The last Sunday before the elections

30 November 2007

My last week’s piece was about the parliamentary election in Russia. And I sincerely hoped that the topic would be the last one before the polls, at least until when the election returns are published.

New State Duma will be elected on December 2nd and there is no long time to wait. But two developments made me retract on this decision. Firstly, I happened to read the newspaper of a small leftist group “Vpered” (meaning “Forwards!”). The paper’s leading article began with denouncing the fraudulent election but then called the citizens to come to the polling stations and vote – in order “to raise their civic consciousness”. The authors of the article suggested that we support any party but the “United Russia” labeled “class enemy number one”.

Then I received a letter from a friend of mine who lives in a provincial Russian town. She lamented that administration of the local university exerts pressure on students and the teaching staff to make them participate in polls. December 2 will be announced a working day – obviously, to provide high turnout. Before the classes the students living in campus together with the teachers will have to visit polling stations prudently located nearby.

Taking the trouble to compare the two texts reveals how far apart the Russia’s reality and perception that the intellectuals have of it are.

For a vast number of the Russian voters staying at home on the election day (the right granted by law) will be a risky and troublesome affair. Voters will have to be resourceful enough to get medical certificates and absentee ballots though they will simply stay at home; some on the contrary, leave for long distance business trips. For state officials, medical workers, and school and university teachers this compulsion to vote has become manifestation of political control.

The authorities cannot control whom we give our votes to but in every possible way try to make us participate in the electoral process. They are more concerned with the turnout than with the electoral preferences. There is certain logic to this position. Compulsory social rituals like coming to the polls are important to the authorities despite all the futility of the polls themselves. They want us to act in certain situations blindly and without dissent. Training obedience is the central element to the domination system. Not strangely, the propaganda on the part of the Central Electoral Commission of the Russian Federation with all the tasteless posters and cut and dried TV ads outstrips this time all the parties, “United Russia” included.

And this policy does work. In the circumstances where nobody has the guts to agitate against the elections (which the case with “Vpered” newspaper proves), even the left go in line with the Central Election Commission, the population see the elections as a duty they would like to escape. People behave more like subjects of Tsar than citizens of a democratic state. Bringing people to the feeling of shame for their own actions when after all they come to the polling stations and cast votes into the ballot boxes, is how they treat us.

And there is little chance that the Russian citizens will put the mark against some dark horse. When at the polling station, people with their eyes open vote for the “United Russia”, with the Communist Party (CPRF) seeming to be the only more or less serious alternative to the party in power. And so the Communists will get the majority of protest votes. But most of those who took part in the 2005 street protests, I am afraid, will vote on December 2 for the “United Russia”.

Moscow intellectuals will certainly explain all the failures with “low civil consciousness”, “general political ignorance”, “dullness” and “dense stupidity” of common Russians. But sure enough in Russia’s regions people grasp the political realty better than Moscow dwellers do.

The fact is that those who are ready to support CPRF only to damage “United Russia’s” interests are much less numerous than those who have a great aversion to the Communists themselves. Gennady Zyuganov’s party has strong negative rating. This accounts for absence of negative propaganda from the part of the ruling party against CPRF.

Negative perception of the Communist party is well ingrained in people’s heads. They would rather support faceless ruling party than a flock of dinosaurs pretending to be the opposition. All the real opposition parties are to an extend fascist, demagogical and corrupt. They all with the Communists in the head want a historical and social revenge. They seek to return back in 1990s to the Russian economy in ruins and total lawlessness of that epoch. But the Russian people seem to be finally learning to remember and think about their past.

The forthcoming elections can only be compared to a fictional situation where back in the Soviet times people would be given an option to choose their leaders, with, say, Lavrentiy Beria and General Denikin being the only alternatives to Leonid Brezhnev. Russians are refused the right to choose their future, so they prefer more or less stable today to foodless yesterday.

Official opposition is the part of the dominant system providing its political stability and maintaining balance of forces. Should political and social change be triggered, these “oppositionists” will have to quit the stage. The problem is that in this vicious circle first the opposition must be made redundant and this will trigger political change.

Still, part of the population gathered by force at the polling stations, will vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) just out of spite. “Voting out of spite” will be one of the dominant motivations this time. Noteworthily, Zhirinovsky’s party usually gets support in places of confinement, hospitals and military units. People there cannot escape voting, so they “vote out of spite”.

Some will spoil the ballots. And the ruling “United Russia” will be quite satisfied with that. These ballots will be counted and redistributed among those parties who make it into Duma. Let us say you equally despise “United Russia”, CPRF and LDPR, so you go and write “Against all” on your voting paper …by which you make it one hundred percent that one of these parties gets your vote. Should “United Russia” get 65%, CPRF - 20%, and LDPR - 8%, then out of a thousand spoiled ballots, reading “Other Russia” or “To hell with you all!”, about 690 will be attributed to “United Russia”, 230 to CPRF and 80 to Zhirinovsky’s party.

The trick is, whatever you do, it won’t affect Russia’s present political system. It reminds me of a machine to play coin flipping thought out by a Polish philosopher Jan Kott. The machine counts your answers and always wins. The only way for a human being to make the chances equal is to give random answers. Still, you can only end in a draw.

The one thing the philosopher has missed out in his analysis is that at any moment a man with a hammer can come and crash the machine. It is hard to say now who will take the hammer, but judging by the mass protests all over the country simultaneously with the election campaigning, such dramatic developments are highly possible. I’ve already mentioned that the participants of the 2005 protest marches supported and are likely to support the ruling party. But what if they will not? What if in a changing political environment those people won’t stay loyal to “United Russia”?

The conformist electorate of the CPRF never participates in street protests, just as the party itself is out of political debate – its only function is to imitate the protest and support the authorities in a crisis situation (in 1995-1999 it always happened that a group of “insubordinate” Communist MPs supported the Kremlin-lobbied bills into laws). In 2005 the Communists by all means tried to draw the people from the streets. Anyway, they failed the operation. They failed because the mob in the street didn’t feel confidence to the Communist Party. As I have explained, those were the voters of the “United Russia”.

All in all, I anchor certain hopes on the “United Russia” electorate. One day these people will be ready to forget December 2, 2007 just as Soviet citizens were once forcedly freed from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

But these changes will be initiated by those who were savvy and willful enough to boycott the day of popular disgrace on December 2, 2007.

Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is The Revolt of the Middle Class (2006)

About the authors

Boris Kagarlitsky

Boris Kagarlitsky is a well-known international commentator on Russian politics and society. Boris was a deputy to the Moscow City Soviet between 1990-93, during which time he was a member of the executive of the Socialist Party of Russia, co-founder of the Party of Labour, and advisor to the Chairperson of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.  Previously, he was a student of art criticism and was imprisoned for two years for 'anti-Soviet' activities.

Boris' books include Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (Pluto Press, February 2008, Russia Under Yeltsin And Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy (TNI/Pluto 2002) and New Realism, New Barbarism: The Crisis of Capitalism (Pluto 1999).

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