Tag Archives: elections

A Primer on Russia’s Presidential Election

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! I’ve decided to write one more article about Russia-related stuff (for the foreseeable future) just because I recently saw another example of a trope that never seems to die and I don’t think I’ve ever actually dedicated a whole post to it. Before I proceed let me point out that I’m not trying to single out any particular author here. I’ve seen this trope and variations thereof many times over the years, and in my less-informed days I’d actually voiced similar arguments. With the disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump in.

Among Western Putin apologists there’s a grand tradition of smearing Western Russia correspondents by pedantically homing in on any mistakes, real or imagined, in their work. The idea is that they’re actually ignorant about Russia, that they have an axe to grind against poor wittle Putin. To be fair, some journalists, usually those not actually based in Russia, can display horrendous ignorance about the country. Case in point:

However, when attacking long-time Moscow correspondents, the grievances are typically unfair, inaccurate, nitpicky, or all three at the same time. When there’s a major election in Russia, Putin’s pedants rehash the same trope every time- they complain that the Western media gives so much attention to non-systemic opposition candidates who in fact are very unpopular and have no chance of winning.

In support of this claim they will provide plenty of legitimate opinion polls. Rest assured you can usually take these polls at face value; they’re typically correct. It’s no secret that opposition politicians in Russia are incredibly unpopular, indeed far less popular than the two leading systemic-opposition parties the “Communist” Party of the Russian Federation (I can’t put enough quotes around the word “Communist” in their name) and the equally inappropriately-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. So why does the Western media focus so much attention on politicians who have no chance of winning and are almost unheard of outside of Moscow? Apparently someone actually needs to explain this, so here goes…

First let me say that the inspiration for this comes from a tweet thread by David Filipov, Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, in which he addressed this very question.

In case that didn’t make it painfully clear to you, let me break it down to preschool level.

In an election, a real election, candidates are supposed to compete. That means they actually want to be president. Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky have no plans to be president of Russia. If you deny the existence of systemic opposition in Russia you are either ignorant or a liar- period. While there is sometimes opposition at the local level and in the Duma, none of the systemic opposition parties pose a threat to Putin and his favored United Russia party. None of them plan to do anything to change the system that basically lets Putin do what he pleases as long as he wants.

Those opposition candidates, in spite of their minimal popularity, actually do want to change the system in some way. They actually intend to be real politicians. It’s kind of the media’s job to interview candidates, ask them about their ideas, why they want to be president, a representative, or whatever. Unless we’re talking about the Russian state media, of course.

And speaking of state media, it might be time to ask why these politicians are so unpopular. Apart from occasionally appearing on talk shows while they are mercilessly shouted down by other guests, most major opposition figures in Russia almost never appear on TV unless it’s in a bullshit story alleging that they’re working for the CIA, Soros, the YMCA, or whatever other organization the Kremlin is scared shitless of this week. All the while they and their volunteers are routinely harassed and their offices searched or closed under suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile the perpetrators are either never found or are promptly released.

Remember that the Putin apologists who constantly whine about the Western media devoting so much attention to minimally-popular opposition candidates are at least tacitly asserting that Russia has a functioning democratic electoral system. If they aren’t, I don’t know why they even bother, but let’s assume for the moment that they do. If this is the case, why are Russian elections so bizarrely different from those in other democratic states? Why are the second and third most popular presidential candidates not even interested in actually becoming president? Hell, one of them (Zhirinovsky) actually called for elections to be abolished and for Putin to be given the title of “Supreme Commander.” Can anyone imagine a Republican in the US suggesting such a thing for Obama? Can you even imagine them just calling for Obama to be able to run for a third term? The scandal would be at least equal to the one surrounding the Trump administration at the moment.

So please, Putinist pedants- stop pretending Putin’s regime is just a little quirky or just as democratic as other states and wringing your hands while presenting polls to show how unpopular candidates like Navalny are. We all know they’re unpopular, and anyone who knows about Russia’s political an mass media system knows why. To para-phrase Filipov, if you think there’s another candidate Russia correspondents should be spending more time covering, please name them and explain why. What is newsworthy about them? And to extrapolate from that- if you’re not happy with the stories that Western journalists cover, maybe you should provide examples of the stories you think should be covered and again, say why. I’ve often written about my complaints about some of that coverage and I give my reasons.

Otherwise, I suggest you drop that trope and stick to your whataboutism. At least there you’re more likely to come up with a decent point from time to time.

Overkill

Sunday’s Duma elections were dubbed by some experts to be the most boring in Russian history. Low turnout was expected, and received, with a historic figure of roughly 48%. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s United Russia party won in a major landslide, now controlling about 76% of the Duma, enough for a constitutional majority if such a thing even mattered in Russian politics. And as the savvy Russia watcher no doubt suspected, there were plenty of reports of election rigging via the usual methods- ballot stuffing, carousel voting, etc.

The thing that gets me is why they even bothered to engage in rigging this vote. United Russia was already projected to win big, and so far those alleging that the vote was rigged say that United Russia should have 40 fewer seats- this still leaves 65 seats that they would have picked up anyway without any manipulation. Off the top of my head I can’t say if that would still give them the mandate to change the constitution, but anyone who knows Russian politics understands that if the constitution needs to be changed, it will be changed, period. Hell, most of the time the state ignores it anyway, particularly those parts that say there is no censorship, that the state is completely secular, etc.

The usual expert chatter suggests that this election is about gauging popular opinion toward the government (which is much lower than Putin’s approval ratings, because apparently Putin’s such a great leader he has no idea what his own government does), and that if anything it might signify a change in the Kremlin’s domestic policies (HINT: this tends to be negative) or a reorganization of the elites. My position is to wait and see, but I think by so stacking the Duma with loyal United Russia deputies, Putin might have seriously undercut a very important narrative that helped sustain his relations with the outside world.

Putin has long played the role of a moderate, willing to do business with the West. United Russia’s main opponent have always been the “Liberal Democratic” party and the “Communist” party, both very inappropriately named. The message is really obvious. “Deal with me, otherwise you’ll get this Communist Zyuganov who will nationalize everything including your investment! Or you might end up with this raving nationalist Zhirinovsky, who’ll launch a nuclear war to build a new Russian empire, or something.”

Now before I point out how Sunday’s elections has undermined this claim I must digress and point out that yes, Putin has a succession problem. If Putin either died or was incapacitated, someone from United Russia would most likely take his place, and you could write pages about that problem alone. Now if Putin and all of United Russia suddenly disappeared then yes, the next in line would be the “Communists.” But whether Putin is followed by right-wing nationalists or, well, right-wing Communists, the bottom line is that Russia faces this devil’s bargain because of Putin, or more accurately his servant Surkov. When someone challenges with “who, if not Putin,” they are tacitly admitting that Russia has failed to produce more than one leader capable of running the country in nearly two decades. And who, exactly was in charge during that time? Oh right- Putin.

Having got that out of the way, Putin already started chipping away at this pillar of support in 2014, if not earlier. I have to be honest and say that even I believed the Putin-as-moderate lie as late as 2013. In fact earlier, when there were protests in the streets of Moscow, I couldn’t understand why the “Communists” were not leading the movement, nor why they would later back down. After all, they were the ones who stood the most to gain from fair elections. In 2014, no competent person could hold onto the delusion that these parties represent any opposition to Putin. In fact, on one occasion Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nominal presidential opponent of Putin, publicly called for the end of elections in Russia and for Putin to be made “Supreme Commander.” Could you imagine Romney saying this about Obama in 2012?

Now, not only has the curtain dropped so that more outsiders realize it’s Putin pulling the strings, but Putin’s party holds a constitutional majority in the Duma. This means that Putin can’t possibly use the “opposition” to excuse his behavior. Whatever Russia does can now be attributed to Putin and his party even by those who still naively entertain the notion that the other parties in the Duma are actually opposed to the president’s whims. In other words, the charade is over.

It kind of reminds me of the transformation of Russian state media that occurred in 2013-2014. Prior to that, you could actually find Russian state-owned media outlets that were quite balanced, even favoring real opposition viewpoints. Rather than hold onto these outlets as a way to counter Western claims that all Russian state media is nothing but pro-Kremlin propaganda, they decided to liquidate them and turn the whole state media into a propaganda bullhorn. And then they throw a tantrum when people call them propagandists, even though they willingly became propagandists of their own accord.

Typical Kremlin decision process here. Decide that your opponent does the thing that you want to do, without questioning whether this is actually true. Do the thing you wanted to do in the first place. Throw a fit when you get called out. Repeat.

So it is with this election. They decided that the strong majority they had in the Duma was not enough, so they artificially increased it even though they were already projected to gain seats. Now more observers will be even more justified in calling the Duma a rubber-stamp parliament, and naturally Duma deputies and various Russian politicians will screech about these accusations even though they were the ones that made the Duma what it is.

UPDATE: I recently ran across this on Twitter:

Basically Putin gave his “opponent” Zhirinovsky an award, and in response Zhirinovsky recites the old Russian imperial anthem “God Save the Tsar.” Yes, this guy is an opponent of Putin. Without Putin and the United Russia majority, this guy would totally take over and nuke Europe. That’s a plausible scenario, which is why we must support Putin and his party at all costs, even if they resort to election fraud.

And to anyone (including myself a few years ago) who asks why foreign media often passes up these “opposition” parties to focus on non-systemic opposition figures who have minuscule support, there’s a very simple answer. First of all, there’s little reason to cover opposition parties that don’t oppose the regime in any meaningful way. Politics is supposed to be about conflict, at least in a functioning democracy.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Western journalists focused more on these “radical” parties and the antics of their leaders, the pro-Kremlin “information warriors” would all scream about how the Western media is panicking about the empty threats and bombastic rhetoric of opposition parties who are not in power and have little to no influence, and thank God for Putin to keep them in check. In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Mixed messages

Yesterday a proposal was raised in the Duma to cancel elections so long as Russia was still under “economic pressure” from the West, i.e. sanctions. Yes, the same sanctions they keep telling us do nothing and only hurt the West are apparently causing enough “economic pressure” that the Duma should consider cancelling the upcoming Duma and presidential elections. Sure.

First for you newbies let’s shut down something right here. No, this doesn’t represent Russia’s descent into “Stalinist totalitarianism” or some such nonsense. This is almost certainly not serious and probably won’t be brought up again. This is by no means the first time a Russian politician has suggested suspending elections. LDPR leader Zhirinovsky, despite technically being an opposition presidential candidate, once publicly suggested doing away with all elections indefinitely and renaming Putin “Supreme Commander.” The point is that this proposal is probably just another example of these scare tactics the government uses to panic people and remind them that if they don’t keep their heads down things can get a whole lot worse.

Just one problem though. I’m not saying that the proposal is going to turn into something serious, but in this case the message to the public is really garbled. Most Russians, including opposition supporters, have little illusions about change via the ballot box. Since no one believes in elections anyway, it almost seems like this is a cost-saving measure.

Who is this message even aimed at? The West, which imposed the sanctions on Russia, doesn’t believe in Russian democracy anyway. Therefore one can’t assert that this is some kind of threat like: “Lift your sanctions or look what we’ll do to our own people!” The Kremlin already demonstrated what it could do in that respect with the food import ban.

The message is even counter-productive as well, suggesting that Russia is in such danger thanks to crisis and those Western sanctions (which supposedly were helping Russia), the government can’t even afford to organize and rig some elections.

The most logical explanation I can think of in this case is that it was designed to troll and panic the liberals, which is often the case when you hear about some real draconian proposals being floated in the Duma. Even if they have no chance of winning anywhere, elections have become a sort of rallying point for the opposition and it gives them something concrete to do. Without that, they’d probably be reduced to holding the occasional rally in some sleeping district of Moscow. That and Russian liberals still seem very easy to freak out with bullshit proposals like this. Internet tax, exit visas- you name it and they’ll panic all over the internet for a couple days. You’d think they’d learn by now.

Finally, if it’s not any one of these motives, it could be possible that the message machine is breaking down somehow. Either that, or somebody’s been smoking spice. These days who knows?

So all in all it’s an educational experience and a good case study, but I’m fairly confident that the upcoming Duma and presidential elections will proceed as planned and I’m 100% confident that the United Russia party will maintain a majority while Vladimir Putin wins the presidency.

 

Show your work

A while back I published an article about “expat privilege.” While I didn’t dig into it so much in that article, one of the greatest privileges an expat has, though one that is somewhat invisible, is the ability to basically ignore a lot of annoying shit. What do I mean? Are you reading this in the US? What’s dominating your news cycle? What can’t you stop hearing about, and won’t stop hearing about until next November? Yup, election coverage, and even worse- the Republican primaries.

Yes, obviously I get a lot of news from the US, via Twitter and Facebook. But what I’m getting is nothing like what you’re probably experiencing in the States. I’m dancing around a lawn sprinkler while you get blasted with a fire hose. Now keeping in mind that I am mercifully spared from feeling the full force of the GOP primary shit-circus, you can forgive me for not being 100% on the ball when it comes to the issues being discussed. So is it just me or does it seem like 90% of the Republican contest seems to revolve around who can be the biggest dick to immigrants, illegal or otherwise? I mean it really does seem as though the Republicans, having lost on gay marriage and going to war at the drop of a hat, have decided to shuffle off every single issue under the sun except immigration. Oh…And Muslims of course. I mean look at this shit:

How could anyone watch that exchange and not demand a coast-to-coast minute of silence, not out of mourning but pure shame?

I don’t want to digress to the topic of Muslims in America, but on that topic I’ll say this: If you think there are Muslim terrorist training camps in America, you pay my airfare and expenses, plus a modest fee, and we’ll go to one of these camps. That’s right. You say they exist, and they’ve obviously got you scared shitless, so being the hardcore badass that I am, I’ll personally escort you, unarmed, to these locations so you can rest assured that ISIS is not building a secret army in America. Call me the James Randi of political bullshit in that case.

Let me get back to this immigrant thing, though. When it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric I’ve heard it all. Hell, I’m by no means innocent of subscribing to that bullshit myself. But there’s something I just don’t understand.

You see, there’s plenty of research disproving common claims such as how illegal immigrants steal jobs or how they’re committing more crimes or that they’re some how sucking the country’s coffers dry. The evidence against these claims is pretty much overwhelming, to the point where the only way one can continue to object to it is by alleging a massive conspiracy to falsify all of it. But let’s just ignore all that for a moment.

Even if you ignore all that evidence and believe some or all of the illegal immigration rhetoric, is there no point at which you start asking yourself what precisely these immigrants are doing to you? Let me rephrase that. Say you’re an employed, middle class white person, possibly a homeowner. Do you ever start to wonder about the ways, if any, your life is affected by these immigrants, legal or otherwise?

Obviously the first arguments such people would bring up would be stealing jobs, but even if that were true, their job clearly wasn’t stolen. I’ve never met someone who admitted they’d lost their job to an illegal immigrant. I’m not saying it’s never happened, but as comedian Doug Stanhope once pointed out in a routine- you’ve got to be pretty unqualified to be replaced by an illegal immigrant in any job that isn’t ditch digging.

With job stealing out of the way, that will leave the alleged tax burden. Okay then, get out your tax info and a calculator and show me how much money you personally are losing out on thanks to illegal immigrants. Oh, you don’t know? Well do some research then. Typically those programs which are available to illegal immigrants are also available to the US population as well, so it’s not like the illegal immigrants are getting some kind of benefit set aside for them.

Even if you start talking about things like crime, aside from the fact that both legal and illegal immigrants offend on a far lower rate than that of the native population, you have to concede that a crime committed by an immigrant is not somehow worse than one committed by a citizen. Assault, rape, and murder are just as bad regardless of who commits them, and we also know that these crimes all tend to take place among people who know each other.

So the point here is that while the topic of immigrants always seems to rapidly rile people up, it’s really kind of abstract. I mean if you’re going to get extremely angry about something, you should be able to actually explain how this thing is affecting you. It doesn’t necessarily need to be blatantly obvious too. Whenever you hear politicians wringing their hands and telling you “there’s just not enough money,” you can always cast an eye towards the Pentagon and find millions, if not billions of dollars that are being pissed away.

I’ve talked in the past before about how some Americans just seem to be perpetually angry, often about stuff that isn’t even happening. They never seem to be relieved when you tell them the thing they’re constantly angry about isn’t really a thing at all. But fine, if you want to be angry, shouldn’t you at least be able to explain why?

Think of all the people killed or maimed in car accidents in America. The second most common cause of accidents is excessive speed, number three is drunk driving. Incidentally number one is “distracted driving,” but that’s rather vague so I’ll stick with two and three. Why don’t you see more people screaming about speeding and demanding more speed cameras? There’s a case where it’s laughably easy to explain why you’re upset about speeding- they cause accidents, including fatal ones. Drunk driving is even worse, though it isn’t as common a cause as speeding. Yet where is the politician talking about this issue?

The thing that really worries me about this decline in critical thinking and political discourse is that I fear the rise of a sort of vatnik mentality in the US. While the vatnik is content to live in shit so long as he is able to believe that Americans and other Westerners fear his country, I think we have all seen plenty of signs that there is a rising category of Americans who are happy to vote for politicians that continually decrease American living standards, all out of fear that somewhere, somehow, there’s a foreigner who overstayed his visa and who is living it up on government money. They’re wholly unconcerned as to whether this person even exists. The very idea is enough for them to slavishly follow anyone who talks about what he’ll supposedly do about this non-existent state of affairs.

America’s institutions and law will, at least for the foreseeable future, prevent the country from turning into something like Putin’s Russia. But only a fool would think these things can last forever without the vigilance and responsibility of the public. With the right conditions, a growing number of Americans can be duped into demanding the destruction of those laws and institutions. If they protect illegal immigrants, “terrorists,” “criminals,” or unwed mothers, their may be calls for their appeal, or at least wink-wink agreements between public officials and law enforcement to simply ignore such rules.

America’s position in the world in terms of development and freedom is by no means enshrined in stone. So chuckle at Trump and his fanboys at your own risk.

Updates

Some of you readers have probably noticed a lack of on-topic posts lately. I haven’t seen much remarkable news lately, but more importantly I’ve been busy with work, the gym, eating to sustain those gains, and now martial arts. Luckily we’ve got a bullshit made-up holiday coming up next week and I plan to use that time to create a lot of content for the blog and the Russian Tuesday podcast. So just keep in mind that the lack of updates is in no way due to laziness. I’m either making money or training myself to be better able to choke people out and take their wallets, which is also a money-making enterprise of sorts.

In the meantime, I recommend reading Natalia Antonova’s article regarding the recent Ukrainian parliamentary elections. There has been some good news, namely that parties like the far right-wing Svoboda failed to gain any seats. This actually constitutes a loss for them, as previously they had seats. It’s also refreshing any time you see someone actually acknowledge Svoboda, instead of pretending that the Ukrainian far-right is solely represented by the more marginal Praviy Sektor. For the moment though, it seems Svoboda has been checkmated in parliamentary politics.

As I have remarked before, however, there is a sort of national myth which still prevails in Ukraine, and it provides ample soil in which radical nationalists grow. Of course it doesn’t help when corrupt, chauvinistic Russia deliberately associates itself with symbols of the Soviet Union, the victory over fascism, and socialism. Long ago I wished that the Russian government would simply cast away that mask and openly acknowledge its love of Tsarism, authoritarianism, and reactionary politics, but sadly they still make use of Soviet symbols and history, twisting their meaning and sullying them in the eyes of people living in the shadow of the Russian Federation.  Hopefully Ukraine will start to see the flaws in this national myth, discard it, and with it stop tolerating backward nationalists who live in an early 20th century fantasy land. Ukraine is torn between two capitalist powers. Only socialism or at least a very progressive social democratic system can improve the lives of Ukrainians.  Ukrainian success is also crucial to regaining its lost territories.

As for me, it is very difficult to come out in support of the blue and gold. I want to, but I simply cannot lend my unqualified support to a country which arms nationalist thugs and promotes a radical anti-Communist, anti-socialist right wing myth in place of a national history. If it’s wrong when Russia does it, it’s wrong when Ukraine does it too. Obviously as Ukrainian society seems to be turning on those elements, the football hooligans, the Bandera lovers, and the falsifiers of history who insist that only Ukrainians should be allowed to interpret Ukrainian history, my views change as well, but I’m still waiting to hear a more definitive “fuck you, nationalist scum” from Ukrainian society. Till that happens, my support for Ukraine is merely support for international law against aggression and illegal annexation. Incidentally, things which until recently Vladimir Putin used to condemn.

Drinking game

Here’s a fun drinking game. Read this article about the parliamentary elections in Ukraine and take a drink every time you see the word “Europe” or “European.”  Depending on what you’re drinking, you may end the article with a decent buzz.

Some other highlights include one person repeating the claim that Ukraine has broken with her Soviet past, a favorite meme of Maidan supporters and their well-wishers. Of course they haven’t broken with backward, early 20th century nationalism which is far more regressive than the USSR’s ideology, but that’s okay because the most important thing in this crisis-ridden economy is blaming other people for your problems and staying as far away from socialism as you can. Hence the rise of right-wing politics all over Europe and Russia.  Every time nationalists have had any significant influence on Ukraine, the results have been awful. The last time costs Ukraine valuable territory, but some people simply do not learn.

If this sounds like I’m putting all the blame on Ukraine, ask yourself as to why right-wing nationalism is tolerated in Ukraine, while the media condemns it in Russia. After all, Russians also seem to be breaking with their socialist past and embracing a neo-imperialist ideology.  Had Maidan not tolerated right-wing nationalists and instead aimed to unite all people of the country, Russia wouldn’t have found a willing fifth column to support its irredentist schemes. Now Ukraine is likely to be a more or less divided country for generations to come. The idea that a European Union association agreement will do anything to reverse that process at this point is simply laughable.