Evaluation of Russia’s democratic history 1996-2012

This is my senior scholarship, an essay I wrote over the summer as an extension to my studies.

How has democracy progressed in Russia? A comparison of the 1996 and 2012 Presidential elections

While most European states moved towards, and in a majority of cases fully adopted, democracy in the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia was still controlled by the absolutist Tsars until 1917. Following two messy revolutions, Bolshevik rule was established and continued – notably under Lenin and Stalin – until the early 1990s. This period saw the foundation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which acted as the counterweight to the United States during the Cold War. However, the pressures of capitalism and the desire for independence led to the break-up of the Union – epitomised for many by the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989. From then on, Russia has been through a series of brutal economic reforms designed to bring it into line with the capitalist economies of the West. At the same time, democracy has struggled to assert itself in a nation traditionally ruled by charismatic strongmen.

This essay compares the freedom and fairness of the first Presidential election held in a sovereign Russia, in June 1996, and the most recent election, held in March 2012. Several criteria must be fulfilled for elections to be truly democratic – most obviously, they must be free from vote fraud and buying, but they must also be accompanied by a free media, fair electoral campaigns and freedom to stand for office. By examining the extent to which these criteria were met at each election, this essay will see if democracy progressed between the Yeltsin and Putin eras.

A free media is vital to the democratic success of elections. If the electorate is only provided with biased information, normally in favour of the incumbent regime, the people are unable to make an informed choice. This is what Boris Yeltsin’s opponents claimed had happened when he won re-election in June 1996. It is indeed true that the media gave much more attention to Yeltsin – especially on the day when he and his main opponent, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s (KPRF) Zyuganov, both announced their candidacy. This favouritism continued throughout the campaign. However, it is by no means certain that this bias came about due to direct instructions from the Kremlin. It is highly probable that the media naturally supported Yeltsin, as a return to Communist rule would have meant an end to the press freedoms that had been gained since the fall of the USSR.

By 2012, however, the situation had deteriorated. Freedom House, a non-governmental campaign group, ranked Russia 173rd out of 197 for media freedom in their annual report. Putin, along with his business allies and various members of the regime, controls the media through a dangerous mixture of rewards and threats. The cost of speaking out is high – ten journalists were murdered between 2000 and 2010, and more have lost their lives since. Putin has huge control over television broadcasting, as the state directly owns the two main channels and a twenty-four hour news show. Although the media was compelled by law to allocate the same amount of broadcasting time to each Presidential candidate, many channels manipulated this by showing documentaries about the successes of Putin’s previous terms as President and Prime Minister. These documentaries, it was claimed, did not constitute part of Putin’s time allocation because they were not intended as campaign material. A report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) found that ‘the First Channel allocated some 61 per cent of news coverage to Mr Putin (37 per cent as Prime Minister and 24 per cent as a candidate), while other candidates received between 9 and 11 per cent of coverage each’. The bias here is evident. This favouritism was mirrored by privately-owned broadcasters, suggesting not just direct intervention but also an atmosphere of fear. Whereas the media’s support of Yeltsin was probably a matter of choice, its support of Putin was undoubtedly forced upon it.

This conclusion is sustained when the degree of popular resentment towards Putin is considered. In December 2011, Moscow saw huge protests against the results of a fraudulent election to the Duma (parliament) and the inevitable job-swap between Putin, then Prime Minister, and President Medvedev. Both state and private media organisations blamed the protests on Western enemies of Russia, even though most protesters were clearly ordinary Muscovites. This is just more proof that Russia’s broadcasters and print journalists are under the Kremlin’s control.

Aside from obvious media bias, evidence suggests that Yeltsin’s campaign was not conducted fairly. When campaigning started at the beginning of January 1996, the incumbent President was polling at about 6% – mostly due to the dire state of the economy and rumours about his health – but by the first round of voting in June he gained 35.1%. This dramatic rise in Yeltsin’s popularity suggests his campaign was not always conducted within the rules. It is generally accepted that Yeltsin spent more than each candidate was lawfully allowed to. However, the question of where these funds came from is more interesting. An article in Forbes Magazine after the 2012 elections suggests that Yeltsin used state funds to finance his campaign – an advantage that only he, as the incumbent, had over the rest of the field.

Yeltsin also used his position to dole out fiscal gifts to nearly every region in Russia before the election, whereas his opponents could only promise to do so after they had won. In addition to direct payments to the regions, during the months leading up to the election he made many Presidential decrees granting tax breaks to various sections of society including pensioners, teachers and the defence industry. There was nothing unconstitutional about these decrees but their timing indicates that they were being used to influence the result of the election – the number of decrees increased steadily as polling day approached. It is clear that Yeltsin used his position to outshine his opponents on the campaign trail – he even gave one woman a car, after she had complained to him that she could not buy one. The use of state funds to finance such populist moves emphasises the unfairness of the campaign.

In 2012, Putin’s challenge was different. It was a foregone conclusion that he would be victorious in the election. Instead, his campaign focused on keeping up the appearance that he was in control. Following the unashamedly-rigged Duma elections in December 2011, Moscow had seen its first big political demonstrations since the disintegration of the USSR. It seems that Putin had not accounted for the values and expectations of Russia’s new urban middle class, who aspire to democracy rather than to be lead by a traditional strongman. If Putin was to maintain his political strength, he had to portray these demonstrations as insignificant and ridiculous. Therefore, his campaign concentrated on spreading propaganda which labelled the protests as plots by supposed Western enemies of Russia. To keep up appearances, Putin also bussed in to Moscow thousands of his rural, poor supporters to take part in pro-Kremlin rallies. Students at various Moscow universities and employees at other state-affiliated institutions were instructed to attend these rallies. There can be no doubt that this was due to Putin’s position as Prime Minister. By having dozens of protesters and political leaders arrested, Putin was clearly showing the world that he was still in control.

In the run-up to their respective elections, both Yeltsin and Putin broke the normal rules of campaigning. However, while Yeltsin used his position as President to abuse state funds, Putin was more sinister – the opposition was both ridiculed and unlawfully repressed. In this respect, Russian democracy definitely took a step backwards between 1996 and 2012.

In all liberal democracies, it is vital that anyone can stand for office – despite the threat they may pose to the incumbent government or the unsavoury nature of their views. However, this was not honoured by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) in 2012. At the beginning of the campaign period, seventeen candidates announced that they were planning to contest the election. However, eleven of these failed to get a place on the ballot paper. This is because of the lengthy and corrupt nature of the candidate registration process. Each candidate must submit at least two million signatures to the CEC to be considered and verified. The OSCE report says “Candidates may be denied registration if more than 5 per cent of the total number of signatures selected for verification is found invalid or if the total number of valid signatures is less than the required two million.” The OSCE concludes that collecting the two million required signatures rendered registration unusually “onerous”. There are also questions surrounding the CEC’s impartiality. The President, Duma and Federal Council of Russia each elect five members of the CEC. As Putin’s United Russia held the majority in the Duma prior to the election, and Medvedev was merely a stand-in for Putin himself, it is highly unlikely that the CEC acted in an independent manner.

Examining who was barred from standing seems to confirm the CEC’s bias. The most promising candidate, Gregory Yavlinsky, was ruled out almost immediately because some of his supporting signatures were not written in ink. Another candidate, Demitriy Mezentsev, was said by critics to be a ‘technical candidate’ who would run if there was no one else to oppose Putin as the law requires there to be at least two names on the ballot paper. This is confirmed by events: once Mikhail Prokhorov’s candidacy was confirmed, Mezentsev was dropped as there was now an opponent to Putin. However, due to the timing of the announcement of Prokhorov’s candidacy – just two days after a big demonstration in Moscow – many observers felt that the Kremlin may have asked him to run in order to placate the protesters. Clearly, this was a breach of the normal democratic process and denied the public a free choice.

In 1996, by contrast, eleven candidates made it to the ballot paper, including Mikhail Gorbachev. The results from the first round of voting shows that most of these candidates did not have a large support base – suggesting that they were allowed to stand because of the rule of law rather than due to fear of a backlash in the Kremlin. The wide range of political views represented also shows that Yeltsin’s regime did not pick convenient opposition candidates, but allowed a real opposition to emerge. It is easy to see that the right of freedom to stand for office was honoured in 1996, but by 2012 it had been manipulated so that no one representing a real threat to Putin was listed on the ballot paper.

All this is important, but the most vital part of the electoral system is voting itself. This can be divided into two areas: were people able to vote freely and were votes counted fairly? It seems that for both elections the answer to the first question was mostly yes. In 2012 the CEC was forced to install webcams in polling stations after the outcry about the Duma elections. In addition to this, international agencies monitored the vote in many areas, making it hard for Putin to actively force people to vote for him. However, students and state employees were instructed to vote for Putin – many did so out of fear of losing their places or jobs. There were also reports of Putin supporters being driven between polling stations to vote multiple times. Nevertheless, polling stations were free of campaigners and the security services. The OSCE declared voting to be “good or very good in 95 percent of polling stations visited”. The same was true in 1996, where monitors declared the vote free. Access to polling stations was good and convenient for the majority of the population. In this respect, there was no improvement or deterioration of conditions between 1996 and 2012.

However, the second question – whether the count was fair – raises more issues in both years. The OSCE said of the 2012 elections that the “process deteriorated during the vote count which was assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed due to procedural irregularities.” These included ballot-box stuffing, a process in which non-existent votes are said to have been made and are counted. The webcams that had been installed were not able to record the count and some observers were prohibited from performing their role. In some cases, votes were not counted one by one. Mobile ballot boxes were dealt with separately, which is against the law, providing more possibilities for fraud.

These problems were also present in 1996, but to a lesser extent. Ballot-box stuffing was confined to certain remote areas – especially Chechnya, where Yeltsin was conducting a brutal war against separatists. Observers also witnessed votes being illegally transferred from one candidate to another. Nevertheless, fraud was not as systematic in 1996 as in 2012, suggesting it was the work of local electoral authorities rather than the CEC. Again, Russia’s tortured journey towards democracy had been reversed by Putin – in 2012 the situation was worse than it had been in 1996.

Clearly, Russia’s democratic transition has gone into reverse. The media has lost freedoms that it had in 1996, which means Putin enjoyed much more coverage than his opponents. Although Yeltsin’s campaign was fraudulent, Putin’s was mired by public oppression of the opposition – who did not even have their own candidate thanks to the Kremlin’s vetting of candidates. By contrast, in Yeltsin’s time anyone was allowed to stand for office. Putin now also has full control of the CEC, resulting in a complete lack of fairness at the count after the 2012 elections. Barely anything about the 2012 election was free or fair. Putin has become an autocrat, with an unparalleled ability to manipulate his country’s political landscape. He can arrest opposition leaders on fabricated charges, threaten journalists and force people to display their support for him, knowing that the judiciary will never prosecute members of the regime. Both private and state-owned institutions have lost their independence, meaning there is no longer any form of effective civil society. Yeltsin’s victory was a sign that Russia did not want to return to Communism. Putin’s, however, was forced upon the country. Now, as people become richer and more connected to the West – including its democratic ideals – it is unclear whether Putin can maintain such control. The recent protests and international condemnation of Putin’s response suggest that the regime will come under increasing pressure in the next few years. No matter how long he holds on for, his downfall is somewhat inevitable. But with the opposition in tatters, no one can say who will follow him. Russia still has a long way to go on its way to democracy.

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