Economist: The Kremlin’s New Cookbook

This week’s Economist has an article on the regional elections:


The Kremlin’s new cookbook President Vladimir Putin has devised a win-win system of elections

SEASON your shashlik with onion, pepper, coriander and basil. Then marinate in the fridge for 12 hours, advises Dmitry Kuzmin, mayor of the southern Russian city of Stavropol, and also local leader of the Just Russia party. Posing in their pinafores, Mr Kuzmin and his fellow candidates published a leaflet of their favourite recipes as part of their campaign for the regional elections on March 11th. “Sell the Bentley—pay the alimony”, election posters urged the region’s governor, who has had a nasty divorce and is aligned with United Russia, a rival party that dominates both the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, and most of the regions. Trivial and dirty tactics these may be, but they are effective. Just Russia surprisingly topped the poll in Stavropol.

Does that point to a real political fight in Russia? Just Russia’s strong showing was hailed by Sergei Mironov, its leader, as “a victory over fear”. But the party was created only last October, and like United Russia, it is sycophantically loyal to the Kremlin in general and to Vladimir Putin in particular. Both parties have the president’s blessing and, rather like rival disciples to a prophet, both claim to be his true acolytes. “I support him completely,” says Alexander Babakov, Just Russia’s top man in the Duma. Criticising the president, he adds, lies outside the purview of party politics. His party purports to be more social-democratic than United Russia. But in the regions, says Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, the important divides are not ideological but between fractious elites vying for power and assets.

The votes held on March 11th in 14 of Russia’s 86 regions (United Russia won in the 13 other than Stavropol) marked the start of a political season that will culminate in elections for the Duma this December and for the presidency next March. They suggested how the Kremlin’s election-cooking recipe is likely to turn out: one of fake competition, conducted by candidates who are much less different than they try to seem. Undesirables will be nobbled in advance, by denying them access to state-controlled television, and by new laws on political parties and elections that make it difficult for them to run or to win seats when they do. (The head of Russia’s central election commission, a placeman who nevertheless publicly doubted some of the new rules, was ousted from his job this week.)

In St Petersburg, for example, apparently fierce regional campaigning by United Russia and Just Russia generated such ruses as bogus death notices and the circulation of pornographic videos featuring candidate lookalikes. But Yabloko, a liberal party, was kept off the ballot, because (say its leaders) of its opposition to the governor and to Gazprom’s plans to build a skyscraper in the city.

Regional governors are unlikely to stray from the Kremlin’s plans. The regions have varying levels of autonomy and prosperity, but all their bosses are, in effect, now appointed by the president. The Stavropol result was probably in part a protest against an unpopular governor, whom voters cannot remove directly.

In the Duma elections in December, only four parties look likely to climb over the 7% threshold for seats: Just Russia and United Russia, which seem destined to emerge as the components of a simulated two-party system, plus the Communists and the misnamed Liberal Democrats. The Union of Right Forces, a liberal party that is less troublesome than Yabloko, may also just squeeze in.

As for the presidential election, rather than being a simple anointing of Mr Putin’s chosen successor, it may turn out to be a contest between two principal candidates—albeit both approved by the Kremlin. This recipe is likely to work well enough to leave little need for the massive falsification and repression that mark elections in some of Russia’s neighbours (although there was a polling day shoot-out last weekend in the Russian republic of Dagestan). But riot police will be available if necessary, as participants at a violently dispersed protest rally in St Petersburg on March 3rd were quick to discover.

“There is no political competition in our country any more,” says Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister turned Kremlin critic, gloomily. To some, the situation is starting to look rather like the old Soviet Union, in which elections also took place. Indeed, in some places, United Russia is now behaving uncannily like the old Communist Party, with applicants for certain jobs required to be members. Even so, a closer analogy is probably with the pre-revolutionary period, when groups of powerful boyars—sort of barons—competed for the tsar’s ear and favour. (During the civil war Ivan Bunin, a writer, noted the “extreme repetitiveness” of Russian history, “its fatal peculiarity of always moving forward in circles”.)

A case can be made that this arrangement works quite well. Witness Russia’s economic progress under Mr Putin, and his still-stellar popularity—even if that is attributable in part to the Kremlin’s media management, and to the widespread political quietism that followed Russia’s stressful 1990s. Elections may be closed and phoney, but Russia’s rulers are responsive to the popular mood in their own way, as in the nervous backtracking that followed big street protests against a reform of the benefits system in 2005.

But there are risks in a situation in which all politicians owe their positions to the Kremlin, not to the voters. Many of those voters continue to suffer horrifically from Russia’s widespread poverty and inequality, which may explain the enduring appeal of the Communists, who came second by share of the vote in last week’s polls. (Mr Babakov says they are not real communists but “just a group of people who are exploiting the brand”.) Add to this a catastrophic demographic collapse, mind-boggling corruption and a bloody crisis in Chechnya that may look solved but isn’t. After Mr Putin leaves office, especially if the oil price falls and the material gains of his presidency fade away, ever more Russians may become frustrated with rulers who offer them recipes for shashlik but not for genuine change.