by Serge Eygenson | Russian democracy compromised by tainted election process.
While Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Mike Huckabee struggle to win over the majority of American Democrats and Republicans, it appears as if Dmitry Medvedev has garnered approval not only from members of United Russia, his party, but also from the majority of Russians, in general. According to a February 22 poll, Medvedev is predicted to receive 72% of the votes in the March 2 presidential election. The figures seem too good to be true. How did a hitherto unknown member of the Kremlin bureaucracy manage to become so popular in the few short months since Putin chose him as successor in December 2007? A combination of factors is at play.
The fact that the poll was conducted by government-owned VTsIOM deems the results far from reliable. In Russia’s pseudo-democratic but thoroughly corrupt political environment, a Kremlin-owned polling company adjusting poll results to favor the Kremlin-backed candidate is far from surprising. The conflict of interest is not a political anomaly, but rather a symptom of the vertical power structure Putin has created. Even if VTsIOM did nothing to alter the results, Medvedev’s popularity has little to do with the appeal of his policies, vision, and experience to voters.
It is not difficult to become the dominant candidate when all of the competition has been eliminated, which the powerful Kremlin political machine has ensured. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Ksyanov was denied the opportunity to participate in the presidential race in January because of documentation technicalities concerning a small portion of his application for candidacy. A leader of Other Russia, the oppositional political coalition, Garry Kasparov, was forced to leave the race after he was unable to rent a legally required meeting hall for his supporters to assemble in. Communist Gennady Zyuganov, one of the last candidates left standing, enjoys less than one fourth of Medvedev’s popularity. Despite being accused of behaving as Putin’s puppet, Zyuganoz still does not receive any of the frequent media coverage and government funding lavished upon Medvedev. Regardless of his communist message, Zyuganov’s, or for that matter any other candidate’s, campaign simply does not have the resources to keep up with Medvedev. Apparently, the Kremlin saw the time and money being spent by the numerous American political candidates during the presidential race, and decided that it would be much easier to simply eliminate the competition.
That is not to say that Medvedev’s campaign lacks the funding. Considering the close link between Medvedev’s United Russia party and the government, the Kremlin has had no qualms with spending resources to support a specific candidate. State-owned media nationwide promote Medvedev and United Russia via advertising, television news and political programs, newspaper articles and editorials. Simultaneously, the few remaining media outlets daring to voice a dissenting opinion are being shut down with total disregard for free speech. Imagine if, for example, the biased, right-wing Fox New approach to reporting permeated all of American media, and CNN was shut down and seized by the government on falsified charges. Although it is unimaginable in America’s society, this is the state of the Russian media.
Furthermore, the Kremlin has not been shy about using tax revenue to aid the Medvedev campaign. Lavish concerts for younger voters, cultural events for the older population, and recreational outings for young families have all been organized by United Russia, with the Kremlin subsidizing the bill. The entertaining social events attract the citizenry, whereupon potential voters are inundated with pro-United Russia propaganda, both subliminally and directly.
If the Kremlin’s preventative measures were to somehow fail and a Russian voter, either by chance or through rational thinking, considered voting for one of the few remaining alternative candidates, he would be explicitly directed to do otherwise. Russia’s most recent election, the December parliamentary vote, brought to light many of the Kremlin’s tactics. Workers at provincial factories were informed that, unless they voted for United Russia, their jobs were at stake. School students were given pamphlets and instructed to convince their parents to vote for Putin’s allies. Their older counterparts, university students, were informed that not voting for United Russia meant an eviction from the university dormitories. Voters openly supporting and working for opposition parties, on the other hand, were harassed, threatened, and pressured to stop their activism. If the ruling party’s political tactics and propaganda did not win over voters, it was not afraid to use much more direct tactics.
It does not take a fortune teller or a political expert to predict who will win the upcoming Russian election. Through a combination of force, influence, spending, and propaganda the governmental powers backing Dmitri Medvedev’s presidential campaign have given him an unassailable advantage. Putin’s backing has given the candidate the sort of momentum American candidates can only dream of gaining from a presidential endorsement. While John McCain may wish to simply eliminate the annoying presence of Mike Huckabee, or even the threat of the opposing Democratic nominee, in American politics, an established democracy, relatively steady economy, and an independent media assure that this can remain only a wish . Unfortunately, today’s Russia possesses none of these features; there will be no surprises come March 2nd. The election results have been obvious since the moment Putin offered his endorsement, and the enormous resources of his regime, to Medvedev’s presidential campaign. Nonetheless, in the unstable landscape of Russian politics, a helping hand today by no means a helping hand in return tomorrow. Medvedev, despite all of the benefits he has enjoyed as Putin’s heir apparent, may very well take Russia in a completely new direction. Whether he will or not is the real question surrounding the outcome of March 2.
Mr. Eygenson is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.