Russia: Putin’s nominated successor wins presidential ‘election’

Medvedev/Putin will continue rule on behalf of capitalist ‘clans’

After a 70% turnout, 70% of votes counted in Russia’s presidential election went to Putin’s nominated successor, Dmitri Medvedev. No surprises there then! From May, Medvedev will occupy the president’s seat in the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin will take over as head of government. Meeting after the election results, in their still current capacities as President and Deputy Prime Minister, the pair announced they would work out the division of labour between the two posts in preparation for the handover.

As always, Western leaders rushed to greet the new President. Sarkozy managed to get there first, followed by Brown and Bush. But their greetings, in reality, just help to gloss over the fact that these elections were far from democratic. International press coverage has not been much better. The Financial Times reported that “Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor, on Sunday secured an overwhelming victory in the election to become Russia’s next president although his opponents claimed ballot rigging was even more widespread than in parliamentary elections three months ago”. In other words, the unfairness of the elections was not proved, just a claim by the opposition.

International election observers were less squeamish. The OCSE refused to send any observers, worried that their presence would add legitimacy to the election. The representative of PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe), reported that “this election repeated the inadequacies that were observed in December’s parliamentary election. The Russian authorities did not ensure equal media coverage for the candidates, the rules for registering candidates were just as restrictive and pressure on voters to participate grew”. But even this description is mild.

The election result was planned in advance. The Kremlin decided that it wanted its candidate to get between 65-70% of the vote, not more than 71%! That would mean that Putin’s protégé got more votes than Putin did when he last stood for president. Orders were sent out from the Kremlin to regional governors and mayors instructing them how many votes were to be delivered. They appear to have been a bit more subtle than during last December’s parliamentary elections, when in areas like Chechnya, it was reported that on a 99% turnout, 99% voted for Putin’s party. This time, more modest figures nearer to 90% were reported. It sounds far fetched that in the 21st century a European government can rig elections in this way. However, the Moscow Times cited the blog of a statistical expert who analysed voting patterns in December’s election. His diagram of the turnout (shown below), is similar to the presidential votes obtained by Putin’s party.

If the election had been democratic, and voting conducted without outside interference, there would have been an approximately equal number of polling stations reporting turnouts above and below the average and the decline of the curve after the average turnout would mirror the growth of the curve before the average (the dotted line reflects this). What actually happened though was that a highly unusual voter behavior was recorded. It turns out that over 1,200 polling stations reported turnouts of 100%. And the down curve peaked at 70%, 80%, 85%, 90% and 95%. This corresponds to claims made that local voting officials are instructed to ensure turnouts and votes in ‘round figures’. If this is true, then Putin’s United Russia party received 13% less votes than actually claimed in December and would not have a constitutional (two thirds) majority of seats in the parliament.


There is every reason to believe the rigging last December was repeated last weekend. The BBC conducted a ‘Vox Pop’ at one of Moscow’s railway stations. Of 8 voters, only 1 said he would vote for Medvedev and 2 said they would not vote, in protest at the election farce. In spite of such evidence, BBC correspondents continue to call Putin (“very popular”). On the website of an election monitoring organization (now the only non government organization of that type left in Russia), hundreds of infringements were reported. One observer in Moscow claimed that he managed to see into the ballot boxes before the start of polling and saw a neat pile of ballots filled in for Medvedev. He managed to photograph this and, for a while, his photo was on the web site. Other sites carry images of instructions written by factory directors instructing managers to ensure that all staff vote and in what order.

As if this was not enough, the Kremlin conducted the entire election campaign strictly under their control. Only four candidates were registered. Apart from Medvedev, the ultra-nationalist clown, Zhirinovskii, a stooge “democrat”, Bogdanov, and the eternally inept communist, Zyuganov, were allowed to participate.

Zhirinovskii participated in elections since 1990, and in 1993 his party gained 23% of the votes, shocking the world. Nevertheless, Zhirinovskii has always voted for the Kremlin’s initiatives in parliament and there is not a serious analyst who would argue that his party is not a pro-Kremlin force. But his participation in elections is useful – his lunatic antics (in one of the TV debates he got up and physically attacked Bogdanov’s representative) attract declassed and desperate voters, who would not otherwise vote for the Kremlin. Zhirinovskii gained 9.3%. The liberal Bogdanov was unknown before the election. Other liberals, such as former premier, Kasyanov, were not registered by the electoral commission. But, somehow, Bogdanov managed to get nearly 2 million signatures to back his nomination. It was later revealed that he had actually been a founding member of Putin’s United Russia party. Bogdanov spent most of his time on TV debates, trying to remind people of his name, defending his role as head of Russia’s freemasons and arguing that Russia should “join NATO, but on condition that the USA was not a member”. Bogdanov managed to accumulate just 1.3% of the vote – less voted for him than apparently signed his nomination papers! Incidentally, even if a genuine pro-Western liberal candidate, such as Kasyanov, had been allowed to run, it is not likely that he would have got many more votes, so great is the hatred of working people and the poor towards the liberals for their wrecking of the economy during the 1990s.

‘Communist opposition’?

Only the ‘communist’ Zyuganov has any claim to be an ‘opposition’ candidate [The ‘Communist Party’ is made up of remnants of the former ruling party in the Stalinist ‘Soviet Union’]. But even that claim is doubtful. Initially, Zyuganov led his supporters to understand that the Communist Party (CP) would not participate in this “electoral farce”, but, as the closing date for nominations approached, he agreed to be nominated, thus giving the whole process at least some credibility. The Kremlin wanted him to stand, so they could show the world that the whole range of ideologies were represented in the election. But if the Kremlin had any fear that Zyuganov would use the campaign to mobilise real opposition, he would have been blocked. Most of the CP policies (which are based on the need to build a strong “Russian state” with some state ownership and control of the economy) were ‘adopted’ and carried out by the Kremlin. As a result, when Zyuganov was not gnashing his teeth every time Bogdanov mentioned his freemasonry (which Zyuganov views as proof of Bogdanov’s participation in a ‘Zionist plot’), Zyuganov’s main argument was that the CP had a wide layer of experienced professionals.

According to the official figures, Zyuganov gained over 17% of the vote (lower than in previous presidential elections but double the CP vote last December). There is significant anecdotal evidence to indicate that liberal and other opposition voters moved behind Zyuganov, as the only candidate remotely representing opposition to the Kremlin.

Medvedev will take over the presidency in May. But even if the official election results are accepted as genuine, Medvedev only managed to gain the support of just under half of eligible Russian electors. Nevertheless, if the election had been completely free and fair, it is still probable that Medvedev would have won more votes than his opponents. Although the majority of Russians, according to opinion polls, still find life difficult and are sceptical that things will dramatically improve, there is no doubt that the economic growth since 2000 (it was 8% in 2007) and relative social stability, compared to the chaos of economic collapse, coups and ethnic conflicts in the nineties, left many people, if not supporting Putin-Medvedev, at least indifferent to whether they remain in power or not in.

Russia experienced a remarkable 8 years of growth, almost exclusively caused by external factors. The 1998 collapse of the rouble, which cut imports and boosted domestic industry, followed by the rise in oil prices from $15 dollars a barrel to today’s $100, provided a huge boost to the economy. In the past couple of years, a large increase in investment, supported by the government’s use of part of the oil windfall, in housing, education and healthcare, further aided growth.

Economic problems ahead

However, the Russian economy is far from sound. Gross Domestic Product only reached 1990 levels in 2006 and the investment currently in the economy is barely dealing with covering continuing decline, without making up for the 15 year period when there was no investment. Surveys indicate that the number of bureaucrats tripled, while corruption has exploded out of all proportions. These two problems act as a huge hole in the Russian economy, soaking up any extra revenues, without leading to any real benefits. As a result, inflation returned with a vengeance, and is threatening to undermine wage increases achieved. Even the continued rise in oil prices is no longer having an effect, as the parallel collapse of the dollar leaves Russia with no more roubles than it had before. Russian leaders are attempting to talk down the danger of the world crisis reaching Russia, but, even leaving aside the oil price, Russian growth in the past couple of years has been driven by exports (mainly of arms and nuclear technology) and by incoming investment. It is inevitable that both these areas of the economy will be affected by the developing world crisis.

It is, therefore, practically inevitable that once again, Russia will move from being an apparent “haven of stability”, as Finance Minister Kudrin called it in Davos, to become a renewed headache for world leaders. Showing incredible naivety, world leaders initially viewed Medvedev as a softer, more user-friendly version of Putin, even calling him ‘liberally-educated’ and ‘pro-western’. But Medvedev’s hawkish comments on the expulsion of the British Council from Russia, and his urgent flight to Serbia to show support to Belgrade after Kosovo’s declaration of ‘independence’, already tempered the West’s views. Medvedev (whose name, after all, means “son of the bear”!) is Putin’s protégé, and is well-prepared, like his guru, to lean on nationalist sentiments to rule. For the time being, Medvedev announced that he is to continue implementing “Putin’s plan”. That means developing a highly centralized, capitalist economy, while, at the same time, strengthening the army and state apparatus.

Putin’s success has been to unite the warring financial and industrial ‘clans’ within his government. Recent surveys have shown that seven of the nine main clans are represented in the government and government ministers personally control about half of the economy. These clans include the so-called “siloviki” – chiefs of the military and secret police, who have more than adequately integrated themselves into the structures of Russia’s newly-formed capitalism. Putin will do everything in his power to ensure this balance will remain. But the inevitable disruption caused by the transfer of power to his protégé, Medvedev, and the still, as yet undecided redistribution of powers between the president and premier, with Putin wielding more power than previous premiers, is, in itself, potentially very destabilizing. If this coincides with a sharp economic crisis, as the world economy suffers, clashes between the clans could soon wipe the smile off the ruling elite’s faces.

As Marxists have always explained, elections are a snapshot of the state of society at a given time, even when they are so blatantly rigged. Coming events could soon make the film far more interesting. The working class has not yet intervened in events decisively since the collapse of Stalinism. Over the last couple of years, however, important strikes have occurred in factories and other workplaces, including at a Ford car plant. Combative, independent unions are indispensable for the working class to successfully resist bosses’ attacks and to win better wages and conditions. Likewise, social movements, pensioners, students and community organizations need their own independent organizations and fighting policies.

The real missing opposition in the presidential elections was a genuine voice of the working class. A socialist party with mass support from working people – a real opposition to the pro-capitalist policies of Medvedev/Putin and the ruling clans – will increasingly come onto the agenda over the next few years.

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March 2008