A Just Russia (SR), a center-left party engineered by the Kremlin to serve as an opposition magnet, got up and said her people were out of there, too. Then the Communists followed, and all of a sudden, only United Russia was left in the chamber.

No one knew what to think. After all, nothing like this had happened in a very, very long time. Although insiders knew LDPR was planning a walkout, no one thought the others would follow. And even if the fraud was over the top, the Communists, LDPR, and SR weren’t exactly the opposition. They were loyal and accommodating, and had fully bought into the Kremlin’s system — from which they benefited hugely. "This is an alarm bell," says Gennady Gudkov, the leader of the People’s Party of the Russian Federation. "If even this most tolerant, most cooperative opposition unites and walks out, it’s a sign of trouble. And it means we’ve had it up to here."

But was this the first sign, as many Moscow liberals hoped with baited breath, of a meaningful rumble, of a color revolution? Was this an echo of this summer’s unrest in Iran after a fraudulent and widely disputed election? Or was it simply another charade? Was the walkout an event orchestrated by one Kremlin apparatchik to get back at another Kremlin apparatchik, as some conspiracy theorists alleged?

In the meantime, United Russia took advantage of the opposition’s absence. On October 15, the party tore through an entire day’s docket, passing all proposed pro-Kremlin laws before the lunch recess, at an estimated speed of one law every three minutes. (Of course, the rush was unnecessary. The party has 315 of 450 seats in the Duma. That means that not only can party leaders pass whichever laws they want, but they can change the Russian constitution, too. Alone.)

By Friday, after Medvedev put in a quick phone call to Zhirinovsky, LDPR was back, quickly followed by the SRs. But the Communists held out the longest, only returning on Wednesday because, they said, it would be irresponsible not to fight the Kremlin’s proposed 2010 budget. (It passed anyway.)

The opposition continues to scream about the delegitimization of Russian democracy and this Saturday they will meet with Medvedev at the presidential dacha, where they will demand the annulment of certain results, the firing of the Electoral Committee chairman, and Duma reforms that will allow deputies to speak longer.

Duma representatives insist they will keep fighting, but they are, at this point, simply saving face. The revolution is very much over.

This is primarily because it was never about the legitimacy of Russian elections or democracy in the first place. Given its dominance of the airspace and the Kremlin’s fine touch at engineering results, United Russia would have swept the elections without lifting a finger. The fraud was unseemly and, quite simply, extraneous. And, though it may have angered some Duma deputies, that’s where the discontent ends. The most recent poll by the Levada Center, a prominent Moscow polling organization, found that not only were 55 percent of Russians not surprised by the election results, more than half couldn’t even answer whether they were satisfied with the election in their region. When Iran exploded in protests this summer, just as Ukraine had in 2005, after disputed elections, it was because Iranians believed their vote was a vector for change. Russians, however, know better. "During the Orange Revolution [in Ukraine], people had something invested in their vote — there was feeling behind their votes," says Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Here, you can falsify as much as you want because the voter has nothing invested in it." There was a protest in Moscow on Thursday night, but it was organized and attended primarily by Duma deputies and members of various thinly populated political organizations.

The far more likely reason for the Duma walkout was the deputies’ own fear they might be next on the Kremlin’s list: First, they force out the party representatives in the regional organizations, like A Just Russia Party and Yabloko, and then they come for the big dogs like Zhirinovsky and Communist Party chair Gennady Zyuganov. "Being a deputy is a lucrative business in Russia. And their well-being depends on the Kremlin’s benevolence. This isn’t about fair or unfair elections but about people’s lives and livelihoods," Lipman says. "The discontent people here are the well-fed deputies."

Some deputies don’t even dispute this. "Of course, we imagined ourselves in their shoes and realized, yes, it’s going to be bad for us," Duma deputy Valery Zubov says. "The regional Duma elections are in March; the federal Duma elections are in two years. If they do the same thing then, then our party thinks we shouldn’t even participate in the farce."

And, for its part, the Kremlin is eager to grant the opposition leaders an audience with Medvedev because the Kremlin needs the tightly controlled, beautifully ornamental opposition as much as the opposition needs the Kremlin.

"Here’s an image for you," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent politician and former speaker of the Duma (before he was forced out by the Kremlin). "Here’s this Potemkin village of democracy with a few crooked huts of opposition on the outskirts. In the center of town, you have a huge red-brick palace with high fences, in the New Russian style. That’s called United Russia. And the huts on the outskirts are afraid they will be burned down and kicked out of the village.

"Maybe, in the next elections, United Russia will be more reserved," he continues, "but the substance won’t change: United Russia will have the overwhelming majority and will rule unopposed. The Potemkin village will remain a Potemkin village."

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