The Death of Russian Parliamentary Democracy
December 2003–March 2004
How Did Putin Get ReElected?
According to the census of october 2002, there are 145.2 million people living in Russia, making us the seventh most populous country in the world. Just under 116 million people, 79.8 percent of the population, describe themselves as ethnically Russian. We have an electorate of 109 million voters.
December 7, 2003
The day of the parliamentary elections to the Duma,* the day Putin* began his campaign for reelection as president. In the morning he manifested himself to the peoples of Russia at a polling station. He was cheerful, elated even, and a little nervous. This was unusual: as a rule he is sullen. With a broad smile, he informed those assembled that his beloved Labrador, Connie, had had puppies during the night. “Vladimir Vladimirovich was so very worried,” Madame Putina intoned from behind her husband. “We are in a hurry to get home,” she added, anxious to return to the bitch whose impeccable political timing had presented this gift to the United Russia Party.*
That same morning in Yessentuki, a small resort in the North Caucasus, the first thirteen victims of a terrorist attack on a local train were being buried. It had been the morning train, known as the student train, and young people were on their way to college.
When, after voting, Putin went over to the journalists, it seemed he would surely express his condolences to the families of the dead. Perhaps even apologize for the fact that the government had once again failed to protect its citizens. Instead he told them how pleased he was about his Labrador’s new puppies.
My friends phoned me. “He’s really put his foot in it this time. Rus- sian people are never going to vote for United Russia now.”
Around midnight, however, when the results started coming in, initially from the Far East, then from Siberia, the Urals, and so on westward, many people were in a state of shock. All my pro-democracy friends and acquaintances were again calling each other and saying, “It can’t be true. We voted for Yavlinsky,* even though. . . .” Some had voted for Khakamada.*
By morning there was no more incredulity. Russia, rejecting the lies and arrogance of the democrats, had mutely surrendered herself to Putin. A majority had voted for the phantom United Russia Party, whose sole political program was to support Putin. United Russia had rallied Russia’s bureaucrats to its banner—all the former Soviet Communist Party and Young Communist League functionaries now employed by myriad government agencies—and they had jointly allocated huge sums of money to promote its electoral deceptions.
Reports we received from the regions show how this was done. Outside one of the polling stations in Saratov, a lady was dispensing free vodka at a table with a banner reading “Vote for Tretiak,” the United Russia candidate. Tretiak won. The Duma deputies from the entire province were swept away by United Russia candidates, except for a few who switched to the party shortly before the elections. The Saratov election campaign was marked by violence, with candidates not approved of by United Russia being beaten up by “unidentified assailants” and choosing to pull out of the race. One who continued to campaign against a prominent United Russia candidate twice had plastic bags containing body parts thrown through his window: somebody’s ears and a human heart. The province’s electoral commission had a hotline to take reports of irregularities during the campaign and the voting, but 80 percent of the calls were simply attempts to blackmail the local utility companies. People threatened not to vote unless their leaking pipes were mended or their radiators repaired. This worked very well. The inhabitants of the Zavod and Lenin districts had their heating and main water supply restored. A number of villages in the Atkar District finally had their electricity and telephones reconnected after several years of waiting. The people were seduced. More than 60 percent of the electorate in the city voted, and in the province the turnout was 53 percent. More than enough for the elections to be valid.
One of the democrats’ observers at a polling station in Arkadak noticed people voting twice, once in the booth and a second time by filling out a ballot slip under the direction of the chairman of the local electoral commission. She ran to phone the hotline, but was pulled away from the telephone by her hair.
Vyacheslav Volodin, one of the main United Russia functionaries who was standing in Balakov, won by a landslide, with 82.9 percent of the vote; an unprecedented victory for a politician devoid of charisma who is renowned only for his incoherent television speeches in support of Putin. He had announced no specific policies to promote the inter- ests of local people. Overall in Saratov Province, United Russia gained 48.2 percent of the vote without feeling the need to publish or defend a manifesto. The Communists got 15.7 percent, the Liberal Democrats* (Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s* party) 8.9 percent, the nationalistic Rodina (Motherland) Party* 5.7 percent. The only embarrassment was that more than 10 percent of the votes cast were for “None of the above.” One-tenth of the voters had come to the polling station, drunk the vodka, and told the lot of them to go to hell.
According to the National Electoral Commission’s figures, over 10 percent more votes were cast in Chechnya,* a territory totally under military control, than there are registered voters.
St. Petersburg held on to its reputation as Russia’s most progressive and democratically inclined city. Even there, though, United Russia gained 31 percent of the vote, Rodina about 14 percent. The democratic Union of Right Forces* and Yabloko* (Apple) Party got only 9 percent each, the Communists 8.5, and the Liberal Democrats 8 percent. Irina Khakamada, Alexander Golov, Igor Artemiev, and Grigorii Tomchin, democrats and liberals well known throughout Russia, went down to ignominious defeat.
Why? The state authorities are rubbing their hands with glee, tut- tutting and saying that “the democrats have only themselves to blame” for having lost their link with the people. The authorities suppose that, on the contrary, they now have the people on their side.
Here are some excerpts from essays written by St. Petersburg students on the topics of “How my family views the elections” and “Will the election of a new Duma help the president in his work?”:
“My family has given up voting. They don’t believe in elections anymore. The elections will not help the president. All the politicians promise to make life better, but unfortunately . . . I would like more truthfulness.”
“The elections are rubbish. It doesn’t matter who gets elected to the Duma because nothing will change, because we don’t elect people who are going to improve things in the country, but people who thieve. These elections will help no one—neither the president nor ordinary mortals.”
“Our government is just ridiculous. I wish people weren’t so crazy about money, that there was at least some sign of moral principle in our government, and that they would cheat the people as little as possible. The government is the servant of the people. We elect it, not the other way round. To tell the truth, I don’t know why we have been asked to write this essay. It has only interrupted our lessons. The government isn’t going to read this anyway.”
“How my family views the elections is they aren’t interested in them. All the laws the Duma adopted were senseless and did nothing useful for the people. If all this is not for the people, who is it for?”
“Will the elections help? It is an interesting question. We will have to wait and see. Most likely they won’t help in the slightest. I am not a politician, I don’t have the education you need for that, but the main thing is that we need to fight corruption. For as long as we have gangsters in the state institutions of our country, life will not get better. Do you know what is going on now in the army? It is just endless bullying. If in the past people used to say that the army made boys into men, now it makes them into cripples. My father says he refuses to let his son go into an army like that. ‘For my son to be a cripple after the army, or even worse—to be dead in a ditch somewhere in Chechnya, fighting for who knows what, so that somebody can gain power over this republic?’ For as long as the present government is in power I can see no way out of the present situation. I do not thank it for my unhappy childhood.”
These read like the thoughts of old people, not the future citizens of New Russia. Here is the real cost of political cynicism—rejection by the younger generation.
By morning it is finally clear that, while the left wing has more or less survived, the liberal and democratic “right wing” has been routed. The Yabloko Party and Grigorii Yavlinsky himself have not made it into the Duma, neither has the Union of Right Forces with Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada, nor any of the independent candidates. There is now almost nobody in the Russian Parliament capable of lobbying for democratic ideals and providing constructive, intelligent opposition to the Kremlin. The triumph of the United Russia Party is not the worst of it, however.
By the end of the day, with more or less all the votes counted, it is evident that, for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has particularly favored the extreme nationalists, who promised the voters they would hang all the “enemies of Russia.”
This is dreadful, of course, but perhaps only to be expected in a country where 40 percent of the population live below even our dire official poverty line. It was clear that the democrats had no interest in establishing contact with this section of the population. They preferred to concentrate on addressing themselves to the rich and to members of the emerging middle class, defending private property and the interests of the new property owners. The poor are not property owners, so the democrats ignored them. The nationalists did not.
Not surprisingly, this segment of the electorate duly turned away from the democrats, while the new property owners jumped ship from Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces to United Russia just as soon as they noticed that Yavlinsky, Nemtsov, and Khakamada seemed to be losing their clout with the Kremlin. The rich decamped to where there was a concentration of the officials without whom Russian business, which is mostly corrupt and supports and feeds official corruption, cannot thrive.
Just before these elections, the senior officials of United Russia were saying openly, “We have so much money! Business has donated so much we don’t know what to do with it all!” They weren’t boasting. These were bribes that meant, “Don’t forget us after the elections, will you?” In a corrupt country, business is even more unscrupulous than in countries where corruption has at least been reduced to a tolerable level and where it is not regarded as socially acceptable.
What further need had they of Yavlinsky or the Union of Right Forces? For our new rich, freedom has nothing to do with political parties. Freedom is the freedom to go on great vacations. The richer they are, the more often they can fly away, and not to Antalya in Turkey, but to Tahiti or Acapulco. For the majority of them, freedom equals access to luxury. They find it more convenient now to lobby for their interests through the pro-Kremlin parties and movements, most of which are primitively corrupt. For those parties every problem has its price; you pay the money and you get the legislation you need, or the question put by a Duma deputy to the procurator general’s office. People have even started talking about “deputies’ denunciations.” Nowadays these are a cost- effective means of putting your competitors out of business.
Corruption also explains the growth of the chauvinistic “Liberal Democratic Party,” led by Zhirinovsky. This is a populist “opposition,” which is not really an opposition at all because, despite their propensity for hysterical outbursts on all sorts of issues, the Liberal Democrats always support the Kremlin line. They receive substantial donations from our completely cynical and apolitical medium-sized businesses by lobbying for private interests in the Kremlin and adjacent territories such as the procurator general’s office, the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Bureau [FSB*], the Ministry of Justice, and the courts. They use the technique of deputies’ denunciations.
That is how Zhirinovsky got into the Duma both last time and this. Now he has an enviable thirty-eight seats.
The Rodina Party is another chauvinistic organization, led by Dmitry Rogozin* and created by the Kremlin’s spin doctors specifically for this election. The aim was to draw moderately nationalist voters away from the more extreme National Bolsheviks. Rodina has done well too, with thirty-seven seats.
Ideologically, the new Duma was oriented toward Russian traditionalism rather than toward the West. All the pro-Putin candidates had pushed this line relentlessly. United Russia encouraged the view that the Russian people had been humiliated by the West, with openly anti-Western and anticapitalist propaganda. In the pre-electoral brainwashing there was no mention of “hard work,” “competition,” or “initiative” unless in a pejorative context. On the other hand, there was a great deal of talk of “indigenous Russian traditions.”
The electorate was offered a variety of patriotism to suit every taste. Rodina offered rather heroic patriotism; United Russia, moderate patri- otism; and the Liberal Democrat Party, outright chauvinism. All the pro-Putin candidates made a great show of praying and crossing themselves whenever they spotted a television camera, kissing the cross and the hands of Orthodox priests.
It was laughable, but the people blithely fell for it. The pro-Putin parties now had an absolute majority in the Duma. United Russia, the party created by the Kremlin, took 212 seats. Another 65 “independents” were to all intents and purposes also pro-Kremlin. The result was the advent of a one-and-a-half-party system, a large party of government plus several small “barnacle” parties of similar persuasion.
The democrats talked so much about the importance of establishing a genuine multiparty system in Russia. It was something in which Yeltsin* took a personal interest, but now all that was lost. The new configuration in the Duma excluded the possibility of significant disagreement.
Shortly after the elections, Putin went so far as to inform us that Parliament was a place not for debate, but for legislative tidying up. He was pleased that the new Duma would not be given to debating.
The Communists won forty-one seats as a party, plus a further twelve through individual Communists standing independently. It pains me to say that today it is the Communist deputies who are the most moderate and sensible voices in the Fourth Duma. They were overthrown only twelve years ago, yet by late 2003 they had been transfigured into the great white hope of Russia’s democrats.
In the months that followed, the arithmetic in the Duma changed somewhat, with deputies migrating from one party to another. Absolutely everything the presidential administration wanted passed got approved by a majority vote. Although in December 2003 United Russia had not obtained a majority large enough to change the Constitution (for which 301 votes are required), this was not to prove a problem. In practical terms, the Kremlin “engineered” a constitutional majority.
I choose the word advisedly. The elections were carefully designed and executed. They were conducted with numerous violations of electoral law and, to that extent, they were rigged. There was no possibility of legally challenging any aspect of them because the bureaucrats had already taken control of the judiciary. There was not a single ruling against the results by any legal institution, from the Supreme Court down, no matter how indisputable the evidence. This judicial sanctioning of the Big Lie was justified as being “in order to avoid destabilizing the situation in the country.”
The state’s administrative resources swung into action in these elections in just the same way as in the Soviet period. This was also true in no small measure of the elections in 1996 and 2000 in order to get Yeltsin elected even though he was ill and decrepit. This time, however, there was no holding back the presidential administration. Officialdom merged with the United Russia Party as enthusiastically as it used to with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the CPSU). Putin revived the Soviet system as neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin had done. His unique achievement was the establishment of United Russia, to the cheers of officials who were only too glad to become members of the new CPSU. They had plainly been missing Big Brother, who always did their thinking for them.
The Russian electorate, however, was also missing Big Brother, having heard no words of comfort from the democrats. There were no protests. United Russia’s election slogans were stolen from the Communists and were all about rich bloodsuckers stealing our national wealth and leaving us in rags. The slogans proved so popular precisely because it was now not the Communists proclaiming them.
It must also be said that in 2003 a majority of our citizens heartily supported the imprisonment, through the efforts of members of United Russia, of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky,* head of the Yukos oil company. Accordingly, although manipulating the state’s administrative resources for political ends is no doubt an abuse, the politicians had public support. It was just a matter of the administration’s leaving nothing to chance.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Russian Diary by Anna Politkovskaya. Copyright © 2007 by Anna Politkovskaya. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.