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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Digging Their Own Graves at the Polls

Sunday’s elections were depressing. The problem is not that the results suggest that the authorities remain hugely popular despite the crisis, but that the authorities seem to be digging their own graves.

The country’s leaders are spending enormous amounts of money to calm nerves and maintain order. But they are failing to prepare themselves to cope with future problems or to restructure the political system to meet those challenges. They are simply squandering Russia’s accumulated reserves and burying their heads in the sand.

Last spring, the authorities seemed to have gauged the situation accurately and chosen to loosen the reins a bit in the electoral process by introducing a few elements of liberalization. But now their political adaptation to the economic crisis has undergone a reversal. The authorities have apparently concluded that the worst of the crisis is over and that they can gradually tighten the reins again. A perfect illustration of this is the contrast between last weekend’s mayoral election in Astrakhan and the mayoral election in Sochi six months earlier.

What did the Oct. 11 elections reveal?

For one, the vote showed that public order remains relatively undisturbed and ordinary people have yet to feel the full brunt of the economic crisis. It also indicated that people are largely indifferent to elections and violations in electoral procedure. Most people see elections as a type of contest in which they can root for this or that person, not unlike the Russia-Germany football match that many voters stayed up watching so late Saturday night that they slept through the elections Sunday.

In any case, most voters seem to feel that elections have no direct bearing on their lives. Voters are not ready to invest their time and energy into elections or to defend their right to vote for the candidate of their choice, rather than to choose from a list of candidates handpicked by United Russia.

Sunday’s vote also showed that the authorities are satisfied with the current party system — a system that in reality is unable to meet the needs of a huge country in the throes of an economic crisis — and that they are not preparing any alternative to United Russia. Ruling parties in other countries have felt the effects of the crisis or even lost their hold on power as a result of it. But in Russia, as in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, time has stopped, and the authorities are reassuring everyone, including themselves, that they are more popular now than before the crisis started. This means that instead of simply preparing to change the ruling party, the authorities may one day face the more colossal task of having to change the entire political system.

The country’s leaders have not only failed to prepare a “backup” political party, but they also have effectively shot themselves in the foot by knowingly compromising the electoral system, making it impossible for two of the few parties that still have some life left in them, Right Cause and Yabloko, to enter the Moscow City Duma.

Were the election results widely falsified? Without doubt, many official election results do not reflect the real picture. It doesn’t really matter if the cheating occurred by misrepresenting the votes cast, having people use absentee ballots to vote in multiple precincts, or disqualifying unwanted candidates or parties. Typically, the first 25 percent to 30 percent of voting results are reported more or less accurately, and all subsequent votes are attributed to United Russia — a tactic for falsifying results that has been recognized since the late 1980s and that was clearly employed in the Moscow elections.

Elections were held in almost all of Russia’s regions. In outlying areas such as the cities of Rzhev and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and the Amur region, the authorities exercised looser control over the electoral process and the results were comparatively more realistic — primarily by showing an increase in popularity for the Communist Party. The dirtiest elections turned out to be those in Moscow and Astrakhan. We saw an interesting shift in trends: It used to be that Russia’s largest cities showed the proper way to conduct elections, and their example gradually spread to the provinces. This time, the elections in major cities resembled those in Chechnya and Dagestan, and the most honest elections took place in the more remote regions.

The elections also suggest that the social contract instituted by then-President Vladimir Putin — which saw the authorities guarantee a steadily increasing standard of living in return for the people’s willingness to act as nothing more than passive observers in the country’s political game — is still in place, despite a belief in some circles that the crisis had changed the arrangement.

The belief that those in power will modernize for the sake of their own survival was also proven unfounded by the elections. Karl Marx once said, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers.” It appears that the authorities already have their shovels in hand.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at The Carnegie Moscow Center.