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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Fate of 'Political Technology'

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The changes to Russia's election laws passed by the State Duma before the summer recess have led many observers to wonder about the future of so-called "political technology," the techniques used to influence election outcomes across the former Soviet Union. Is this really the end of an era? Is the golden age of political technology coming to an end?

Ukraine's Orange Revolution was supposed to be a revolution against these techniques, a resounding defeat for political technologists and their methods. Arguably, its most important effect was psychological, activating populations throughout the region who will henceforth be harder to fool. The Orange Revolution also made certain political technology methods -- especially mass producing propaganda through control of the commanding heights of state television -- look distinctly old-fashioned. The Ukrainian opposition made skillful use of alternative sources of information and agenda-setting technologies such as the Internet, text messages and video clip posting.

Events in Ukraine showed what a huge difference outside intervention can make, and not just in terms of money and diplomatic support. Political technologists rely on selling a particular dramaturgia, or scripted scenario. Their methods are therefore vulnerable to local populations switching off-message, and there was a powerful new message in town. After the recent wave of color revolutions, the United States has locked into the rhetoric of democracy promotion. Significantly, for example, the rigged election in Azerbaijan in 2003 was more or less ignored in the West, but now in 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is aligning herself closer to Baku's critics.

Yet at the same time, the 2004 Ukrainian presidential campaign was not that bad an ad for political technology. It certainly demonstrated the fallibility of crude fraud when undisguised by a convincing cover story. But the political technologists, both Russian and Ukrainian, succeeded in one key task. If the 2002 Rada parliamentary elections had been largely a referendum on a scandal-ridden government and Viktor Yushchenko's premiership from 1999 to 2001, in 2004 voters were sold a new story of "East versus West," both within Ukraine and in terms of geopolitics. More exactly, the second script overlay the first, rather than completely replacing it, and Yushchenko refused to fall into the trap of fighting the election on these terms. But the strategy brought the otherwise unappealing Viktor Yanukovych close to victory.

On the other hand, times have changed. Yanukovych and the Party of Regions are still trapped in the political-technology paradigm as they prepare for the Rada elections in 2006, but they no longer control many administrative resources and need to play their game more circumspectly even on their home turf in the Donbass. The political space for launching some new branded project is narrow, despite optimistic talk of setting up a "third force." Most east Ukrainian elites are regrouping under party labels that accept the agenda set by the new regime: "New Democracy," "Democratic Ukraine" and the "People's Will."

Other post-Soviet regimes have a choice of survival strategies. Traditional authoritarian methods -- cowing the population, imprisoning the opposition and cracking down hard on protest -- have been tried in Uzbekistan and are clearly being contemplated in Belarus and possibly Kazakhstan. So-called administrative technology -- such as gerrymandering or culling the ranks of the opposition via the courts -- is also an option. However, in the new international context, use of either method on its own without a cover story will produce only fragile success and possibly even stimulate a stronger counter-reaction.

Even in Uzbekistan there is a role for classic political technology, as demonstrated by the fake opposition party Sunshine Uzbekistan, which was established almost simultaneously with the Andijan events in May. The party is led by Sanjar Umarov, one of Uzbekistan's richest men with interests in oil, cotton and a joint U.S. telecoms venture -- all areas under the authorities' tight control. Sunshine Uzbekistan's role seems to be to stage the appearance of pluralism for the West rather more convincingly than recent parliamentary elections, although some believe Umarov has quarrelled with President Islam Karimov's oldest daughter, Gulnara.

Belarus may well use administrative methods to fix the result of the presidential election scheduled for 2006 and traditional authoritarian methods to cow the population beforehand. But the electoral arithmetic provides an opening for political technology. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko normally receives between 40 percent and 50 percent of votes, and the traditional opposition never more than 15 percent. There is plenty of room for a "third force." Currently, that role is being played by the head of the Social Democratic Party, Alexander Kazulin, the former rector of Belarus State University. That he concentrates most of his fire on others in the opposition suggests he may be a relay runner for Lukashenko, while his robust Russophilia suggests the possibility of Kremlin support. Parliament Deputy Sergei Gaidukevich stands in reserve to play Vladimir Zhirinovsky's role as jester-cum-hired gun in the political middle. Russia may, however, find its influence limited, as there is little room for players outside the regime to use political technology in Belarus.

In Belarus, moreover, real politics takes place elsewhere. Lukashenko's speciality is playing divide and rule not so much with the local opposition as with the local nomenklatura. Bureaucrats are never allowed to settle into cozy sinecures. Yegor Rybakov, the former head of Belarussian state television, was sentenced to 11 years this February for grand larceny. Galina Zhuraukova, former head of the presidential administration's property management department, got four years in 2004. Institutions are also set against one another: the Interior Ministry versus the KGB, the KGB versus Lukashenko's personal security service.

In Russia, however, political technology seems to be alive and well. Cloning opposition parties to create a Kremlin-controlled imitation of partisan politics seems to be the likely option for 2007. This may occur via three or more pet parties spun off from United Russia's more than ample ranks: a Kremlin "liberal" party instead of Yabloko, a Kremlin "nationalist" party capable of drawing away the more mainstream politicians from the likes of Rodina, and a Kremlin "state-socialist" party to draw supporters away from the Communists.

And clearly the next election cycle may see more dramaturgia than drama. One can already discern the outlines of various forms of "perevod strelki" -- "switching the points," or passing the buck. These strategies are designed to shift responsibility and agency. The authorities often blame extreme nationalists or the Islamic threat for all of society's woes, as the Putin era is now too advanced to blame the old regime or the West. Another related strategy involves the artificial polarization of choice, the threat of "apr?s moi, le deluge": democracy in danger or scarecrow nationalists taking power. And the "lesser evil" ploy often works if a convincing-enough other evil can be found.

The political technology industry is far from dead. Constitutional changes in Russia -- the abolition of elected governors and single mandate races, and the establishment of a single nationwide election day -- may narrow the market. But others -- in particular the 7 percent barrier for Duma representation -- will make television campaigning even more important. More fundamentally, in the system of directed democracy, political technologists do the directing. Without them, democracy would either no longer be directed, which still seems to be a prospect most post-Soviet elites are reluctant to face, or would be directed more crudely: The siloviki do not have their own brand of technology.

Andrew Wilson is senior lecturer at University College in London and author of "Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.