Russia's Upcoming Elections and the Struggle for Public and Competitive Politics

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MARK MILOSCH: On behalf of Chairman Chris Smith, I'd like to welcome everybody to today's briefing on Russia's upcoming elections. My name is Mark Milosch, and I'm Congressman Smith's staff director at the Helsinki Commission.

Russia has Duma or parliamentary elections scheduled for early December, and the parliamentary campaigns are now well under way. Presidential elections will take place in March, and there's already plenty of interest and concern over who will be chosen to lead the Russian federation at that time. I expect our panelists to focus on the Duma elections because they are more timely, but I trust we will also hear thoughtful forecasts on what may happen next March.

Many of you know and follow the work of Helsinki Commission, but let me underscore the specific interests our commissioners have long taken in democratic elections throughout the OSCE region.

The vast majority of our commissioners are elected members of the U.S. Congress who frequently participate in international observation missions and bring a unique perspective, since they too have to periodically stand before the public, which includes a robust and independent media here in America, as they seek the consent of those in whose names they will govern.

In an era of fractious politics at home and dizzying change abroad, the fundamental importance of free and fair elections is something we all agree on. And indeed, all 56 OSCE member states have agreed on this in various freely undertaken OSCE commitments. These same commitments bring us here today to examine Russia's compliance with and implementation of various international accords and norms concerning elections.

I hope our expert witnesses will share their wisdom on the larger picture and the longer view as well as to how the December and March votes will fit into the history of representative government in Russia, with all its ups and downs, going all the way back to the Nogerod Vekay (sp) -- perhaps Kyle will correct my pronunciation when we turn to him on that -- including the imperial Dumas, the Supreme Soviet, and the historic election of Boris Yeltsin.

There is growing concern that the coming round of Russian elections is likely to be significantly less free and less transparent than those in 2007 and 2008, which were widely criticized and even panned for failing to meet international standards.

A successful election begins long before election day, even before the campaign starts. It is marked by access to the ballot for all parties and citizens and by a campaign environment that allows candidates and voters to exercise their fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

So we can already begin to form preliminary judgments on the upcoming elections. The early refusal of Russian authorities to register the People's Freedom Party was a troubling indicator of where the December elections are already headed.

Some have dismissed the coming elections as futile exercises with predetermined outcomes. But while we can begin to form judgments about the pre-election phase of the campaign, we also don't want to jump to conclusions or start off with a negative hypothesis. Russia is a big place and a complicated country where even the most severe autocrats have had difficulty exerting their will on those in its more remote reaches.

At this point I'll turn the briefing over Kyle Parker, a commission staff adviser and a tireless advocate for human rights in Russia, who has done outstanding work, most recently on the case of Sergey Megnitsky. Kyle will introduce our witnesses and moderate the briefing.


KYLE PARKER: Thank you, Mark. And welcome, everyone, to what I hope is the first in possibly a series of events that will address a topic that is going to be relevant for at least the next six months as we move towards both the parliamentary and presidential elections.

We have a stellar panel here today. And I will sort of summarize their bios, which are out on the table. Again, we sort of hope for a briefing to really be an opportunity for dialogue and discussion, so please take good notes so that we can have good questions and interaction following the presentations, which will begin with Dr. Aron of American Enterprise Institute.

He's a resident scholar and director of Russian studies there. He wrote the book -- the definitive biography on President Yeltsin entitled "Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life," has published countless scholarly articles in various journals and newspapers, regularly appearing in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, was awarded the peace fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Dr. Aron, it's a pleasure to have you here today. And we turn the floor over to you for seven to 10 minutes for any remarks you wish to make. Thank you, doctor.

LEON ARON: Yes. Thank you very much, Kyle. You asked me to supply very briefly a broad framework, kind of a bird's eye view, which might be useful in analyzing the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections in December and March.

In the testimony before me, the written part, of course, the word election is in quotation marks. In the end, Russia only has one voter. His name is Vladimir Putin. And chances are that he might be persuaded to vote for himself and/or another place holder, and he is likely to cast his vote for the United Russia Party as well. So the results of both elections are more or less preordained.

And yet the coming cycle is well worth our attention, not because of the results but because of the political, social and economic contexts in which these elections are going to take place. And in that, I submit this cycle is quite different from the three preceding ones, in 2000, 2004 and 2008. And therefore, what might happen after the election could be quite different as well. And before I outline these differences, let me explain why they matter. Russia is not a totalitarian state where terror and unchallenged propaganda are the main pillars of political stability. It is not a North Korea or a Cuba. And, of course, it's not a Soviet Union. And so it is an authoritarian state.

And in such states, in addition to occasional acts of terror and intimidation, and in addition to the control of the media, which, by the way, as opposed to totalitarian states, is not at all unchallenged, especially on the Russian Internet today, in addition to all of this, such states might have a certain quotient of legitimacy, of popular support. They cannot survive on terror and lies alone. And in the past, the Putin regime did have a measure of the support. In 2000, Putin was genuinely popular because, A, he was not Yeltsin, and B, because he dealt decisively with the threat, no matter whether real or manufactured or perceived, of militant Islam from Chechnya.

He was popular in 2004 because Russia was in the middle of perhaps the strongest economic boom since the 1910s and because, as Putin, and the television under his control, which is watched by 95 percent of Russians, never missed a chance to remind us Russia was no longer in what they called the lawless and corrupt 1990s.

And despite the early signs, the early signs of a global financial crisis, these legitimizing factors more or less worked and carried the regime forward even in 2008.

Today all these reservoirs of legitimacy are close to depletion. That Putin is not Yeltsin and that 2012 is not 1992 barely matters to millions who were too young to remember, and especially -- and here we're talking about tens of millions -- who are used to steady growth of their incomes. And not only that growth is all but gone, but there is a strong consensus among Russian economists that no matter who's elected and what the price of oil will be, the next president will have to adopt very painful cost-cutting measures to stave budget deficits and inflation.

As to the lawless 1990s, public opinion polls show that, starting with a few years ago, a majority believes that there is more, not less, corruption today in Russia than in 1990s -- in the 1990s. And there are signs of an emerging civil society, some of whose leaders I had the good fortune to meet and interview during a long trip across Russia this past July. And what we found is that the civil society is increasingly impatient with daily indignities. It is not afraid of the state. And it's increasingly insistent on fighting for its rights.

Every respectable Russian political analyst today acknowledges quite openly that the political and economic elites are at the dead end. Everyone agrees, again, quite openly, that the present political and economic models that Putin forged and enforced since the early 2000s are close to exhaustion and that something has to be done urgently to prevent the country from becoming a bona fide backward petrol state. Yet no one knows how to do this within the current political framework.

And so the formerly monolithic elite is beginning to show fissures. The vaunted vertical of power that until now secured the implementation of the Kremlin's policies is showing signs of ineffectiveness. The United Russia Party is so widely despised that Putin seemed to prepare to discard it in favor of the so-called Popular Front, but the Front too appears to have become a flop.

And another flop quite recently was an attempt to legitimize the elections by rejuvenating another Kremlin creation, an ostensibly liberal party on the right called the Right Cause. But under the -- largely under the pressure from bolder and truly popular leaders from discontented provinces, it stated to look like a real opposition party. As a result, it threatened to slip the leash and it was subverted and essentially discarded.

Let me conclude by saying that it is one thing to manipulate elections when a transition society which has never experienced a real democracy is in the middle of an unprecedented economic boom or when the memory of the painful economic revolution is still vivid and when the elites are united behind a political and economic model that the leader offers.

It is quite another thing to manipulate elections when neither of these conditions are present. One can bend a branch when it's supple and flexible. When it is desiccated, it may snap. Thank you.

Leon Aron is a resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at AEI

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