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Russian election notes: 1996 and all that,
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Russian election notes: 1996 and all that
There has been a sensation following President Medvedev’s meeting with opposition leaders on 20 February. Medvedev is reported to have said at that meeting that Boris Yeltsin’s victory in the 1996 presidential election was falsified. By no means simply an historical curiosity, this claim is highly relevant to understanding present-day political risk.
Two of the politicians present at the 20 February meeting – to which the leaders of the marginal and, in some cases, radical parties were invited, as opposed to the “establishment” opposition represented in the Duma – have since confirmed that Medvedev made this comment. The subsequent official Kremlin denial seems to have been put out for form’s sake (as opposed to being a high conviction rebuttal). What is sensational is not what was said about the 1996 election being rigged but the fact that it was said out loud by the head of state.
During the two decades I have been working in and on Russia, I have quite often found myself taking care over how to present sensitive information and being discreet about sources – only to find that some senior figure then blurts everything out a few days later. In a recent research publication on Russian political risk (Should you continue to invest with Putin? – available to subscribers), I made the very same point as Medvedev has done now – namely, that the fiddling with the vote count in last December’s parliamentary election was at least no worse than the average in all previous elections, going right back to what has since come to be regarded (wrongly) as Russia’s democratic decade (i.e., the 1990s).
What happened in 1996 and its present-day relevance
I based my mention of the stolen 1996 presidential election on a private conversation I had a few years ago with a “perfectly placed source”. I usually prefer to avoid making an anonymous source carry the burden of an argument and choose instead to cite publicly available evidence in cases, such as this, where the source cannot be named. I made an exception in this instance, since I wanted to make clear that this 1996 perspective was soundly based rather than being just one of those stories that does the rounds in Moscow. Since my source was a former Kremlin Chief of Staff, I assume that knowledge about what really happened in 1996 was closely held in the Kremlin for a number of years and vouchsafed to Medvedev when he was brought into the Kremlin staff by Vladimir Putin in 2000.
At some point well into the future, documentary evidence of the falsification of the 1996 election will become available. Meanwhile, I would guess that in reality, Yeltsin would pretty likely have beaten his opponent, the communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, in a fair contest. In Yeltsin’s favour was poll evidence that most people (albeit a dwindling majority) still did not want the Soviet revival that Zyuganov stood for. On the other hand, disenchantment with Yeltsin already ran very deep. Since a Zyuganov presidency was simply unthinkable for Russia’s new ruling elite, what would otherwise have been a close race could not be allowed to take its natural course, since the outcome would have been uncertain. For this reason, the result was rigged to guarantee victory for Yeltsin.
Why does this all this matter now? The answer is related to the main condition for stability and low political risk in present-day Russia. That condition is legitimacy. It was the evidence of falsification in last December’s Duma election that triggered protests on the streets of Moscow and other cities; and the protest movement has accordingly named itself: “The Campaign for Honest Elections”. One of the movement’s core positions is that the new Duma, in which Putin’s United Russia party has a (small) overall majority, is illegitimate – hence the demand for a fresh Duma election.
Key test: a cleaner presidential election...
The Kremlin’s overall response to this political tremor has been to try to shore up legitimacy by embracing political competition. The key test is how the 4 March presidential election is conducted. The legitimacy of Putin’s near-inevitable victory would be undermined by evidence of widespread abuses of the kind revealed last December (ballot stuffing and falsified vote counts). Unlike Yeltsin in 1996, Putin can be sure of winning without such “assistance” (although an honest victory might require two rounds of voting); and for this reason I expect the key test to be passed.
Looking further forward, open political competition – hence legitimacy – will be bolstered by the reintroduction of elections of regional governors and the opening up of the political marketplace to new entrants. The latter include the opposition leaders who saw Medvedev this week and who will soon be able to get their parties registered and included on election ballots.
...would support a stable parliament and government in the new political cycle...
But the legitimacy problem thrown up by last December’s Duma election cannot be so easily solved. While supporting Medvedev’s future political reform plans, the opposition leaders reiterated various demands that Medvedev could not accept – above all, that the new Duma should be dissolved and a fresh parliamentary election held. This was the context in which Medvedev spoke of Yeltsin’s false victory in 1996. His argument runs as follows. Russia’s democracy is developing in line with the country’s social and economic development coming out of communism. As long as society remains immature, democracy has to be managed for the sake of stability. To the extent that the level of development of the political system has been shown to be lagging developments in society (the emergence of a new middle class), this is now being corrected.
...with support from Medvedev’s “hypocrisy” jibe against Nemtsov et al
Medvedev has been repeatedly making such points in his public remarks on the political situation. In this week’s meeting with the opposition leaders, his use of the 1996 presidential election as a supporting argument had a particular edge. The most prominent politicians taking part in that meeting were big shots in the government and parliament in the second half of the 1990s who were marginalized after Putin came to power. Medvedev’s implied message was that “the system was less legitimate in formal democratic terms when you had your place in the sun than it is today, but back then none of you called for a re-run of the 1996 presidential election”.
The Campaign for Honest Elections will not abandon its demand for a new Duma election just because of Medvedev’s oblique jibe that the Campaign’s leaders are being hypocritical. So looking beyond the present election season, stability – not to mention effective policymaking – could be weakened if the parliament and hence the government were perceived to be temporary pending the election of a new and more legitimate Duma.
Medvedev’s response to the opposition leaders this week signals that the leadership will hold firm against the “illegitimate Duma” line. The stress will be on forward-looking political reforms – by implication “moving on” from the problem of the December 2011 Duma election. I predict that the new opposition will itself eventually “move on” from this issue, if only because it will not resonate with the wider society as powerfully as some of their other campaign issues (above all, corruption). Broader public opinion will probably come round to the view – in line with Medvedev’s arguments – that last December’s election was flawed but not stolen outright since United Russia in any case won a large plurality of the votes cast. But much depends on how the imminent presidential election is conducted: if the authorities prove unwilling or unable to make good on their commitment to clean up electoral practices, then the picture could be very different.