Monday, November 26, 2007
Master and Margarita elections, part two
This is Behemoth, or at least an unknown artist's conception of the fast-talking, hell-raising black cat who was the hero (at least in my reading) of Mikhail Bulgakov's classic novel The Master and Margarita.
The book revolves a visit by the devil himself (in the company of his nefarious furry friend) to officially atheist Soviet Russia. Following his arrival, a Moscow that doesn't believe in the devil's existence rapidly descends into surrealist chaos, a place where Satan wows the crowd with magic shows and naked witches fly over the city.
Marat Gelman, the spin doctor who was involved in both bringing Vladimir Putin to power and making sure he stayed there, once told me that the 2003 Duma elections that marked the rise of United Russia and the 2004 presidential campaign that secured Putin's second term were, in his mind, Russia's "Master and Margarita elections."
Gelman called them that because he understood well the kind of system he had helped to create. He had been personally responsible for shaping the message on state-run television - hailing Putin and United Russia while either ignoring the oppoistion completely or portraying them as dangerous extremists - and knew the goal was never to test the public's support for what was going on.
Putin was always going to win a landslide with something close to 70 per cent support, not too much more but certainly nothing less (he ended up with 71.3 per cent). United Russia was going to emerge as the first party to completely dominate the country since the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In the system Gelman and his colleagues would come to call "managed democracy," there would be elections every four years, but no real chance that anyone but a Kremlin-appointed candidate could win. The appearance of choice, but no one to choose between.
"After the elections, our politicians stopped being able to influence anything. There remained only one politician in the country - Putin," Gelman told me when I visited him afterwards at the art gallery he runs in Moscow's trendy Zamoskvareche neighbourhood. The elections, he said, marked "the end of politics" in post-Soviet Russia.
But shortly afterwards, even Gelman and his colleagues started to question the stability of the system they had helped to build. The Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine jolted that country out of its semi-authoritarian stupor, and many were wondering whether the same thing couldn't happen in Russia itself.
The "democracy promoters" funded by the U.S. State Department began to investigate the possibility, and opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov began investing their hopes in the idea that the wave of pro-Western uprisings that had washed over Belgrade, Kiev and Tbilisi in recent years could eventually hit Red Square too.
But the three years since the Orange Revolution have given the Kremlin plenty of time to prepare. First we saw the rise of groups like Nashi and now Zaputina, which serve the purpose of imitating and confronting the pro-Western civil society that was so critical to mobilizing popular opinion in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.
More dangerously, we've seen the complete suppression of the media and nearly all dissent, as evidenced again by the heavy handed police response to this weekend's marches by The Other Russia opposition movement.
I used to argue with my friends over whether the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were good news for Russia's democrats. They believed in the "wave of freedom" theory, and thought Russia too would eventually be hit by it.
Perhaps. But my fear was always that the pro-American non-government organizations who helped fund and fuel those uprisings were so partisan in their behaviour (it's a "free and fair election" if Washington's candidate wins, a disturbing backslide on the country's commitment to democracy if they don't) that the response in Russia and other post-Soviet countries that were already tipping towards authoritarianism would be to tighten the screws on the things that made the "colour revolutions" possible - namely free media and civil society.
In 2003, with the exception of the Baltic States, Eduard Shevardnadze's Georgia and Leonid Kuchma's Ukraine were the freest and most open of the states that emerged from the collapse of the USSR. By using the political space that Shevardnadze and Kuchma gave to their opponents and critics to push for rapid radical upheavals, the revolution-makers scared the bejesus out of the authorities in other former Soviet republics.
The lesson people like Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov took away from the Rose and Orange revolutions was that Shevardnadze and Kuchma had spent too much time worrying about where they ranked on the Freedom House list, and it had cost them control of their countries. Better to crack down fast and hard, take the international tsk-tsking that comes with a "not free" rating from Washington, and keep your job and all the loot that comes with it.
Putin, it's now very clear, has drawn the same conclusion. Who cares what the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe election monitors have to say? They're all tools of the State Department, after all. The opposition? They're all dangerous thugs who belong in jail. The media? Some die, some live. It's really not worth investigating why that is.
So here comes another round of elections without a choice. Behemoth walks the streets of Moscow again.