Russia goes to the polls. How much change can elections bring?

Putin's approval ratings remain sky high, and no candidate in Sunday's Duma elections is going to criticize him. But some say there's room still to challenge the ruling United Russia party.

Fred Weir
Alexander Burkov (l.), the candidate for the Free Russia party in the Urals industrial city of Nizhny Tagil, addresses students at the city's State Pedagogical Institute.

This city, home to Russia's biggest tank factory and a bastion of patriotism that's been nicknamed "Putingrad," has always overwhelmingly backed the pro-Kremlin party. So it's an uphill battle to defeat the ruling United Russia (UR) party's candidate in Sunday's voting for the State Duma, the national parliament.

Alexander Burkov thinks he has a good chance of doing so. But even if that upset occurs, it's not as dramatic as it may sound. Mr. Burkov's own party, Fair Russia, was actually created by the Kremlin a few years ago to serve as a left-wing alternative to UR, and it fundamentally supports the policies of President Vladimir Putin.

But Burkov argues that while he does back Mr. Putin, along with more than 80 percent of Russians, this election is not about the president.

There are a million issues that concern voters in this heavily polluted industrial city, from the faltering economy, to unfair taxation, to fading public services. And Burkov says they result from the mismanagement of the UR-dominated government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and could be changed by a strong protest vote on Sunday.

"We're not challenging Russia's foreign policy here," Burkov says. "This is about real problems that people face in their everyday lives. Political competition is the only tool that can shed light on things that are wrong, and show the way to improvements."

That neatly frames a fierce debate that is raging both here in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk, which sits on the dividing line between Europe and Asia, and across the whole country: Is the glass of Russian democracy half empty, half full, or is there any glass at all?

'A clearly rigged system'

For the first time since 2003, half the Duma's 450 seats will be filled through first-past-the-post local constituency races, and the other half by voters marking their ballots for their favored party. That makes it possible for someone with a local reputation to run against the party lists – and Burkov, who was born nearby, is stepping into that opportunity. Though Burkov, a smooth, professional politician, is a two-term Duma deputy, he was last elected under a party list system, where voters picked the party and the party picked the representatives. Now, Burkov is running head-to-head against Alexei Balyberdin, a worker at the tank factory UralVagonZavod and UR candidate.

"My opponent leans heavily on the name of the president, but people in this region are smarter than that," Burkov says, arguing that Mr. Balyberdin is an inexperienced front-man for the local bosses who run the UR political machine.

No one here defends the Kremlin position, put out to the world, that Russia is a perfectly normal parliamentary democracy that gets slandered by its geopolitical adversaries.

On one side are those who think the whole edifice of 14 mostly pro-Kremlin parties competing for places in a largely powerless parliament is an elaborate puppet show, but one they can work within. And on the other are critics who argue the system is an expensive facade, designed to bamboozle foreigners and Russians alike into thinking the country is something other than a Putin-centered dictatorship.

"If someone is allowed to participate in the elections, it means it is convenient for our authorities," says Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a blogger and political activist in the regional capital of Yekaterinburg. "I think it's the mistake of all opposition parties that they agree to take part in a clearly rigged system. They just end up validating the results, and hence being part of the deception."

Putin does not belong to UR, though he has made clear gestures of support for the party. The three other parties that currently have Duma representation are Burkov's Fair Russia, the venerable Communist Party, and the tamed nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. None challenges the Kremlin on issues like the annexation of Crimea or military involvement in Syria. Two parties that do oppose Putin's foreign policy orientation, the liberal Yabloko and PARNAS parties, have been allowed to run in the current elections, though neither has any chance of hurdling the 5 percent barrier for entering parliament.

The most popular figure in Russia's anti-Kremlin opposition, corruption-busting blogger Alexei Navalny, is under house arrest and his Progress Party sidelined. Liberal parties have failed to unify due to personality conflicts and to scandals almost certainly provoked by secret police manipulation.

'Space to engage with voters'

Even Burkov, whose party is a mildly critical pro-Kremlin organization, says the deck is stacked against him.

"This town is run by UR, and the machine presses heavily on me. I'm not able to distribute materials or speak in the big factories. If I put up posters, municipal workers come and tear them down," he says. "We do not exclude that they might falsify the votes."

Yet he and other candidates insist that there is a point to running, and that abstaining from politics is not an option.

"Even with all the drawbacks of the present system, even with the totally predictable results, there is still plenty of space to engage with voters," says Dmitry Moskvin, a candidate for the liberal Yabloko party in Yekaterinburg.

"I'm tired of this discussion about whether Russia is democratic or authoritarian. The fact is that Russians today are not scared of anything, and they are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves. The main problem is that they are bored. Russian society is inert, and no political parties inspire them. That's what we need to change," he says.

Yekaterinburg Communist Party candidate Alexander Ladygin, whose party is polling at around 15 percent regionally, says it's necessary to take a long view.

"Look, we know we're forced to play chess in a system with built-in cheating. But if we refuse to play, that means millions of people will not be given an alternative vision," he says.

"We don't have the popular support to overturn the chess board and whack the authorities over the head with it, at least not yet. Russian society is going through an ultra-conservative phase. It clings to authority and resists changes. So, we have to work within this narrow corridor of present possibilities, until conditions shift. As they one day certainly will," he adds.

Keeping an eye on electoral fraud

One improvement everyone remarks upon is that the kind of mass falsification on behalf of UR that prompted huge public protests following the last Duma elections in 2011 seem unlikely this time around.

Earlier this year a widely trusted human rights crusader, Ella Pamfilova, was appointed to head Russia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC), which oversees the vote counting. She quickly moved to fire about a third of local election officials tainted with past fraud, and implemented other key reforms.

"We have a good relationship with Pamfilova, and unlike her predecessor, she has reached out to us and included us in the CEC's activities," says Alexander Grezev, Urals coordinator for Golos, Russia's only independent election monitoring group.

Golos was nearly destroyed by a series of punitive laws that seemed designed to punish it for exposing fraud in the previous polls. But it's gotten around all the changing rules and found a new lease on life by training election observers for political parties, mainly Yabloko and PARNAS, and will be fielding at least 200 volunteers in Yekaterinburg on Sunday.

"Russian democracy is a work-in-progress, and our party system has a long way to go," says Anatoly Gagarin, Urals director of the officially-connected Fund for Development of Civil Society.

"You can't judge it by whether candidates support the Kremlin or not. With Putin's popularity sky-high, it's a no-brainer that anyone who wants to win will praise him. But everything else is open to criticism, and there is quite a lot of that going on here," he says.

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