The election campaign performance by the puppet show of Russian politics

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It is less than two weeks until the Duma elections. The campaign battle has reached its peak.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky has already been involved in a fight on live television, as many people had expected: first on the program hosted by Ernest Matskiavichus (Rossiia channel), and later, as Kommersant reported, off the air as well – after the “Freedom of Speech” program (NTV channel), and after economist Mikhail Deliagin publicly referred to Zhirinovsky as “that animal” for his insulting remarks directed at General Shpak.

The Zhirinovsky situation is perfectly clear: as Novaya Gazeta commented, “Zhirinovsky used to be an orator and clown. By telling a paratroops general that he is to blame for the death of his own son, killed in combat, Zhirinovsky has changed from a clown into scum. That is irreversible.”

All the same, as Moscow-based lawyer Dmitri Agranovsky explained to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Zhirinovsky need not fear any unpleasant consequences from his latest fight. It turns out that “criminal charges against a member of parliament may only be issued by the Prosecutor General, based on the conclusions of a collegium of three Supreme Court judges.” The next step would be for the Prosecutor General’s Office to send an enquiry to the Duma, requesting parliamentary immunity to be revoked. And the Duma, of course, will never consent to Zhirinovsky being prosecuted.

Meanwhile, according to many and varied opinion polls, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – until now, at least – has been steady in third place on the ranking of political preferences among Russian voters. And that means it is guaranteed to make it into the Duma – unlike the democratic parties, which have quarreled thoroughly on the eve of the elections.

Both of Russia’s democratic parties – the Union of Right Forces (URF) and Yabloko – have been constantly balancing somewhere on the brink of 5% support, and it still remains uncertain whether they will be represented in the new parliament. An article from “The Washington Post” reprinted in Kommersant-Vlast magazine talks about “widespread voter disillusionment with the democracy movement.” And if neither of the two parties which support market-oriented development for Russia makes it into parliament, “that outcome would, in effect, spell the democrats’ extinction as a meaningful force in Russian politics.”

One of the experts quoted by “The Washington Post,” Professor Michael McFaul from Stanford University, notes that this issue is basically “the only drama of this election… Internally, they’re scared to death in both parties.”

True, it’s hard to imagine Anatoly Chubais being scared to death. The URF is making regular attempts to turn the situation around. Russkii Kurier reports that during a daytime broadcast of the “Freedom of Speech” program in Siberia and the Russian Far East, “Sergei Glaziev, making his debut for the Motherland bloc, slammed official URF leader Boris Nemtsov for the sins of Chubais-style privatization – and then the URF brought out its heavy artillery.” Chubais himself turned up for the evening broadcast of that program.

The Glaziev-Chubais debate was interesting, if only for the fact that both participants are said to be likely presidential candidates in 2008 (at least, their names are mentioned in the press more often than others).

Chubais was undoubtedly the better speaker. Glaziev came across as rather dull on television, to put it mildly. Commenting in Kommersant, Valery Paniushkin said “Motherland’s charismatic leader” isn’t Sergei Glaziev at all, it’s Dmitri Rogozin. Rogozin said: “Chubais ought to be sent to jail.” And Duma member Irina Khakamada answered him from the URF party platform: “Five million people voted for our party in the last elections. Would you send all of them to jail?”

All the same, Glaziev and Rogozin scored highest in the program’s audience poll, with 38%; the URF was second with 32%, and Yabloko third with 15% (Grigori Yavlinsky refused to debate Zhirinovsky). The LDPR was last, with 13%.

Clearly, the right-wing parties do have cause for concern. The Vedomosti newspaper reported a VTsIOM-A poll as indicating that 60% of respondents intend to vote on December 7; and everyone knows which of Russia’s parties has the most disciplined electorate.

The poll indicated that 14% of voters have yet to make up their minds, and 25% are sure they will not turn out to vote.

Of those who do not intend to vote, 11% believe Duma members are solely concerned with their own personal interest, 9% are simply “tired of politics,” 5% consider the Duma useless, and 4% say the Duma has no real influence.

As “The Baltimore Sun” put it, it seems there is a danger that “Russia’s confused and weary electorate might choose the most tempting option amid the howling depths of a Russian winter – to turn over and go back to sleep.”

Further evidence that Russian voters are thoroughly befuddled may be found in another VTsIOM-A poll.

Vedomosti reports that when asked which party has been most successful in television debates, 12% of respondents named United Russia – the party which has refused to take part in those debates at all.

The URF tried in vain to get United Russia disqualified for that refusal, even submitting a bill to that effect.

Subsequent experience has soon proved United Russia made the right choice: voters have not only “managed to spot United Russia among the debate participants,” but have even awarded it the lead, according to Gazeta.

Meanwhile, only 10% of respondents singled out the Communist Party (CPRF) in the debates, and 9% were interested in the URF; while the Motherland bloc, Yabloko, and the LDPR got 8% each.

Dmitri Orlov from the Political Techniques Center says that “confusion among the public” may be linked to United Russia’s strong television advertising campaign.

In Orlov’s view, the public isn’t very interested in television debates; the support ratings of the parties are more influenced by the number of news items devoted to them.

And United Russia is doing particularly well in the news programs, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The Communists (United Russia’s main rivals) have calculated that between October 3 and November 9, United Russia was mentioned in news and current affairs programs on the first and second national TV channels (ORT and RTR) in 46 broadcasts; and what’s more, all mentions of United Russia, without exception, were positive.

The CPRF was mentioned on 38 occasions, and only one of those mentions was positive (when a Communist candidate was interviewed).

Of the other parties, the LDPR and Motherland were the most popular on the state-controlled television networks. The URF and Yabloko were mentioned occasionally in minor news items.

Despite many complaints filed by the CPRF, the Central Electoral Commission does not consider it necessary to intervene in this flagrant abuse of state administration resources by United Russia. Therefore, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, until December 7 “television viewers are doomed to be thrilled by the courageous, kindly, and wise Boris Gryzlov, while shuddering at the sight of the lying, cowardly, mercenary Gennadi Zyuganov – from morning until night.” Such are the rules of campaigning in “managed democracy” conditions, Nezavisimaya Gazeta concludes.

Not surprisingly, says Gazeta, United Russia’s rating has climbed steeply since the start of the campaign. Meanwhile, the CPRF’s rating has dropped from 26% to 23%; while the URF and Yabloko, who are usually given neutral coverage on television, have remained at their previous level of 5-6% – that is, on the threshold of making it into the Duma.

Moreover, says Profil magazine, even voters who are aware that United Russia is not taking part in the television debates do not condemn the party for this: 37% of them hope that by refusing to take part in debates, United Russia’s leaders will be able to have more direct contact with voters; and 32% of respondents say United Russia’s victory is already in the bag, so there’s no point in wasting time on public clashes with its rivals.

Only 20% of respondents think United Russia politicians are simply afraid of public debates in front of a large audience.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt about United Russia’s rising popularity. The Vedomosti newspaper reports that in a “preliminary election” held in three regions (Russia’s version of primaries), United Russia demolished the Communists, 32.7% to 14.3%.

This event covered three cities – Belgorod, Vladimir, and Kyshtym – where 1999 election results turned out to be closest to the national average.

As expected, the LDPR was third (8.7%), followed by the URF (7.5%) and Yabloko (5.2%). To everyone’s surprise, the Motherland bloc (thank you, television!) also came close to the 5% threshold.

United Russia’s leaders were inspired by this result, of course, while the Communists declared that the public “is being psychologically prepared to accept the fraud now being planned” for the upcoming elections.

Actually, experts have no doubt that political consultants are skillfully using the release of results from “primaries” and all manner of opinion polls in order to influence the outcome of the real elections.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal observes that PR consultants have long understood that “a politician’s image is much more important than politics itself.”

There are still cases when even the efforts of Russia’s best specialists have practically no effect: the image of Boris Gryzlov, for example. This is why the United Russia leader is having to demonstrate his professional achievements with the “werewolves in uniform” police corruption arrests, and corruption elsewhere; efforts to make a public politician out of Gryzlov have failed. “He didn’t have a political face, and he still doesn’t have one. Recognition factor of zero.”

As a complete contrast, Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal names Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who “got into his image ten years ago and is still living with that mask on his face. And he’s saying the same words, in the same tone of voice. He’s unmistakable.”

The level of political consulting has now reached such heights that the election outcome is considered absolutely predictable. The “media machine of popularity” (Gleb Pavlovsky’s expression) put together for the 1999 elections was taken over by the regime soon after those elections.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal emphasizes that the use of this powerful mechanism has led to “public politics being almost entirely replaced by puppet show performances, with each figure having its own role.” Having divided societal groups among themselves, the parties are using them to obtain Duma seats, and after the elections they completely forget about their promises to voters.

Moreover, says Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, a building which is already complete no longer requires architects. The political decision-making center has long since moved to the presidential administration; and the people there concluded that the desired results could be achieved without the bother of using political consulting or political consultants. It’s enough to create conditions in which competition is impossible: “For this, it’s enough to prevent the most dangerous rivals from taking part in elections. This is much simpler and cheaper.”

However, using this approach can lead to voter turnout problems, Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal warns. The public’s reasoning is simple: why vote at all, when everything is decided in advance? According to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, no more than 20% of St. Petersburg voters intend to turn out on December 7.

In the meantime, the press and politicians steadily keep returning to the idea that the upcoming parliamentary elections are only a prelude to the presidential election – not only 2004, but in some sense 2008 as well.

“The entire system of interrelationships among the political and business elites is being revised,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “And while citizens, by force of habit, still think that only a new parliament is being elected, the elite, to all appearances, is making a different and more all-encompassing choice.” According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, that choice “is in one way or another connected with 2008 and the choice of Vladimir Putin’s successor.”

Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center says: “A period of consolidation is starting in the bureaucracy, and its aim is to prepare the transfer of power into the hands of the necessary person.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a search is underway for a person who “will guarantee immunity for the present guarantor of the Constitution – just as Putin himself acted as guarantor for the immunity of Boris Yeltsin’s family.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that such an important mission cannot be entrusted to anyone from the Family clan, nor to a protege of the oligarchs. “The tried and tested personnel of the special services are the only recruitment source the president finds acceptable; with all the consequences this entails for the liberal-minded part of society.”

Not surprisingly, Anatoly Chubais, head of Russian Joint Energy Systems and co-leader of the URF, has repeatedly stressed in his campaign interviews that the URF’s result in these elections will have “the most principal and strategic significance” – and not in terms of reforming the electricity monopoly.

In an interview with Profil magazine, Chubais said: “In my view, the main thing we should be thinking about right now is building post-Putin Russia. And the structure of the right wing of politics in our country is an extremely important issue.”

In an interview with Ekspert magazine, Chubais explained that he views the YUKOS affair and some other actions by the authorities as a significant indication that the course is being revised.

Chubais noted: “It seems the regime feels that enough stability has been achieved to permit some drastic moves. I think the regime took into account that such moves might be accompanied by substantial disturbances in the economy, politics, and the atmosphere in society.”

At the same time, Chubais does not consider it possible to say that the nation’s development has changed direction irreversibly: “If we acknowledge that a change of course has taken place, we would need to go into opposition. I don’t think this has happpened, but I believe the danger does exist, and we have to respond to it.”

So Chubais is responding – situationally so far; for example, at the request of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs he made a statement about Khodorkovsky’s arrest.

However, if a “change of course” is acknowledged to have taken place, some substantial responses will have to be made as well: the URF would have to go into opposition, and Chubais himself would have to leave Russian Joint Energy Systems. “Clearly, under those circumstances I could not continue to head a company in which the controlling interest is held by the state.”

Chubais says there are two aspects to the problem of getting over the 5% threshold in the parliamentary elections: the “strategic” aspect and the “cynical” aspect.

In terms of strategy, Chubais considers it “stupid and childish to have two parties on the right of the political spectrum.” In his view, this situation is 95% due to the personal relations between the leaders of those parties, and only 5% due to real differences between the parties.

In the “cynical” aspect of the business, in Chubais’s view, one point should be understood: “Elections are a matter of selling a product at a given moment of time: from 8 a.m. on December 7. Keeping a rating high for a month is expensive, and it is not among the objectives.”

Chubais believes the latest rises in the URF rating are due to public discussion of recent events: “We are gaining supporters due to the protest vote, and due to people who hadn’t previously intended to vote at all.”

Lilia Shevtsova, a senior analyst with the International Carnegie Foundation, says in Novaya Gazeta that Chubais is the only leader capable of putting together an anti-Putin fronde within the regime. “Of course, if he can gain the imagination of a Berezovsky. Chubais is not a strategist; he is a brilliant terminator.”

However, Shevtsova says there will be no repeat of 1996: the president is giving the old elite and big business a chance to reach an agreement.

According to Shevtsova, Putin’s actions in recent days are nothing other than an offer: “Guys, let’s find a compromise – but on my terms.”

In Shevtsova’s view, the public has yet to realize that it is witnessing the birth of a new regime, the Putin regime, with a new balance of power and a new team.

Of course, the process of formalizing the new system will take some time; but its characteristics may already be assessed.

A redistribution of property is inevitable, in favor of “new business figures, close to the Putin team.” Neither should we forget about the slogan so popular with the regime nowadays: “A thief should be in jail.”

Moreover, says Shevtsova, the distinguishing feature of these new conditions of existence will be the growing dominance of the bureaucracy.

In short, it is expected that the next “significant performance” for the regime and society will be the parliamentary elections: “Voting against all candidates, capital outflow from Russia, a contraction in small and medium-sized business, an increase in the number of young people aiming to move to the West – these are possible responses.”

The new regime will generally be more hard-line than the previous one, says Shevtsova: it will be “more bureaucratic and with a greater capacity for overt pressure than the regime of the 1990s.” Society will begin to develop a tolerance for pressure, which increases the threat of a slide into open force. But that “will not happen in Putin’s time,” Shevtsova points out.

This is rather poor consolation.

Well, and in the immediate future we can expect a further week and a half of another Russian “vanity fair” – in order that parties will be able to sell their political product at the strictly specified time: “from 8 a.m. on December 7.”

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