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    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.


    Michael Averko said...

    Some recent releases regarding Putin's popularity, Russia's political opposition and the OSCE

    Putin gets top vote in Moldova


    Moldova's so-called Public Opinion Barometer for November 2007 shows that the inhabitants of Moldova put greater trust in the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, than in their own head of state, the corruption-connected Communist strongman Vladimir Voronin.

    According to the latest opinion poll, Putin is widely trusted by at least 66 percent of all Moldovans, or two out of three in the country. This compares to less than half that still believe in the virtue of their current leadership: In stark contrast to Putin, only 45 percent trust their own president, Vladimir Voronin. A majority of Moldova's inhabitants have no faith that their current president is honest or trustworthy.

    While Moldova is officially listed as Europe's poorest country, its president and his close relatives rank as the richest family in the country. Their quick and unexplained road to enormous personal wealth is seen as one of the reasons why a minority among the voters now believe that Vladimir Voronin should be worthy of their trust.

    Other poll results reveal that Romanian president Traian Bsescu is trusted by 41 percent of all Moldovans, followed by Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko who receives the trust of just 34 percent.

    Also-rans: Over half of all Moldovans don't trust their own president, Vladimir Voronin (top). And at the bottom of the heap, outgoing U.S. leader George W. Bush is only trusted by a pitiful 29% of Moldova's population. Among all world leaders listed, American president George W. Bush scores the worst: He is distrusted by seven out of ten in Moldova, and only regarded as trustworthy by a miserly 29 percent of voters


    Coffee with Putin: decaf now available


    As a foreign spectator of Russia's political theater, I have several questions: How is it possible to respect a group of political agitators who 1. Have little respect for the law; 2. Threaten the security of their fellow residents - the very people they hope to lead - by making a mad dash through the city and into moving traffic; 3. Have no political leg to stand on, but continue to disturb the peace with publicity-seeking stunts; 4. Refer to themselves as "anti-Kremlin" when in actuality they have no greater desire than to be hunkered down once again inside the fortress.

    The urge to laugh at all of this proved too great when I saw a photograph of former-chess-champ-turned-savior-of-the-Motherland Garry Kasparov in the back of a police van, sporting a vainglorious grin as he flashed a victory sign from the rear window. Victory? Victory from what, I thought. If this is victory, I would really hate to see the self-anointed opposition's definition of a failure.

    As is normal democratic procedure for every civilized country, The Other Russia (a mysterious land that nobody has yet defined, but if past performance of the Russian liberals is any indication, it is probably an uninhabitable outcrop of rocks in the Arctic Ocean that Russians must rent from a foreign power) got exactly what it requested from the city of Moscow: a legally sanctioned rally on Prospekt Akademika Sakha­rova in the heart of the nation's capital. Any American or European political group would have been thrilled with such a high-profile venue. So was this the "victory" that Kasparov was alluding to from the back of the police bus? No, of course not, because despite joining forces with other liberal factions, this bowel movement fails to pull any weight with the voters. Thus, to play by the rules of the game would force them to confront an ugly truth: Since the great giveaway of the 1990s, the liberals have zero chances of clearing their names with the Russian voters anytime soon. Actually, their public demonstrations seem more effective at attracting curiosity seekers, troublemakers and photo-snapping tourists than any serious supporters.

    Ironically, Russia's weekend warriors attempted a mad dash for the Central Elections Commission office, where they hoped to protest against the "unfair" 7 percent threshold of votes required to gain parliamentary representation. This is strange. Especially since I have never read a single article from Garry Kasparov in The Wall Street Journal, a conservative U.S. paper that regularly publishes his rants, concerning the state of American democracy.

    If the majority of politicians were not such hypocrites, Kasparov would have been reminding his readers that both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader - two third-party candidates who enjoyed huge support from at least 9 percent of the American heartland - were denied the right to debate (not run) against the Democrat and Republican nominees in past presidential elections.

    And then there are those obser­vers who argue that something sinister must be happening for Russia's president and the United Russia party to be enjoying such huge popularity. As one English-language daily hyperventilated, people (anonymous people, of course) are being dragged off to the polling stations against their will(!). But if Washington, for example, would spend less time and money bombing nations into the Stone Age (a prerequisite, it seems, along the road to democracy), and more on domestic infrastructure (dams flood to mind), perhaps it too would be enjoying sky-high public support. Inci­den­tally, those former western leaders who threw their support behind the Iraq War (Blair, Anzar, Howard) are also feeling the sting of their decisions today (In Putin's 8 years in office, Russia has never opened military operations in a foreign land). Putin's biggest failure in the eyes of the West is his success: he fails to conform to the old stereotypes about Russian leaders: weak, corrupt and never far from a bottle of vodka. Putin has destroyed those national myths, and there are many people who will never forgive him for that.

    Some say the Russian opposition is dreaming of introducing some new brand of orange revolution; this sort of wishful thinking is simply dangerous. After all, Russia already staged the mother of all orange revolutions in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin climbed up on a tank in downtown Moscow while tens of thousands of supporters cheered him. That historic moment - which rallied more people than all of the other color revolutions combined - kicked off Russia's democratic revolution. Today, Russia's "sovereign democracy" simply reflects the realities of Russia's past, present and future; democracy is not a one-size-fits-all Made in the U.S.A. sweater.

    But most importantly, many outside observers - many of whom have never set foot in Russia, and never will - fail to understand the radical changes that are taking place in this vast country, and not just in the biggest Russian cities.

    For example, a friend of mine, whose job requires her to travel around the country, bases her assumptions about the progress of a Russian city on the availability of decaffeinated coffee in the local restaurants - kind of like a Russian version of the Big Mac index. Now, whenever she orders a decaffeinated coffee in Vladivostok, Kazan or Nizhny Novgorod she is not delivered a Turkish coffee that was brought to a slow boil over hot sand.

    This is fruit from the tree of upheaval that Russia experienced 16 years ago: the standard of living is rising, every product and service is readily available, and the level of patriotism - if we judge by the polls and flags - has never been higher. So from this foreigner's perspective, the last thing Russia wants or needs is another misguided liberal reformer.


    Who killed the OSCE?


    The OSCE continued pumping out glass-half-full reports into the Putin era. In 2000, it was quick to sign off on Putin's first-round victory, despite widespread evidence of fraud, some of it uncovered by the Moscow Times. "The OSCE should not have approved [the 2000 elections]," the Yabloko party spokesman, Sergei Loktyonov, told the eXile after Putin's 2003 reelection. "It's hard to say why they did that."

    But is it? In 2000, Putin was still seen as a "reformer", as the West's guy. He had not yet begun to cross Western oil interests or to reassert an independent and muscular foreign policy. Fast forward to 2003 and the OSCE was singing a different tune.

    The OSCE hasn't just destroyed its credibility with its strange criteria for judging some Russian elections fair and others not. As the world considers Moscow's charge of undue American influence on the organization, it's worth pulling an OSCE "greatest hit" out of the memory hole. In the run up to the Kosovo war, the organization was used a front for the CIA to deliver communications equipment to the Kosovo Liberation Army, and to gather targeting information for an expected upcoming NATO bombing campaign. As reported by the New York Times in March of 2000:

    "When the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which co-ordinated the [human rights] monitoring, left Kosovo a week before airstrikes began a year ago, many of its satellite telephones and global positioning systems were secretly handed to the KLA, ensuring that guerrilla commanders could stay in touch with NATO and Washington. Several KLA leaders had the mobile phone number of General Wesley Clark, the NATO commander. European diplomats then working for the OSCE claim it was betrayed by an American policy that made airstrikes inevitable. Some have questioned the motives and loyalties of William Walker, the American OSCE head of mission. 'The American agenda consisted of their diplomatic observers, aka the CIA, operating on completely different terms to the rest of Europe and the OSCE, said a European envoy'."

    markmac said...

    I should add here that Marat Gelman has now fully opposes the monster he helped create. He told my Globe and Mail colleague Jane Armstrong that Putin "doesn't understand that people in power can't stay in power forever."

    You can read the whole article here:

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