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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Television Awards and Democracy

In the Soviet era, we all belonged to some kind of political or professional organization -- the Komsomol, the Communist Party, a trade union. During the perestroika years, we fought to institute the secret ballot in these organizations, so that important decisions could be made without outside pressure. And we were successful. The secret ballot became an integral part of our lives.

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I found myself thinking about this last Friday during the annual TEFI awards ceremony held by the Academy of Russian Television. For the first time in its 11-year history, the academy held a roll-call vote for the country's top television awards.

The history of voting procedures at the TEFI awards is as quirky as the history of Russian democracy itself. Fame as well as fortune are at stake. As Dmitry Lesnevsky, one of the founders of Ren-TV, put it, "A TEFI is a very good thing to have when you want to renegotiate your contract."

In the academy's early years, its members awarded the TEFIs by secret ballot. Academy members filled in their ballots in the auditorium. The ballots were then collected and handed over to an auditing firm for safekeeping until the winners were announced on stage. People who witnessed the voting have described how the heads of major television stations patrolled the aisles to make sure that the academy members in their employ voted for the home team.

In order to do away with this kind of administrative intimidation, the academy decided a few years ago to switch to electronic voting during the ceremony itself. The new procedure soon devolved into farce. Members got fed up as the awards ceremonies dragged on, and by the end a relatively small group of voters remained. Members were known to push the wrong buttons, awarding prizes to the wrong people and placing the academy in the embarrassing situation of having to ask for statuettes to be returned. Last year, electronic voting was used to stage a protest against the main state-owned and state-controlled stations, which they did not take lightly, to say the least.

As a result, after 10 years of experimenting, the academy instituted a procedure that the Communist Party rejected back in 1985: the roll-call vote. The voting now works like this. Three groups of 12 electors are selected at random from the body of 130 academy members. These electors in turn vote publicly for their favorite programs. "There's no way the selection is random," one academy observer told me after noticing that the voting groups included employees of the same stations whose shows were nominated for various awards.

I must admit this hadn't occurred to me, but given the authority of my source, I decided to check out the allegation. I asked one of the academy members if the selection was actually random. He clearly assumed that I wouldn't have asked unless I knew something, so his reply was evasive: "I have no proof to the contrary." Based on that reply, I began to think that he must know something that he could not or would not say without betraying an academy secret. And now I am sharing my own doubts with the readers of this column, leading you perhaps to question the integrity of the country's top television awards.

This story has much in common with the history of Russian democracy. Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, we received the full range of democratic rights, and since then we citizens have combined our efforts with those of the state to turn those rights into a joke. Even if an election were free and fair these days, no one would ever believe it.

Alexei Pankin is opinion page editor at Izvestia.