Election Fraud Report: So What Else Is New?
Take this election-season paraphrase of the classic fable: A crow with some cheese in its beak is perched on a leafless, decrepit tree. A fox comes up and asks: "Hey, do you support Vladimir Putin?" The crow is silent. The fox shakes the tree: "I'm asking you - do you support our president?" The crow opens his beak and caws, "Yes." The cheese falls, and the fox grabs it and runs away. The crow looks pensive: "If I said 'no,' would it have made any difference?"
This parable sheds light on why the evidence of electoral fraud presented by Yevgenia Borisova in this paper was met in Russia with a deafening silence, not only in the media but in society at large and among the former opposition. (These days, even formally speaking there is no opposition in Russia.) This silence does not diminish the significance of the investigation nor the journalist's bravery. Hard evidence on vote-rigging is a great service for future historians. But for many Russians, the question is: Does this additional knowledge change anything? Especially since everyone agrees that Putin would have won the second round anyway.
Another bit of folk wisdom that comes to mind in this regard is that you don't wave your fists after the fight is over. This is particularly apt when the fight has left you with no fists to wave. After several years of democratization, there are no actors strong enough outside the power system who would have a stake in questioning the outcome of the vote.
The difference between a Watergate and a Kremlingate is that, in a Watergate, there is an independent opposition party with many able-bodied supporters relying on a functioning legal system largely independent of the executive and big money. In Russia, which has yet to experience its Progressive Era (not to be confused with "reforms"), asking why the authorities dare commit such an outrage rings false. They do it because they can do anything they want. They are not Shakespearean villains; they don't have to exert themselves in overcoming obstacles. It's just that there is no force left that is willing and able to constrain them. And if such a force were to emerge in the West or East - a very distant possibility given the current constellation of interests - most of us who voted against Putin would very likely see him as the lesser evil. The real question is why there is no constituency for an effective resistance inside Russia.
As for our lieutenant colonels in uniform and civilian garb who are running the show, they have a major alibi: They didn't invent the rigged system for their own sake; they inherited it. Like creatures inside Edgar Allen Poe's iron bells, they are part and parcel of it, the nuts and bolts of its maintenance mechanism. That vote-rigging was a major ingredient in our establishment-guided transition to democracy is no news to well-informed observers.
Read, for example, the book "How Russia Votes," by Stephen White and his co-authors, particularly its section on the December 1993 constitutional referendum. The evidence presented there ranges from the manipulation of the number of registered voters (which increased by 1 million between December 1993 and February 1994) to the farewell note of an elections commission official who committed suicide. Of many frauds, those in December 1993 were arguably more consequential than those in the 2000 presidential election.
Those looking for real turning points should also consider the April 1993 referendum, when a country with hyperinflation and a 30 percent industrial decline allegedly voted 52 percent in support of the government's policies (a vote that was then used as a pretext to dissolve and destroy the parliament). But Western observers at the time were not looking for fraud - most of them were singing lavish praises to the Father of Russian Democracy.
Now some of these people blame Russians for passivity and obedience. Although any historical parallel is vulnerable, medieval crusaders were also extremely frustrated with their Byzantine brethren in Christ who, after centuries of oppression and looting, were not especially fervent in fighting for their faith - and whose social and political fabric was ruined even further by their Catholic liberators.
Poverty is a rather strong constraint on social action. But the fresh experience of impoverishment and social degradation is much stronger. People who have been poor for generations usually have an inherited culture of survival. Yet in today's Russia, many millions of those who had stable living standards in the Soviet era have been expropriated by the government and its allies at least twice - in 1992 and 1998 - and deprived of their way of life. Those people comprised the constituency for the unfinished (and suppressed) democratic revolution of 1991. They were severely punished for that and now associate all political disobedience with the prospect of another mass-scale expropriation - hence much of the "support" for the Putin bargain: Take as much power as you want, and let us live our private lives without another collapse.
Yet the ruling class's acceptance of this status quo and its belief that most of its subjects are dispensable has clear limits. Unlike the fox, which cannot care less about the crow, those elites whose material base is within the country will need the little guy to be actively involved in the system. Napoleon's army collapsed in spite of being far better equipped, trained and fed than Russia's, because Russians employed a masterful exit strategy, leaving the enemy in the void of endless plains and abandoned villages.
For a decade, Russians have been vacating the public sphere, retreating to their private lives and activities. As a result, officialdom faces no serious opponent on its turf (the Chechens and Media-MOST, even if taken together, obviously don't make the grade), and everything has become so deceptively easy.
But just as there were not enough French in Napoleon's army to maintain Russia's infrastructure, so it will be impossible to find a German Gref for every factory that needs to keep working, for every submarine that ought to stay afloat, for every television station that should continue broadcasting. Having discovered that, vlast may think that perhaps it has become too giddy with its dubious success in the elections and its other exploits. Hanging in the void, the establishment will be compelled to reach out to its Insignificant Other - the Russian people. And, as in the twilight of the Soviet era, it will be met with potentially devastating questions about the foundations of its legitimacy.
Dmitri Glinski Vassiliev is a senior research associate at the Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.