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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Letter to All Observers

Dear Observer: Welcome to Russia. This is a historic week. Foreign observers have been invited to watch a Russian election for the first time ever. Russian voters re taking part in a multi-party election for the first time. But don't get carried away. These are not the first "free and fair" elections held here.


Most Russians, and certainly all those reporters who had the luck to witness them, have not forgotten the polls of March 1989 and 1990, or the presidential election of June 1991, when Boris Yeltsin swept to power with more votes than his five opponents put together. The 1989 poll to the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies was probably the most exciting of all. Because of its novelty after decades of no-choice polls, and the unexpected license that Russians had got from Gorbachev to run as independent candidates in the country's first contested polls since 1917, interest in the election was intense.


Of course the government-controlled television did its best to suppress news, but people heard of meetings by word of mouth. Thousands waited in the snow to hear Boris Yeltsin and other critics of the Communist Party nomenklatura bellow their message through megaphones at street corner meetings. Hundreds gathered outside the prestigious Academy of Sciences building to protest at the effort to keep Andrei Sakharov off the list of candidates. Perhaps the most impressive part of it all was the way grass-roots activists from the democratic movement held seminars in crowded halls or handed out leaflets at underground stations, urging people to cross out the names of candidates they did not like.


Under Soviet rules a candidate had to get the support of 50 percent of those who turned out in order to be elected. Some three dozen senior party officials, including one Politburo member, who thought they were safe because they had no opponent on the ballot, bit the dust thanks to this crossing-out campaign.


The very fact that these apparatchiks had not dared to permit an opponent in their areas alienated voters. It led to the best quotation of the 1989 campaign, when Valentin Zgursky, the defeated mayor of Kiev, complained "I lost because I was unopposed".


Although the Communist Party still had a monopoly of power, the 1989 poll was in fact a nonparty poll. Party organizations seemed in a state of paralysis, and virtually did not campaign for their officials. A candidate's mere membership of the party played little role.


What was more important was whether a candidate was against the nomenklatura, which was why so many reformists, like Yeltsin, got in. and by the way, no one even considered that the party hierarchy would fiddle the figures, even though there were no foreign observers. The candidates themselves had eager agents at every polling station during the counting.


It was the same again the March 1990 election for the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, (dissolved by Yeltsin 10 weeks ago). That poll was freer, since the rules for nominating candidates had been liberalized, and there were no longer reserved seats for some Communists and Communist "mass organizations".


By June 1991, when we watched the presidential election in the glory of the Russian spring, it was a real celebration of democracy. By this time the rules had been brought into line with Western standards, and the media was required to give equal time to all six candidates for free election broadcasts. Besides, television news was still a problem but since there were two competing national channels, the Soviet Ostankino and the Russian Vesti, Yeltsin got his views over on the latter even if the former was against him.


And once again no one imagined that there would be fraud on polling day. So, dear observer, please remember that democratization in Russia did not begin on Oct. 4 this year. Remember also that free and fair elections are not just about the conduct of the balloting on voting day. They are about a context and a campaign.


The sad fact, as I and many Russians will tell you, is that public interest in politics in December 1993 is much lower than it was two or even four years ago. Russian voters have been here before, and this time there is much more skepticism in the street about the political environment of the campaign.


Many aspects of the current election worry Russia's professionals, its journalists, political scientists, and commentators: the failure under the electoral law, let alone in practice, to give equal time to opponents of the draft constitution; the bias on both national television channels in favor of one parliamentary bloc, Russia's Choice; the right to pay for television and radio time and other electoral expenses without declaring your funding; and the confusion of the list system that allows Moscow "stars" and ministers to get elected without ever campaigning locally or meeting a provincial voter.


To sum up, dear visitor, by all means give the polling exercise on Sunday a clean bill of health, if you think it deserves it. I am sure you will. To judge from the experience of the three polls of the Gorbachev years, they do these things well in Russia. But don't assume that democracy can be judged by the events of one day. Even more importantly, when you report back to your own governments, please don't assume democracy depends on one man. Yeltsin's desire for a democratic Russia may not be in doubt. But Russia has a long history of leaders whose actions did not always match their ideology.


Jonathan Steele is Moscow bureau chief of the Guardian, London. His book "Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy" will be published by Faber and Faber in February.