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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nizhny Gets Negative

It took about a week for the political pundits to recover from the shock caused by the results of the mayoral election in Nizhny Novgorod. Only 28 percent of eligible voters bothered to turn out, and one-third of those voted for "none of the above." In fact, "none of the above" very nearly took first place. If that had happened, the election would have been declared invalid, and the process would have started all over again.

The sociologists threw fuel on the fire, publishing disturbing statistics about Russia as a whole. The ROMIR polling agency announced that 70 percent of Russians consider elections in this country neither free nor fair. In other words, disenchantment with the political system is on the rise, election rigging is more widely reported and the state propaganda machine is spinning its wheels.

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It is pretty clear that the huge vote for "none of the above" was the product of a court decision to strike one of the front-runners, Andrei Klimentyev, from the ballot. But Klimentyev's popularity had spiked on the eve of the election primarily because a vote for him was seen as a vote against the existing political elite. Everyone knew that Klimentyev was suspected of ties to organized crime. And everyone knew that politicians from the Kremlin to the communists were ranked against him. That is why so many people cast a protest vote in the end.

But nothing all that extraordinary happened in Nizhny Novgorod. The only new wrinkle was that the election returns were counted more or less honestly. As a result, the official tally and the results broadcast on television corresponded more closely than usual to the way people had actually voted. This, however, was no sudden outbreak of honesty in local government.

Nizhny Novgorod Governor Gennady Khodyrev, having given up hope of installing his man in the mayor's office, had a vested interest in scuttling the election. He announced that there were no worthy candidates and called for voters to cast a protest vote for "none of the above." With this in mind, it is no surprise that the local electoral commission dutifully counted all the votes for "none of the above."

In the end, this election opened a big can of worms by inciting public discussion of the widespread discontent that has built up across the country. But there is no cause for alarm. This annoying little outburst was quickly squelched at the next regional election in Krasnoyarsk a week later. Everything was back to normal, and all those disconcerting public opinion polls could be happily forgotten.

The public's hostility toward politicians is hardly something new and means little by itself. Rigging of elections is only a problem for those in power to the extent that it incites opposition. The paradox of Russian political life is that everyone, or practically everyone, is involved in rigging the game.

Things are no better in the regions where so-called opposition leaders are in charge. Elections are little more than a means of affirming the results of deals cut in advance. No wonder the voters are disgruntled, but they have no one to deliver their protest to. This is the strength of the system. The collective guarantee of the political elite, whereby members of the elite always cover for one other, makes opposition futile. Even the victims of these rigged games do not come out looking particularly innocent. Rather than fighting for their rights, they behave like thieves whose loot has been confiscated. They quietly lick their wounds instead of demanding an inquiry.

Klimentyev was a prickly prospect not because of his supposed criminal ties, but because those ties meant he had no need of the politicians' collective guarantee.

In theory, this would be the place to prophesy about a coming wave of popular fury that will sweep away the corrupt elite and all that. But prophecies like this resemble broken watches -- twice a day they show the right time, but you never know when.

The crisis in the system will make itself known even without acts of protest, however. Rigging elections demonstrates the weakness of the ruling class. Excluding real opposition from the political arena indicates trouble in society.

The Russian political elite is sure that it has everything under control, but this is an illusion. The more closed and controlled the political system is, the more keenly crises will make themselves felt in other areas. In such a situation, totally "manageable democracy" can easily turn into total chaos.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.