20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 8, Moscow will hold its first mayoral elections in a decade. Among those running for office are incumbent Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and anticorruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek weighs the pros and contras of boycotting and participating in the vote.


Alexei Navalny (left) and Sergei Sobyanin.


The question "whether to participate in the elections or not?" has become in our country as sacramental as the questions "what shall we do?" and "who is to blame?". The discussions of this subject are always clashes of temperament, logic, life experience, disgust, fear, political interest and anticipation of a miracle.

The peak of this discussion naturally happens during the pre-election period, which Russia is now living through. On September 8, mayoral elections will be held in Moscow. It will probably be a "selection" of a mayor. To go or not to go? To participate or not to participate?

We will not talk about those for whom elections are a mindless ritual, or those who see them as a professional political and technological instrument; that is politicians, professional and public observers, pollsters, PR companies, and participants of the electoral process. We will talk about normal, realistic people, who appreciate democratic instruments but who at the same time are not willing to become cogs in an alien machine. They must answer two interconnected questions: whether elections could bring results, and to what extent the regime will use conscientious voters for its unscrupulous purposes. Their participation in the elections will depend on the balance between the answers to these two questions.

Not even once has the majority of all voters supported Putin, but only the majority of those who turned up at the polls.

Russia has known various times when this balance was very different. In Soviet times, the effect of elections was close to zero, and the manipulation of voters was total. In the first half of the 1990s, elections had maximum effect whereas manipulation was insignificant. When Putin came to power, the electoral system and its practice in particular began deteriorating. Under the tough control of the executive branch, legislators rendered the essence of the election laws innocuous whereas electoral commissions delivered voting results according to the government's wishes.

As electoral efficacy decreased, the attendance rate went down as well. Not willing to become mindless executors of someone else's will, many voters began voting "with their feet," refusing to participate in elections. This had little clout, perhaps because fraud did not depend upon reality, but it showed society's attitude towards the government and its "elections." Suffice to say that, even with fraud included, not even once has the majority of all voters supported Putin, but only the majority of those who turned up at the polls.

As fraud is becoming more and more evident, the idea of sitting out elections is growing increasingly popular. "If one cannot fight fraud in either electoral commissions or courts, why participate in elections at all?" reason the supporters of a boycott. "If one has even a small opportunity to expose the mechanism of rigging elections, one has to use it," argue those who support participation in elections.

In reality, two attitudes collide here: the irreproachable civic stance that rejects any sops from the master's table, and the attitude of pragmatists who support "small deeds" and believe that every opportunity should be used. Both parties pay the price they deem reasonable for their position. The former pays by rejecting a democratic instrument and by risking the loss of it for good due to absence of demand. The latter pays by legitimizing both the rigged elections and the regime based on them.



But these are extremes. Most thinking people are torn between different versions of behavior during elections. Sometimes they cannot decide until the very last moment and act under the influence of some accidental or insignificant circumstances, such as weather, their mood on Election Day, the example of people whose authority they respect or whether they get heads or tails when flipping a coin. Such behavior indicates almost the same perception of the efficiency of elections as of their pointlessness.

The situation with federal parliamentary or presidential elections is different from that with elections on a lower level. The lower the level on which the elections are held, the more a voter is aware of whether anything depends on his vote. The situation does not get better, but it gets clearer. Besides, it is easier to control electoral transparency and fairness on lower levels. During local elections everything is spread out before you, especially in the provinces. Here, election fraud almost entirely depends on voter consent.

After 2011, the situation with public oversight over elections changed considerably. Striving for fairness in the voting process, an enormous number of people volunteered to oversee elections.  Whether they are successful is another question. It is almost impossible to control the work of territorial election commissions and completely impossible to do it with the Central Election Commission. The bulk of irregularities are detected in polling places.

This certainly demonstrates the inadequacy of elections, but what of it? Justice is paralyzed, and the government has disregarded public opinion for a long time. It has even scorned reports by international observers. And why not, if these reports are left hanging in midair, not resulting in any political decisions by the West, not even of a purely declarative nature?

If Moscow voters do not accept fraud, this September might turn out to be a very hot month for the government.

However, the situation with local elections, including those held in Moscow, is not as unambiguous as with federal ones. If the body of observers is capable of controlling all links of the election process and Moscow voters, more active than those in the rest of the country, do not accept fraud, this September might turn out to be a very hot month for the government.

Naturally, when one talks about elections, one cannot only mean Election Day itself. The forthcoming elections include registration of candidates, freedom of campaigning, equal rights for all candidates to access the media, control over observance of the electoral laws, and many other more or less important components of the institution of elections. They all need public oversight and protection from fraud and corrupt practices.

Muscovites have to make up their minds about whether they should expect these elections to become a new sop of the government and a democratic ritual with an apparent disregard for the voters' true will, or whether chances are high that public pressure on the government will be capable of stopping election fraud.