Shadow Government

The Banality of Putin’s Potemkin Elections

The tremendous effort that goes into producing a fake vote.

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves after delivering a speech at a forum of volunteers in Moscow on December 6, 2017. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves after delivering a speech at a forum of volunteers in Moscow on December 6, 2017. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

“The average length of a good tyranny is a decade and a half, two decades at most. When it’s more than that, it invariably slips into a monstrosity.” So wrote Russian-American émigré, essayist, and poet (and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) Joseph Brodsky in 1980. With the elections this Sunday in Russia, President Vladimir Putin will extend his 18-year rule by another six — squarely in monstrosity territory.

Of course, much of what Brodsky predicted for such monstrous regimes — “the kind of grandeur that manifests itself in waging wars or internal terror, or both” — has already come to pass in Putin’s Russia. Putin’s authoritarianism has been ahead of schedule. Indeed, Putin cemented his rise to power on a mixture of war (in Chechnya) and terror (a series of apartment bombings, possibly orchestrated by Putin himself and his FSB colleagues). His rule has been perpetuated by persistent violence — foreign and domestic — deployed as a political tool. We have witnessed in it the killing of journalists, democrats, and those who have sought to hold the state accountable (Politkovskaya, Estemirova, Klebnikov, Magnitsky, Nemtsov, and many others); we have seen the invasion and occupation of neighboring states and the violent backing of fellow strongmen (in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria).

And yet, as this primary global antagonist of American interests and values (who earlier this month announced new weapons aimed at the United States) stands for re-election in less than a week, if we look and listen around the U.S., what news coverage is there of this crucial event? Not much. Why? Because “elections” in Russia have become a boring, stage-managed farce where everyone inside and outside of Russia already knows the result.

That doesn’t mean that Putin isn’t working hard these days — in some ways, it is more challenging to pull off a fake election than a real one. The organic features of a genuine election have to be instead constructed and coerced, creating a Potemkin facade for domestic and international consumption.

The fraudulent, unfree, and unfair nature of past Russian elections that have had Putin as their executive producer is well documented, including by international observers sent by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other international organizations, as well as by domestic Russian nongovernmental organizations such as Golos (which was then targeted by Putin’s regime for its work). Of course, the contest in a few weeks is not Putin’s first fake election — he’s had several rounds of practice. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, when open fraud and ballot-stuffing was rampant, he learned that even if people know that the contest isn’t fair, they don’t want to be demeaned by having their faces rubbed in it. (And he really hated it when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added her voice to those speaking about the overt fraud.) Things have to appear professional and orderly; ballot-stuffing and vote-count adjustments should occur out of sight.

Over the years, he’s learned how to enlist faux-competitors to play cameo roles in his grand productions, even ensuring funding for their campaigns, so that it looks more like a real contest. All the while, anyone with any real democratic support is disqualified on technicalities and harassed, imprisoned, or killed. (Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who garners significant grassroots support, has been disqualified from running, had thugs attack him and his rallies and offices, and has been repeatedly imprisoned to keep him offstage during critical moments of Putin’s grand charade. It’s not yet clear whether Navalny will spend the upcoming election day in jail.)

Then there’s the media. Some of the first oligarchs whom Putin moved against in his early years of power were those who controlled TV stations and other media properties. Since then, he’s consolidated near-total control of the airwaves. In recent weeks, the state-controlled Russia 1 TV station hosted a kind of debate among candidates that featured the “also rans” who are serving as props this time around. Vladimir Zhirinovsky (a nationalist firebrand who has been a useful prop for Putin for years) harangued the others, dismissing the sole woman running, Ksenia Sobchak, as a “market lady” and then a “whore” after she threw a glass of water at him in response. The churlish scene made 2016 U.S. Republican presidential primary debates appear genteel, and the effect was of course to boost the stature of the one “candidate” who wasn’t there to participate: Putin.

Of course, Putin knows that one of the inconvenient truths about a fake election is that it is difficult to attract real voters to it. (Autocrats often like to brag about voter turnout in their sham elections — as if the fact of turnout is itself is a validator of the genuine nature of the election.) The Kremlin and its allies are spending big money and enlisting recognizable Russian stars in a batch of online videos aimed at getting people to show up for the sham vote. One of these videos plays up Putin’s nationalist-traditionalist messaging — suggesting that, if they don’t vote, Russians might wake up in a world where there are black Russian soldiers and where they are forced to accept gay men into their homes after they break up with their boyfriends. (After using racism and homophobia to drive voter turnout in America, Putin continues to do the same at home. What fun!)

Not all of the aspects of Putin’s Potemkin election production are so creative and glamorous — there’s also the onerous task of organizing the anodyne-sounding “administrative resources”: Thanks to the murky funneling of state resources, factory workers and municipal employees in towns across Russia will find themselves, once again, paid to attend political rallies and bused to polling places, maybe even paid a bonus for supporting the regime. It takes serious logistics planning (and a lot of petty corruption) to goose turnout and the vote tally.

So much work. And what for? Putin has stolen so much from his country that he could live a thousand lifetimes in luxury. But he doesn’t have 1,000 lifetimes, only one. If he were really the clever genius that he is so often portrayed as, wouldn’t he disappear one day, perhaps by way of Brazil or Thailand to get a new face, and live out the rest of his days in comfort and anonymity? He’s proven himself a capable operator — but Russia’s future is bleak. Shrinking population; lousy economy; huge strategic challenges. Better to leave before the inevitable. Quit while you’re ahead (at least in your own assessment). But an autocrat can’t do that. He can’t abandon the mob-like structure atop which he sits, even if he wanted to — and he probably doesn’t.

Brodsky documented the pathetic way in which autocrats ultimately cling to power by clinging to life itself — fighting the inevitable, fighting the mortality that they have in common with those over whom they have ruled. “In the end … in slips death with scythe, hammer, and sickle,” Brodsky wrote. “And if the population mourns his demise, as often happens, its tears are the tears of bettors who lost: the nation mourns its lost time.”

It’s been nearly 30 years since the end of communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union. Putin has dominated Russia for the majority of Russia’s post-Soviet existence. He and his cronies have amassed great riches by extracting from the present and mortgaging Russia’s future. He cannot repay the debt he has incurred, and neither can the rest of the world: There is no World Bank for lost time. But the West should not give up on the hope of a free and democratic Russia. Putin’s tyranny is tedious, but others should not normalize it or accept it. The West should scrutinize the upcoming election, trust Russian civil society actors, and call it out for its farcical nature. And when Putin leaves, other nations should waste no time: They should be ready, once more, to help the Russian people build a better, freer future.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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