For those who argue that the cup of Russian democracy is half full because it offers a limited range of electoral choices, Mikhail Kasyanov has a sharp retort: half full means no democracy at all.
"Yes, maybe 50 percent of the population will find the party they want to vote for on the ballot, but without acceptable choices for the other 50 percent, elections cannot be considered free. They are just an imitation of democracy," says Mr. Kasyanov, a former prime minister and co-chair of the liberal People's Freedom Party (PARNAS), which has been banned from participating in the Dec. 4 polls to elect a new State Duma, Russia's 450-seat lower house of parliament.
Kasyanov and his fellow leaders of PARNAS, including former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and independent politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, have embarked on a strategy that is as controversial as it is risky. They are urging Russians to go to the polls and deliberately spoil their ballots in protest against a system that provides all the trappings of democratic choice while carefully stage-managing the process to ensure the final result required by the Kremlin.
"We don't think it's wise to raise hopes among people that any casting of votes will change the election outcome that the authorities will announce," Kasyanov says. "But the institution of elections wasn't invented by Vladimir Putin; it's the people's house. That's why we are urging people to come out to the polling stations on election day to show their opposition to the temporary occupation of their home by Putin and his regime."
Banned on technicalities?
PARNAS, which was created last year through an amalgamation of four smaller liberal groups, appears to have met all the stringent Russian legal requirements for registration, and thus inclusion on the ballot. But last June, Russia's Justice Ministry abruptly cancelled the party's registration, citing seemingly minor technicalities, such as alleged contradictions between some articles in the party's founding charter and the claim that about 70 of the party's 46,000 members nationwide were either dead or underaged persons.
Party leaders insist they were excluded because they represent a genuine political alternative to the officially sanctioned field of choices, which includes two small liberal parties. Kasyanov says PARNAS differs mainly in its fierce refusal to submit to Kremlin control, and the fact that it includes several experienced politicians – people with hands-on experience in government – with strong business connections that might attract substantial resources and wide support if it were allowed to freely run.
Independent experts say that PARNAS is probably unelectable, in part because all pro-Western liberals are deeply unpopular in Russia, and people like Kasyanov and Nemtsov are tainted as 1990s holdovers who got their start in the corrupt and inept administration of former President Boris Yeltsin. Some argue that PARNAS's exclusion from public politics reveals not so much fear that it might actually win an election as the irrational bureaucratic urge for total control that underlies the Putin system.
"It seems unreasonable, even stupid, for the authorities to prohibit PARNAS in the hamhanded way that they have. But this is a very telling fact about the system that Putin has built," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "The bureaucracy running the country is completely closed-minded, vindictive and lacking in imagination. If people are not obedient, and fail to make the appropriate displays of submission, they will be banned. Such a system has no flexibility, and seems to be doomed."
Initiative unlikely to be heeded by Russians
PARNAS's call for Russians to spoil their ballots as a mark of protest is unlikely to resonate with many voters, in part because of Russia's complicated electoral system, in which spoiled ballots and votes cast for parties that fail to hurdle the 7 percent barrier get divided up among the winners.
Kasyanov argues that it doesn't matter, because the election results are predetermined in any case. But some say that a reduced vote for the ruling United Russia party, plus higher tallies for the opposition Communists or the liberal Yabloko would send a more nuanced and effective message of protest to the Kremlin.
"This is not the Soviet system, there is limited choice available," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Of course United Russia is the party of power, and no opposition party will be allowed to win and come to power. But there is a window, within which differences can be expressed, and it should be utilized."
According to an extensive opinion poll carried out in October and November by the Moscow-based Institute of Social Studies, about two-thirds of Russians say they intend to cast ballots on Dec. 4.
But the Institute's director, Vladimir Boikov, says that rather high number masks a more complicated reality.
"We are expecting around 64 percent voter turnout; about half of our respondents say voting is a civic duty," Mr. Boikov says. "But when asked whether they think voting can influence the political system, about 80 percent say no it cannot."
Rising voter cynicism and disaffection with the Putin system may be the biggest difference between the current elections and those of the previous decade, say many experts.
Unlike the recent past, it's hard to find anyone – even among the ranks of officially employed journalists – who will defend the official position that Russian democracy is basically a free and fair contest of independent political forces.
'Nature preserves for free speech'
"There is some democracy in Russia. We have islands of it, in the Internet, in some media, but they look sort of like nature preserves for free speech," rather than the real thing, says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the official RIA-Novosti news agency. "On the whole, democracy in Russia is window dressing. There are some democratic institutions of power, but even though they function they do not produce democracy. It was an imitation of democracy from the very beginning."
Many experts, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, have warned that the rigid and top-heavy system created by Putin could face an Egypt-style revolution if it does not implement sweeping democratic reforms.
"We are looking beyond the elections to the time when this exhausted regime is forced to leave power," says Kasyanov. "We don't want to see a revolution, so we are working to set up a round table format that will provide Putin and his people with an exit strategy when the time arrives....
"Make no mistake about it. It might take a year, or two, but the time will come," he says. "And at that point we will be prepared to negotiate only one point: how to arrange free elections under the control of civil society."