Suppose a crusading US newspaper were to dig up evidence that an American presidential election had been stolen by means of ballot-stuffing, misreported returns, armies of fake voters, and systematic intimidation. And suppose most major US papers refused to follow up on the story.
Sound farfetched? Not in today's Russia, where the near-silence from the mass media to just such an expos reflects the exhaustion, if not outright failure, of the post-Soviet democracy-building project. Nearly a decade after the collapse of Communism, impoverished and disaster-plagued Russians appear to no longer care if their new electoral system is working honestly or effectively.
President Clinton hailed the results of the March 26 presidential election - in which Vladimir Putin seized a first-round victory with 52.94 percent of the vote - as a big step for Russian democracy. An array of international observers, too, gave their seal of approval.
But last week, the Moscow Times, an English-language daily owned jointly by a Dutch company and several big Russian corporations, published an eight-page study detailing extensive fraud. For the investigative piece, a team of reporters traveled around Russia for six months, pulling together disparate strains of evidence. "Given how close the vote was," the Times concluded, "fraud and abuse of state power appear to have been decisive."
Few deny the likelihood of cheating, or that Putin would have won in a second-round runoff, if one were held. But in a nation reeling from a recent spate of crises, the often-feisty Russian-language press has given the story a miss.
"I have no doubt there was fraud," says Vladimir Andreyenkov, director of the independent Center for Comparative Social Research in Moscow. "We're all well acquainted with the scale and methods of pressure employed by the president's team during the elections, both direct and indirect. What happened in the election went well beyond all moral boundaries."
But, he adds with a very Russian shrug, so what? "In Russia, fraud is seen as a natural part of the process. Maybe democracy is the privilege of a rich country. When three-quarters of the population are as poor as beggars, what democracy can you talk about?"
That may be news to voters in India - the world's largest and possibly poorest democracy - but analysts say that overcoming the old Soviet system's vertical power structure has made democratic thinking rare indeed.
Despite its detail, the Times report said it was unable to make any direct link between the allegations of fraud and Putin himself. Among the newspaper's findings, however, were large discrepancies between votes recorded at polling stations in some regions, and the results reported to Moscow by local authorities. A comparison of the returns from 16 percent of the polling stations in Dagestan, one of Russia's 89 regions, for example, appears to document the theft of 88,000 votes in Putin's favor.
Projecting the same trend to the whole region - the Moscow Times was barred from checking the returns in many places - yielded the paper an estimated conservative total of 551,000 stolen votes, nearly one-quarter of Putin's nationwide margin of victory.
Significant, though less pronounced, levels of fraud reportedly were uncovered in at least nine other Russian regions. Tactics included a votes-for-vodka scam, and widespread pressure to vote Putin from local bosses trying to prove their "loyalty." Times reporters said they found partially burned ballots - with the checked name of Putin's main opponent, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, still clearly visible - and heard anecdotal evidence of ballot-box stuffing, vote rigging, and other improprieties.
"This is really a scandal of momentous [proportions], and it is good field work. It looked like they really dug up something," says Marshall Goldman, a director at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian Studies in Cambridge, Mass. Mr. Goldman served as an election monitor for the March vote. "We asked, 'What will happen once the vote is tabulated? How do you know what is transmitted to Moscow?' " he says. "They told us, 'We have our tally sheets [to] doublecheck....' But if there are no observers and no press present, this [fraud] is going to happen."
Despite a somewhat rosy early assessment, the final report of the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe - which sent 400 observers - notes that fraud was serious. In its 2000 index rating official corruption, Transparency International, a Berlin-based advocacy group, ranked Russia eighth-worst out of 90 countries.
Another apparent problem points to higher-level involvement. Between parliamentary elections in December and the presidential polls in March, the number of registered Russian voters jumped by 1.3 million - or nearly 2 percent. Every Russian citizen automatically becomes a voter at 18, but Western and Russian demographic experts quoted by the Times say that such a surge was virtually impossible in a country whose population has been in decline for the past decade.
The Russian media have hardly been eager to pursue the story. The only reaction so far has been a 300-word piece in the central daily Izvestia, which accused the "American press" of meddling in Russia's internal affairs.
"Russian society has adapted to blanket lies, and is not stirred much when they are exposed. People are exhausted, occupied with their own personal survival, and don't want to ask questions," says Yuri Solomonov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, a crusading weekly. "Consider the reaction to the ongoing war in Chechnya. People receive the daily death toll in much the same impassive way they hear the weather report."
"We all know there was fraud in all our elections, and this is the way things work in Russia," says Sergei Mikhailov, an analyst with the independent Center for Social Studies in Moscow. "People accept that power will have its way. Perhaps that's the famous Russian fatalism in action, but that's how it is."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society