A Stolen Election

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Voters have been backed into a corner. Either they vote on March 2 for Dmitry Medvedev or they choose between two perennial candidates -- the political buffoon Vladimir Zhirinovsky and die-hard Communist Gennady Zyuganov -- or the absolutely unknown Andrei Bogdanov. This presents a humiliating dilemma for millions of voters who are critical of the country's authoritarian turn but feel no longing for its imperial past. They have no one to vote for, no "candidate for change," and no one to represent their democratic hopes.

President Vladimir Putin has forced voters into this blind alley by systematically excluding all opposition candidates who promise a democratic future for Russia.

Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov were all prevented from running in the presidential race on dubious grounds. They all have something else in common: They supported last year's anti-Putin protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Had they been successfully registered as candidates, they could have brought the spirit and demands of those protests to the bleak, government-controlled national television channels, where political news has long been heavily censored. More important, they would have given the country's pro-democracy voters a feeling of being represented.

The Kremlin's strategy seems clear. While excluding all genuinely pro-democratic candidates, they have sought to paint Medvedev as a new liberal determined to bring the "rule of law" to the country. In his recent widely publicized appearances, Medvedev has condemned the country's legal nihilism and pervasive corruption and pledged to support civil society and an independent media. The strategy is to lure democratically minded voters who are critical of Putin into the coalition behind Medvedev in the hope that he will pursue a reformist agenda.

The strategy may be working. According to a Levada Center poll in January, one-third of Kasyanov's supporters indicated that they would back Medvedev if their candidate was excluded from the ballot. This month, Medvedev's support level surpassed Putin's.

While assuring a landslide victory for its candidate in March, the Kremlin has made a tactical error. Believing that it can demoralize and co-opt the opposition will prove a false hope. If democratic voters jump on the Kremlin's bandwagon, they will quickly find themselves fellow travelers with a regime that has no intention of changing its autocratic direction. When Medvedev fails to live up to his promises, pro-democratic voters will be angry and will lack electoral alternatives. Instead of forcing democrats into silence and complacency, the current electoral strategy of demoralization may catalyze disillusioned democratic voters into stronger opposition to the authoritarian duo of Medvedev and Putin. One focal point may be the upcoming congress of democratic forces in early April, which plans to initiate a broad nonpartisan opposition movement.

Putin has gotten away with a lot. While reversing Russia's troubled democracy and steering it toward a modern dictatorship, he has gotten a free pass from the energy-dependent West and from many citizens motivated by Soviet-style rhetoric about improvements in living conditions and winning back national prestige. But the Kremlin's refrain about "sovereign democracy," which it has used as an excuse for violating democratic norms, may no longer persuade voters once Medvedev fails to deliver.

On the contrary, the current brazen electoral engineering and the absence of real political alternatives may convince people that the the Kremlin's strategy has gone too far. One out of every five Russians already views arbitrary rule and lack of accountability as the country's main internal threat, according to a survey by the Levada Center in early February. A similar determination to rein in government abuses sparked the anti-regime protests in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

By attempting to pre-empt a "color revolution" in this presidential election season, the Kremlin may well be making such a revolution more likely in coming years. In retrospect, these transitional elections may prove to have lit an explosive spark rather than snuffed out the hope of democracy in Russia.

Mitchell Orenstein is associate professor and Serhiy Kudelia is a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.