After watching the local and gubernatorial elections in Russia on Sunday, one cannot help wondering: Why bother? Why does the Kremlin need to push the illusion of democracy when the results are predetermined?
The only region where an opposition force worthy of the name was allowed to participate — in Kostroma oblast east of Moscow — saw voting marred by bullying and the arrests of anti-Kremlin candidates. No one could figure out why the Democratic Coalition, the only grouping of parties openly critical of President Vladimir Putin, was even allowed to run.
All municipal, regional and gubernatorial elections in Russia are held on the same day, and in nearly all of them United Russia, the main pro-Kremlin party, was victorious. How could it lose when its candidates enjoyed access to unlimited resources and dominated the airwaves while their challengers were vilified as traitors?
The murder in February of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov became the backdrop to the entire campaign. His political associates were routinely harassed, ridiculed and eventually denied registration as candidates in every regional constituency except one.
“The results of most campaigns were predetermined by the incumbents and electoral commissions at the stages of candidate registration and campaigning,” Golos, an independent electoral monitoring group, said in a statement after the voting. A certain controlled competition was allowed, but only among candidates of the so-called pocket opposition, which includes Communists and left- and right-wing populists who do not even pretend to be independent.
The word “election” is a misnomer for what has just happened in Russia, but the voting does serve a purpose. “The election is a moment for the regional authorities to demonstrate their loyalty to the federal government,” says Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and a shrewd analyst of Russian politics. “The top political management uses elections to confirm its own ability to keep both the center and the regions under control.”
Mr. Putin and his associates like to emphasize Russia’s political differences with the West. After much trial and error, which included some flirting with real competitiveness during a Moscow mayoral campaign in 2013 — they settled on a system that is completely divorced from Russia’s Western-inspired Constitution but still uses Western terms like “political party” and “parliament.” Still, the country’s evolving political system has made a significant step away from pretense and toward an openly authoritarian model. It’s a system that goes well with the way the Kremlin understands accountability.
Public officials are not accountable to voters or society in general, only to their superiors. Ultimately it is the president, not the people, who determines whether to bestow office, or take it away. The exposure of abuses, however damning, almost never leads to dismissal. Muckraking by journalists or political activists rarely inspires resignations, or even an official apology. Though the Kremlin has quietly fired some of the more odious white-collar criminals, this usually happens a year or two after exposure so it can’t be said that they were dismissed as a result of popular indignation. The Kremlin doesn’t want ordinary citizens to develop a sense of being able to influence political decisions.
The culture of impunity is punctuated by isolated cases of conspicuous punishment. The fate of Vladimir Yakunin, former head of the state rail company, is a case in point. Mr. Putin fired Mr. Yakunin, long regarded as one of his close friends, last month, years after the first reports about his corrupt business practices were described in media outlets and blog posts by Alexei Navalny and other activists.
Though the people in the Kremlin do read newspapers like Vedomosti and take note of reports by whistle-blowers, their reactions are rarely if ever direct. Instead, the government responds by creating agents that perform functions similar to investigative reporters or civic activists, but operate from within the system. Take the All-Russia People’s Front, a major initiative that is being fashioned to serve as a Kremlin watchdog. The front’s activists were boasting last year that they had prepared “secret accounts” of all Russian governors’ personal spending. When Alexander Khoroshavin, the former governor of the island of Sakhalin in the Far East, was arrested earlier this year on corruption charges, the People’s Front tried to pose as a force behind the crackdown. But the Khoroshavin case, just like the Yakunin case, remains isolated. The investigations by the People’s Front have never been made public in their entirety.
Making a political system accountable to the people does not mean Westernizing it. But making it accountable while depriving it of external checks and balances — such as free and fair elections — is a task akin to finding the philosopher’s stone, that legendary fixture of alchemy that could allegedly turn base metal into gold. The Soviet Union foundered on that illusion. China continues — arguably with more success — to trudge down the same road. But a situation in which public officials are accountable only to their superiors contains too many internal contradictions to survive. It defies human nature.
Maxim Trudolyubov is the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia.