Mad as a March Election
Did the presidential election in Russia reveal anything about the country?
Well in some way... Valentina Matviyenko, governor of Saint Petersburg, revealed her feminine clairvoyance - her first revelation after the election results had been made public was that she had had an intuitive awareness of who would become Russia's new President. What a surprise! Kremlin-sponsored political analysts once again made public their learned theories about people's confidence in the authorities. The opposition politicians repeated their lack of democracy, fraudulent election and the-bad-Putin's-regime mantra.
Apart from that the March 2008 election gave food for reflection. For, in a sense, that was the most democratic election in many a year, at least as long as we understand democracy as abidance by certain rules and procedures required by the liberal political theory. The scale of the election fraud was much lower than in 1996 - nobody can tell for sure what the voting results were back then and who was the real winner - Boris Yeltsin or Gennady Zyuganov.
Liberal democracy demands that a competitive election would be held among several candidates for the post. Well, we did have that! We had four candidates, wasn't that enough?
The election was held exactly to the state's laws, all the four candidates were given TV airtime. There were no smear campaigning, or massive violations of the campaigning laws or provocations. Surprisingly, there was nothing of the kind.
So, what was the problem? Oh, you didn't like the candidates? The four didn't represent all the country's political spectrum? But you must know that happens even in more liberal states. Take France for instance - the majority of the population is against the European Constitution, and still, all the more or less serious politicians unanimously support the project.
In a broad manner, the liberal theory is not explicit about adequate representation, while it is more scrupulous about pluralism in general. Putin's administration was good at providing pluralism. The election was a farce staged in full accordance with liberal principles and thus revealing the shallow and futile nature of the liberal democracy - rigorous implementation of the liberal principles, as we have witnessed, can deprive political process of any meaning. It is a triumph of formal democracy. In the sense that there is nothing but an empty form.
And that explains why the opposition that proposes liberal democracy as an alternative to political games of the Kremlin bureaucrats, is fighting for a lost cause - bureaucrats observe all the liberal principles, though do it in their own way. The citizens are dissatisfied and embarrassed by the 2008 presidential election, but they can hardly explain the nature of this feeling. It is not quite the point that Mikhail Kasyanov's candidacy was rejected by the Central Election Commission or that another candidate wannabe Vladimir Bukovsky's application was turned down. Should both opposition candidates run, it wouldn't drastically change the outcome, but the citizens might feel less frustrated.
Firstly, the way the election in Russia was held showed to the electorate that the authorities don't trust them. Despite all those years of unquestioning loyalty, the authorities don't trust their citizens and the latter can not grasp why. People are hurt with such failure of trust.
On the other hand, something is wrong with the candidate that carried out the election. The election outcome with one candidate collecting 70% of vote is not a typical one for the European democracies, but is not something impossible - when Putin had similarly high results four years ago, it was accepted by the people all right, for he was familiar and popular. And though this popularity was artificially created and fostered by external factors, the myth about President Putin was deeply ingrained in people's mind. People loved President Putin. And love is blind...
Alas, people feel nothing of the kind towards Dmitry Medvedev. They didn't even try to make us believe in or love Medvedev. We were confronted with a fait accompli - here you are, get your new President.
People accepted the gift, but felt quite uncomfortable. This feeling was fed not by the fact that people were coerced to accept the new reality, but rather by the fact that Medvedev came to replace the familiar Putin. This time the presidential transfer was too depersonalized. On the part of Putin it was accepted like passing a buck - he let us down and left the post to an unknown man.
If we assume that sometimes Russia makes proof of her feminine nature, then the moves of President Putin as its wedded husband are at least dubious. The country accepted the substitute but with a heavy heart. But if they don't like the successor, why won't they go and find their match? As for Putin, he behaves strangely - either leaving or staying. Not the way a man would behave. Playing games with the people.
All in all the election was frustrating and depressing.
We shall see now how good Medvedev is as a substitute. He will have a stiff job to win Russia's love. But at least will he make us smile?
Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008)