Poster: “March 18, 2018. Russian Presidential Election. Russian Central Election Commission.” || Graffiti: “This is not an election.” Dixie grocery store, Central District, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
After the Fight
I wrote so often about the election or, rather, the non-election, that it is time to sum up.
I admit I had hoped for a qualitative decrease in turnout, but it is true we did not manage to achieve this.
Of course, the feverish ideas (I heard them voiced more than once, alas) that if it were not for the boycott, the “forces of good” either would have returned a mystical 10% of the vote tally (whatever for?) or made it into the second round (yes, yes, I read such claims with my own eyes) have nothing to do with reality. The fact the turnout was a few percentage points less, and Putin got a few percentage points more, makes no difference at all to anyone.
Nevertheless, I continue to regard the boycott as the right choice. Here is the reason for my stubbornness.
It is self-evident the election—not the day of March 18, but the process—was god knows what, only it was not an election.
Accordingly, the feeling of disgust kept many people from voting. Disgust is a worthy emotion. But that is not my point here.
In so-called normal countries, candidates and parties fight over half a percentage point, and a threepercent difference is deemed a crushing victory or crushing defeat. In our archaic autocracy, the regime and the populace communicate with each other in a language of symbols. As soon as it transpired the Kremlin was planning to fight for a 70% turnout and 70% of the total vote tally, I immediately realized the Kremlin wanted fifty percent of all possible voters, plus or minus one percent, to come out and vote for Putin and—voilà!—a 65% turnout and a 75% share of votes cast is exactly 50% of all potential voters. Meaning the Kremlin’s statement was purely symbolic and qualitative. Qualitative, symbolic collective action was, likewise, the only possible counterargument. It largely did not come off, but there were no other gestures of resistance except the boycott. The attempt to talk back to the regime quantitatively—for example, Yabloko’s responding to the argument “we have half of all voters” with the rejoinder “but we have 10% of everyone who voted” (i.e., “you have 50%, but we have a whole 5%”)—was ridiculous. Now, if it had been possible to counter the claim “we are robustly supported by half of the populace” with the countargument “ha-ha, you have the support of no more than a third of the populace,” but, alas, it proved impossible.
It is clear the numerous violations, committed here and there by zealots who were not thinking straight, generated a certain stench on election day, but I don’t imagine they had a serious impact on the outcome. It was the outcome that sincerely floored me.
The issue of voter turnout, so hysterically raised by the regime, had nothing to do with a fear of Navalny and the boycott, but with the fact that in the absence of real suspense and real rivals, Russians would be reluctant to go out and vote for Putin, who would be elected anyway. After Navalny was not allowed to run, it was impossible to generate any suspense, so the regime combined the carrot and the stick. Russians were driven and dragged to polling stations by the gazillions.
I would like to make a slight digression. First of all, you can make people who are subordinate and dependent—state employees and employees of state corporations—vote by forcing them or threatening them. The state’s share in the economy has been growing continuously: in 2005, the state controlled 35% of the Russian economy, while it now controls around 70%. That means the numbers of dependent Russians have also been growing.
The Kremlin felt it was vital to drag lazy Russians to the polls whatever the cost. As for voting as they should, they would do that all on their lonesome. The Kremlin knew they would do it, but I didn’t. I thought more or less that people would feel their weekend had been ruined. They had been forced to go somewhere and then forced to report back to their superiors. How swinish! So these people would do something spiteful: vote for Grudinin, vote for Sobchak, vote for Yavlinsky, vote for a four-letter word.
No, since they were dragged all the way to the polling stations anyway, enticed with carrots and prodded with sticks, they voted for Putin.
This is an important albeit gloomy outcome. It means the regime relies on a not terribly active but quite considerable majority. It means the regime can do whatever it likes with whomever it likes, and will be able to do so for a long time to come. Previously, it could do a lot of things, but not everything. Now, however, it can do anything. Strictly speaking, things have been this way for several years, but now it has been proven in a large-scale, expensive experiment. It is like in the Arabian tales: destroy a city, build a palace, jail a director, close a university, etc., just for the heck of it, just for the fun of it. This does not mean the regime will immediately start throwing its bulks around in all directions, but it can. A clear awareness of this circumstance should make us feel bleak.
Translated by the Russian Reader