As the Krem­lin tight­ens the screws, it in­vites pop­u­lar re­volt

The Baltic Times - - BALTIC NEWS - Vladimir Kara-murza

Per­haps the most im­por­tant re­quire­ment in an elec­tion is that vot­ers have a choice. It sounds triv­ial, but that is some­thing that has been lack­ing in most Rus­sian elec­tions held un­der Vladimir Putin’s rule. In both the lat­est pres­i­den­tial elec­tions that the Krem­lin de­ci­sively “won”—in 2008 and 2012— gen­uine op­po­nents (in­clud­ing for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Mikhail Kasyanov and vet­eran lib­eral leader Grig­ory Yavlin­sky) were dis­qual­i­fied from the bal­lot be­fore vot­ing even started. Those who re­peat the Krem­lin’s talk­ing point about Putin’s “pop­u­lar­ity” would do well to re­mem­ber that, af­ter 2000, it has never ac­tu­ally been tested in a real elec­tion against real op­po­nents.

This model of “elec­tions with­out choice” also ex­tends to the re­gional level. Hav­ing been forced to re­in­state di­rect elec­tions for re­gional gov­er­nors in the face of mass prodemoc­racy protests in 2011 and 2012, the Krem­lin quickly qual­i­fied them by adding a re­quire­ment that can­di­dates must col­lect sig­na­tures from a cer­tain num­ber of mu­nic­i­pal leg­is­la­tors in or­der to gain ac­cess to the bal­lot. Given that lo­cal elec­tions are also heav­ily con­trolled, and that most mu­nic­i­pal deputies are loyal to (or can be co­erced by) the au­thor­i­ties, this cre­ates a vi­cious cir­cle whereby the in­cum­bents can, in ef­fect, hand­pick their own op­po­nents. The “mu­nic­i­pal fil­ter,” as it was dubbed, has been used to dis­qual­ify strong op­po­si­tion can­di­dates from gu­ber­na­to­rial bal­lots—as with Ok­sana Dmitrieva in St. Petersburg or Lev Shlos­berg in the Pskov Re­gion.

This week, the “fil­ter” has been ap­plied yet again. Yevgeny Roiz­man, the di­rectly elected mayor of Yeka­ter­in­burg—rus­sia’s fourth largest city that stands on the bor­der be­tween Europe and Asia—will not be a can­di­date for re­gional gover­nor in Septem­ber’s elec­tion af­ter fall­ing short of the re­quired num­ber of mu­nic­i­pal sig­na­tures. Roiz­man, a po­lit­i­cal mav­er­ick who de­feated the rul­ing United Rus­sia Party in the 2013 may­oral elec­tion, is con­sid­ered to be the most pop­u­lar politi­cian in the Urals and was thought to have sig­nif­i­cant chances against the Krem­lin-backed in­cum­bent. He has long been known for his in­de­pen­dent be­hav­ior, and not only in lo­cal af­fairs. The Yeka­ter­in­burg mayor has called for the re­lease of Rus­sian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and has crit­i­cized the Krem­lin’s war on Ukraine. In­stead of the cus­tom­ary por­trait of Vladimir Putin that adorns the of­fices of bu­reau­crats across Rus­sia, he has put up a pic­ture of the poet Josef Brod­sky.

With­out Roiz­man, vot­ers will have a “choice” be­tween the in­cum­bent gover­nor and a hand­ful of shadow box­ers who had no prob­lems col­lect­ing the re­quired sig­na­tures. The mayor called the up­com­ing elec­tion il­le­git­i­mate and urged vot­ers to boy­cott it, as has Grig­ory Yavlin­sky, founder of the lib­eral Yabloko Party that had nom­i­nated Roiz­man for gover­nor, and an­ti­cor­rup­tion cam­paigner Alexei Navalny. Navalny him­self con­tin­ues to tour Rus­sia as he opens cam­paign head­quar­ters across the coun­try in his bid to chal­lenge Putin in next year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Of­fi­cials from the Cen­tral Elec­toral Com­mis­sion have al­ready in­di­cated—well in keep­ing with the tra­di­tion of dis­qual­i­fy­ing Krem­lin op­po­nents from pres­i­den­tial bal­lots—that Navalny will not be reg­is­tered as a can­di­date in 2018.

The Krem­lin and its pro­pa­ganda ma­chine fre­quently ac­cuse the Rus­sian op­po­si­tion of plot­ting a “Maidan”— a Ukraine-style pop­u­lar up­ris­ing against the regime. As the his­tory of such up­ris­ings—not only in Ukraine, but also in other coun­tries such as Ser­bia or Ge­or­gia— shows, they usu­ally hap­pen when cit­i­zens are de­nied free and fair elec­tions. If any­one is pre­par­ing a fu­ture “Maidan” in Rus­sia, it is the Krem­lin it­self.

The ar­ti­cle first ap­peared on www.worldaf­fairsjour­nal. com

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