By Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Pro et Contra journal. He writes a monthly column for The Post (THE WASHINGTON POST, 01/12/07):
Around Moscow these days, it is hard to realize that tomorrow’s elections are about shaping the legislative branch. All over the city are huge billboards announcing that “Putin Is Our Choice” or “Moscow Votes for Putin.” United Russia, the name of the technical front-runner in these elections, appears in tiny script in the bottom right-hand corner of the signs. Campaign signs for other parties are rarely seen.
Indeed, in Russia, what are technically legislative elections have been turned into a referendum on Vladimir Putin’s rule, past and future. Using the disguise of parliamentary elections as a way to have his authority reconfirmed should help Putin get around the requirement that he step down in 2008 and should allow him to remain in charge — in whatever capacity he would carve out for himself — even after his second presidential term ends. This transformation of Duma elections into a referendum may explain why the Kremlin is behaving with such nervousness about a vote it is sure to win and why it is raising the specter of new enemies facing Russia.
Until very recently, all the government wanted from the nation was passive compliance, and the people readily delivered, especially since Putin’s government delivered, too: improved living standards and a sense of belonging to a stronger Russia, one that other great nations have to reckon with. United Russia’s approval rating hovered around 40 percent; the Russian people voted for the pro-Kremlin force because in an atmosphere of passive compliance, it feels appropriate to vote for the powerful party, for “the boss.” And the Kremlin did not care too much if not too many people went to the polls. About a year ago, the minimum turnout requirement for elections was revoked.
But a referendum of confidence differs from an election. It requires universal public approval that would grant the leader a free hand to take the nation where he thinks it should go. A referendum is about truly high turnout and ardent, not lukewarm, support. Putin’s paternalistic governance, which pushed people away from politics, is not good for a referendum. Instead, mobilization is needed.
Mobilizing the Russian public, however, is not easy given the habitual apathy, depoliticization and plain cynicism of the Russian people that have been fostered until now by Putin’s regime. The recent switch from election to referendum heightens tension, so state-controlled media and administrative and law enforcement authorities at all levels are pulling out all the stops to ensure a higher turnout and a higher vote for United Russia, and to severely disadvantage even the most negligible rivals. Across Russia dubious tricks have been reported. For example, many government employees have reported being pushed by their bosses to take absentee ballots and, instead of casting ballots close to their homes, go to assigned precincts — where the boss can make sure that their votes go to the United Russia candidate. Election officials, of course, deny such reports, but their sheer numbers make denials unconvincing.
Another difficulty for the Kremlin is the lack of a clear rallying point. There is no obvious threat or challenge facing Russia. Life is getting better, as all polls have consistently demonstrated at least since 2006, and Putin is uncontested. Hordes of officials and loyalists are harping on the need to stay the course. “If those who say, ‘We know how to do it better,’ only come [to power],” Putin warned in mid-November, “all this [Russia’s achievements] may fall apart.” But staying the course is hardly a winning slogan when there is no political opposition to speak of and no force that can seriously challenge Kremlin policies.
In recent weeks, the Kremlin has resorted to a time-tested method to mobilize the public: The nation has been shown the new “enemy” who seeks to change the course and overturn the achievements of recent years. So on top of the raging anti-Western rhetoric that has accompanied the campaign for months comes the concept of internal enemies. Those few Russians who openly defy Putin’s regime or dare to stage street rallies to express their sentiments have been vilified and harassed, and in some cases jailed, in the days leading up to tomorrow’s vote. In just one week, Putin’s tone has turned much harder: “They want to take revenge, come back to power . . . and gradually reinstate the oligarchic regime based on corruption and lies,” he said. “Look and they will soon be in the streets — took some classes from Western experts, got some training in neighboring republics, and now they’ll stage provocations here.”
Optimists dismiss such policies and rhetoric as campaign frenzy, saying that emotions will cool down as soon as Putin has won his vote of confidence and begun implementing his political designs. But mobilization by hatred is a dangerous, if tempting, weapon. Mustering public hatred against enemies real or imagined, political, social or ethnic, may be disastrous in Russia’s weak and intolerant society.