In Russia, Putin's democracy looking more like a facade

Former leader Mikhail Gorbachev and others are outraged after last week's elections, which only 3 percent of Russians believed were fair, according to a poll.

By , Correspondent

MOSCOW – What can one single vote, confirmed missing, tell us about the current state of democracy in Russia?

A lot, says Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party. He says that the lost vote in question – his own – offers startling evidence to back widespread opposition claims that regional polls held across Russia last week were stage-managed to ensure the victory of pro-Kremlin forces.

The United Russia (UR) party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, won about 80 percent of all contested positions in some 7,000 districts around the country. In the crucial center of Moscow, UR swept up 32 of the 35 city council seats.

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Along with millions of other Russians, Mr. Mitrokhin went with his family to vote at their local polling station, No. 192, in Moscow's tony Khamovniki district on election day. He knows for sure that he voted for his own party ticket.

But when the final official tally was released last weekend, it showed that zero votes for Yabloko were registered at polling station No. 192.

"We know there were massive falsifications in the vote counting, but really, not a single vote for Yabloko?" says Mitrokhin. "It's almost as if they wanted to prove I don't exist as a living being. It looks like the authorities are not even trying to pretend any longer that we are having real elections."

Gorbachev: democratic system is 'maimed'
A public opinion survey published this week by the daily Noviye Izvestia newspaper found that just 3 percent of respondents believe the elections were a fair and true democratic exercise. A third thought that UR's victory was due to "massive falsifications" while a further 44 percent said the party benefited unduly from its command of "administrative resources," meaning official influence, state media backing, and access to government funds.

Yabloko has documented multiple cases of what is says is official fraud, coercion, and other legal violations in the election campaign and subsequent voting, some of which has been translated and posted on the party's English-language website (http://www.eng.yabloko.ru/).

But Mitrokhin's outrage over what looks like the most seriously miscarried electoral exercise in Russia's post-Soviet history has been increasingly echoed by independent commentators, including the father of Russia's troubled democracy, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

"In the eyes of everyone, elections have turned into a mockery of the people and people have great distrust over how their votes are used," Mr. Gorbachev told the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, of which he is part owner, on Monday.

"What is democracy when the people don't participate in it?" he said. "The electoral system has been utterly maimed. We need an alternative."

'Everyone knows the electoral process is dirty'
Last week, scores of opposition parliamentarians staged a walkout from the State Duma to dramatize their complaints about the elections, but by Monday all but a few deputies of the Communist Party had returned.

The chairman of Russia's official Electoral Commission, Vladimir Churov, warned the protesting lawmakers that they might be breaking the law, and added if they had doubts about the process they could challenge them by "signing an official protocol" of complaint. If that doesn't work, he added, they can "file a lawsuit."

Lawsuits against electoral authorities in the past have almost always been dismissed by state-dominated courts.

"Everyone knows that the electoral process is dirty, and that UR basically controls the system," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "In fact, the whole world sees this, and it's causing serious damage to the image of the country's top leaders. The Kremlin needs to take action to change this situation," before the next cycle of elections in just over two years time, he says.

Since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000, Russia's political system has been forcibly reshaped to eliminate pesky opposition parties and game elections to favor the giant and reliably pro-Kremlin UR. Mr. Putin's party now controls the vast majority of regional legislatures, most big city councils, and a more than two-thirds majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

That system, dubbed "managed democracy," reached a climax last year when Putin ushered his hand-picked successor Dmitri Medvedev into the Kremlin against virtually no opposition.

Kremlin facade of democracy
The Kremlin's efforts to create a facade that looks like genuinely contested elections – while ruthlessly eliminating serious contenders – took on almost comical dimensions in polls to choose a new mayor for Sochi, the host of the 2014 Olympic Games, where Putin has invested about $12 billion of the state's cash and much of his own personal credibility.

In the event last March, Putin's candidate won with a 77 percent majority, while opposition candidates and democracy activists launched futile protests over what they called heavy-handed state manipulation at every stage of the process.

But experts say the wave of regional elections carried out last week make those polls look almost fair by comparison.

"As we have seen in the past, candidates who were unwanted by the authorities were simply disqualified early in the process," says Andrei Buzin, chairman of the Interregional Association of Voters, a grassroots monitoring group. "As before, the police were often deployed to block opposition activities and meetings. But, unlike the past, when we didn't see direct falsifications, there was a lot of falsification in the vote counting in these elections."

Mr. Buzin says "the situation is getting worse, subjectively and objectively, much worse."

Former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who faced huge obstacles in his bid to run for mayor of Sochi last April, says that this time around no candidate from his Solidarnost movement was allowed to run for city office in Moscow.

"Every single one of our candidates was disqualified, supposedly due to fraudulent signatures on their nomination forms," says Mr. Nemtsov. Even Nemtsov's own signature on one of the forms was declared invalid by officials, he says.

"It's absolutely terrible, like an election in the German Democratic Republic [the former East Germany]," he says. "Forget about elections in this country. It's just fraud, manipulation, and corruption. It's a great big fiction."

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