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Who Wants to Be President


The presidency has been regarded as the apex of any politician’s career ever since its introduction to Russia. Yet the upcoming presidential election, already dubbed the main political event of 2004, has not only failed to generate much interest, it hasn’t even attracted the usual big-name candidates.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky will not throw his hat into the ring and nor will Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov. Even famous political entertainer Vladimir Zhirinovsky is sitting this one out. He announced that this time his bodyguard will run for presidency instead of him. There has been talk of nominating the cartoon character Masyanya and the musical duet Tatu.

Yavlinsky’s decision comes as no surprise. His party crashed and burned in the State Duma elections. Under Russia’s prohibitive new election laws, only parliamentary parties have the right to simply announce their nominee. Everyone else has to collect 2 million signatures in a month and a half just to get on the ballot, a task that is clearly impossible for all but the man backed by the regime. He can count on signatures being collected in every passport office and every human resources department in every government agency and in most private sector companies as well.

The parliamentary parties are in no hurry to press their advantage, however. The Communists are in the throes of such a serious crisis that they couldn’t manage to come up with a respectable candidate. The party’s recent congress and plenum were a parody of the U.S. primary process. A host of names were bandied about for several days, but in the end the party leadership — not its members and activists — made their decision behind closed doors. The press was banned from the deliberations along with members and staff of the party’s Duma faction. Under these conditions, the old bureaucratic penchant for choosing the worst of the available options won out.

Young Communist activists had pushed for the nomination of Valery Melnikov, the independent trade union leader from Norilsk who recently prevailed over the Norilsk Nickel corporation to win a brutal mayoral campaign. Nominating Melnikov was meant to show that the party had learned the lessons of its disastrous showing in the Duma elections, when voters turned their backs on a party list stacked with businessmen and notably light on workers and peasants.

It is indicative that the Communist Party leadership didn’t even include Melnikov’s name on its shortlist of possible candidates. Initially they settled on wealthy businessman Gennady Semigin, but Zyuganov dismissed him as bourgeois and proposed instead the former governor of Krasnodar, Nikolai Kondratenko.

Journalists covering the deliberations noted caustically that the party congress was being asked to choose between a bourgeois and an anti-Semite. When Kondratenko withdrew his candidacy, the party nominated Agrarian Nikolai Kharitonov, who in political terms carries about as much weight as Masyanya.

The only serious player in the Duma who is really itching for a fight is Rodina bloc leader Sergei Glazyev. But he is the exception that proves the rule. And before Glazyev can go toe-to-toe with Putin he’ll have to overcome opposition within his own bloc. Rodina, you see, has nominated former Central Bank chief Viktor Gerashchenko, who failed to collect necessary signatures. Now Rodina has one candidate, which it supports, but who can’t run, and another one who can run, but whom it doesn’t support.

The parliamentary parties know full well that the best guarantee of their continued survival in Russia’s new political climate is to stay on good terms with the Kremlin. An aggressive presidential campaign by its very nature involves conflict. Since Putin is the obvious favorite, his competitors will have to attack him or no one will take any notice. It seems clear that the parliamentary parties prefer public disgrace to the wrath of the presidential administration.

The Kremlin’s political masterminds are now confronted with an unsolvable riddle – one they evidently didn’t foresee. The Kremlin will not stand for serious opposition, because any politician who takes on Putin will attract public opinion and sympathy. But the prospect of Putin contesting a presidential race with no serious opposition is no more appealing, for it would turn his triumph into a farce. Neither option is acceptable, and there is no third way.

The president’s men have painted themselves into a corner by destroying and humiliating the opposition in the Duma elections. The opposition is licking its wounds and it’s not yet spoiling for a fight. Everything’s going swimmingly for the administration, with one exception: Dealing with the consequences of its own successes is proving far trickier than crushing its adversaries’ resistance.

The only contingency that seriously concerns the Kremlin as it looks ahead to the presidential election in March is a massive voter boycott. Like a Freudian slip, the regime’s threat to treat the failure to vote as a crime unintentionally reveals the extent of its fears.

Yet as liberal pundits bemoan the coming “choiceless election” you can’t help wondering: Was there really a viable alternative four years ago? Did the opposition have greater access to the airwaves? And did the Kremlin not bring the full weight of the state to bear in order to ensure the desired result?

The only real difference is that four years ago, the liberals and the Communists both naively believed that the new president would indulge them. The liberals dreamed of a Russian Pinochet who would implement market reforms with an iron hand. The Communists figured that since the Kremlin’s new master was a former KGB agent, he would leave them in peace and go after the liberal intelligentsia.

Today the liberals have finally begun to understand that having our very own Pinochet is no great joy after all, and the Communists have finally realized that beefing up the security agencies doesn’t necessarily help their cause when those agencies serve a bourgeois regime. Unpleasant thoughts have even penetrated the consciousness of certain oligarchs. The liberals and Communists raised their voices in protest, but to no avail.

In the 1990s, the Kremlin was content to play all sorts of complicated games with parliament and the opposition parties. Now the situation has changed. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin values discipline and obedience above all. Politicians in the State Duma, regardless of political affiliation, either join ranks and march to Putin’s tune or they learn the hard way what it means to fall from the tsar’s favor. Unaccustomed to battle, our corrupt opposition leaders naturally fell into a panic, and the rout of the opposition in December’s parliamentary election was the fitting result.

The Kremlin’s tough approach and its apparent success, however, could lead in the end to the collapse of “managed democracy” as we know it. Having crushed and humiliated the loyal opposition, the Kremlin risks giving rise to a new and disloyal opposition, whose supporters recognize one another by a single word: boycott.

Like any form of repudiation, staging a boycott requires strong nerves. It’s frightening to enter into conflict with the regime. Politicians prefer half-measures — such as nominating a bodyguard, an agrarian or a cartoon character to run against the incumbent — rather than openly declaring their opposition to the election. But in politics, such wink-and-nudge tactics don’t get you very far.

Voting for “none of the above” is also not an option. In fact, Mr. “None of the Above” could prove to be just the “serious opponent” that Putin needs to lend the election the semblance of a genuine political contest. And by drawing voters to the polls, this shadow candidate could also help the regime to solve its main problem: low voter turnout.

The regime is only bothering with this election in order to provide itself a veneer of legitimacy. Citizens who decide to vote with their feet can deprive it of this satisfaction. If the turnout is low enough, no spin from the Kremlin will salvage the situation. The boycott is the only effective weapon available to the opposition.

The outcome of the 2004 presidential election has already been signed, sealed and delivered. But the question of how many ballot boxes will have to be stuffed, and how much local officials will have to squirm and sweat to deliver the required result remains open.

Vote-rigging only makes sense when a semblance of fair play can be maintained. In this sense, the parliamentary vote last December was a real triumph for the regime, because the defeat of the opposition was not just virtual, it was real. Bringing the power of the state machine to bear is accepted as an inevitability only when it is occurs in the context of a bona fide political contest.

The system of managed democracy can only endure while there is an opposition that is prepared to play by the rules. If no one is willing to submit themselves to the humiliation of pseudo-elections, the authoritarian regime will have no choice to but remove its mask of democracy once and for all, or to make concessions. Either option involves a loss of legitimacy.

A boycott will demoralize the regime. Playing by the rules will further demoralize the opposition.

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