Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Too Much for the Voters to Stomach

If the March 11 regional elections were a dress rehearsal for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, then what a rehearsal they were.

This was a full-scale run-through, with all the set decorations in place and all the actors up on the main stage. Held in 14 regions, from southern, rural Stavropol to northern, industrial St. Petersburg and covering 30 million voters, the elections offered a good overview of the political landscape.

The first thing that is clear is that the political class has almost loss touch with the average voter in the process of building a sovereign democracy.

Even official statistics put turnout at below 40 percent, meaning almost two thirds of the electorate didn't exercise its right to vote. In St. Petersburg and the Leningrad, Moscow and Murmansk region votes, turnout was 30 to 33 percent, and it was also low in the industrially strong Samara and Vologda regions. The republic of Dagestan brightened the picture a bit with an 80 percent turnout, as did the Oryol region, with 55 percent. These are regions where the workers follow their bosses' orders to vote and the Soviet tradition of voting is still strong.

There are a few reasons for the generally low turnout. The first is the increasingly absurd and unfair character of Russian elections, which have degenerated into a "Kremlin biathlon" where, instead of skiers shooting at the targets, judges fire at the skiers.

In recent years, the Kremlin has erected insurmountable barriers for political groups wanting to take part in the system, including raising the minimum percentage of the vote needed to win seats in regional legislatures and the State Duma from 5 percent to 7 percent. The barriers have not only grown higher, but thicker as well, as the registration fees for parties and individual candidates have soared. In St. Petersburg the registration fee for parties was more than $3 million. The requirements for collecting signatures in support of a political party have been tightened also, which made it easier for the authorities to eliminate Yabloko from the vote in St. Petersburg, where it is popular.

The result was that, of 135 declared parties, 44 were "weeded out." Only opposition parties, of course, had to survive this process. The Kremlin's four favorite parties -- United Russia, A Just Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party -- were registered in every region involved. Anyone else trying to participate ran into numerous problems.

The second factor is the further narrowing of the field of "legitimate" political groups and the increase in the number of "illegal" groups that the Kremlin has barred from the political process.

The list of high-profile names missing in the March elections was lengthy and bridged the political spectrum -- Garry Kasparov, Dmitry Rogozin, Mikhail Kasyanov, Irina Khakamada, Sergei Glazyov and I have all tried unsuccessfully to register parties. My own attempts to form a party have come to naught, as the Republican Party I have headed over the last two years is now likely to be dissolved. The government has already filed a case in the Supreme Court calling the party's disbandment "for violations of legislation regulating political parties."

The parties plucked from the Kremlin's own garden have taken on an increasingly banal, run-of-the-mill character. All of these, including the Communists, support President Vladimir Putin's policies of strong executive authority and stability.

So the Kremlin chefs have created the current menu of political parties, one increasingly reminiscent of the Soviet-era cafeteria menus of my student days. Given the quality of these cafeterias -- with their bent aluminum forks, repulsive-smelling stuffed cabbage that was indistinguishable from the equally foul meat cutlets and their sticky table cloths -- is it any surprise that people have abandoned them?

Even the protest vote has been eliminated, with the "against all" option having now been removed from the ballot. In anticipation of the lack of appetite for elections that the Kremlin cooks would generate, they have also eliminated a minimum voter turnout requirement for elections to be official.

So it doesn't matter what dishes our voters selected on March 11. It doesn't matter whether they ordered more stuffed cabbage, in the form of A Just Russia, than bear tongue, in the form of United Russia. Did they drink more Bolshevik -- that is, Communist Party -- vodka, or more of the yellow, poisonous lemon-flavored cocktails of the Liberal Democratic Party? In the end, all of the "winners" of the March elections -- United Russia with 46 percent, the Communist Party with 16 percent, A Just Russia with about 15 percent and the Liberal Democratic Party with 9 percent -- were picked by the Kremlin as the chief participants in a system manipulated from above. They were chosen for loyalty and the similarity of their doctrines to those of the country's leaders.

Both United Russia and A Just Russia are direct creations of the Kremlin. Following the "hard fought" campaign in St. Petersburg, the leader of the winning party, Boris Gryzlov, magnanimously announced that the leader of the losing party, Sergei Mironov, would be re-elected by the city's Legislative Assembly for a new term in the Council Federation. How's that for opposition?

The Liberal Democratic Party has long been under the Kremlin's thumb and even the Communist Party, that greatest bogeyman of all, has recently come into favor with the authorities, apparently in the role of a dependable release value for the growing number of voters looking to register their protest against the current system. The success of the Union of Right Forces -- which won seats in five regions, garnering an average of 7 percent of the vote overall -- left the future of liberals in this system under question: Is the party really independent and is it an opposition party at all.

Much of how this system is organized is clear enough in the media. On television -- the medium reaching most voters and from which voters here and in much of the world receive most of their news -- what we see are almost exclusively the representatives of these authorized parties, with little and often no criticism of the authorities ever aired.

Current attitudes toward politics, politicians and elections, ranging from deep disgust to apathy, should come as no surprise. The culling of parties and candidates, brainwashing of voters through control of mass media, tightening of control on the part of officials, evidence of the direct falsification of election results in the Moscow region and elsewhere, lies we hear at every step and rigging of the competition in general -- all of these have reduced the word "elections" to synonyms like "dirt," "lies," "manipulation" and "payoffs."

From what we saw in these elections, it is clear that the Kremlin will exercise complete control over the State Duma elected in December and that it will custom fit the presidential election to the requirements of Putin's successor, whoever that may be.

Given this system, it is pointless to expect much change in Russia's foreign or domestic policy. Elected under these conditions, the Duma has no bearing on policy. And Putin's successor will be "elected" without the need of a political program. In a sovereign democracy -- meaning the traditional authoritarian system being established in Russia today -- the average voter is neither expected nor able to influence policy in the slightest. The voter's only function is to confer a sort of legitimacy on the authorities by voting in rigged elections manipulated by the country's leadership.

After all, in a sovereign democracy isn't every question decided by the sovereign, be it a tsar, Party secretary or a president?

Vladimir Ryzhkov is an independent State Duma deputy and co-chairman of the Republican Party.