A popular Soviet joke once asked when would the first Soviet-style election take place? Answer: When God brought Eve before Adam and said, "Choose your wife." For the Russian presidential election of March 2, 2008, this could be updated to a "democratic" scenario in which Adam's choices also include two monkeys and a blow-up doll.
That the "election" was a fixed game was clear from the start, when Dmitry Medvedev's "nomination" by the dominant United Russia Party and three small pro-government parties served as a façade for his selection as Vladimir Putin's heir. The last fig leaf of legitimacy was tossed aside when former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the only serious candidate of the liberal opposition, was disqualified from running, supposedly due to a high rate of invalid signatures on his petitions.
Adding to the farce, an obscure "liberal" candidate—38-year-old Andrei Bogdanov, a self-styled Freemason and head of the tiny Democratic Party of Russia—did get on the ballot. Widely viewed as a Kremlin puppet, Bogdanov was the blow-up doll to the campaign's two monkeys: "Liberal Democratic Party of Russia" leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose infamous antics include public fisticuffs with other politicians and pledges to help raise the birth rate by personally fathering children around the country, and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Several Medvedev-less televised debates supplied their moments of pseudo-political circus, such as Zhirinovsky verbally abusing Bogdanov spokesman Nikolai Gotsa, then punching him on their way off the set and telling a bodyguard to "take him outside and shoot him." The Medvedev campaign, meanwhile, consisted of aggressive, often coercive efforts to boost voter turnout. (Eventually, official reports put turnout at 67 percent, with Medvedev getting 70 percent of the vote.)
A number of pundits, both in Russia and in the West, have argued that the rigged vote was still a genuine and rational people's choice—a choice to continue the Putin course that brought stability and relative prosperity to the country. That the choice was "genuine," if influenced by pervasive misinformation, is probably true. "Rational" is another matter. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Stanford University professors Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss argue convincingly that Putinite authoritarianism held Russia back economically at a time of oil windfalls, and that crime and corruption have actually worsened in the "stable" Putin years.
But will Putin's course really continue? Will Putin, the future Prime Minister, remain the Kremlin's puppet master, or will the mild-mannered Medvedev come into his own and toss his former friends overboard? Could he usher in a new liberalization? On these questions, the real outcome of the "election" is far from clear.
While most of Russia's embattled liberals cautioned against waiting for the "good czar," some pointed to possible signs of a "thaw"—such as reports that Nashi, the thuggish Putin-worshiping youth group, was being disbanded. (The daily newspaper Kommersant quoted a Kremlin insider as saying that the government no longer needed "foot-stomping mobs.")
Opinion was divided on the pro-government side as well. In early February, political analyst and former Putin administration staffer Vitaly Ivanov published a virulent column in the centrist business daily Vzglyad.ru jeering liberal hopes for a "second wind" and the idea that Putin could have picked a liberal successor. This was followed by a sharp retort from Vzglyad managing editor Yuri Girenko, who castigated both the radical opposition and diehard authoritarians for their "rejection of evolution." Ironically, a few liberal commentators saw Ivanov's shrill tirade as grounds for optimism—a hysterical outburst showing that the hardliners were getting nervous at the prospect of Medvedev moving in a liberal direction.
In a similar vein, Putin's macho swagger at his much-publicized February 16 press conference—in which he told foreign observers critical of Russia's elections to "teach their wives how to make cabbage soup" and suggested that, as prime minister, he would not hang a portrait of President Medvedev in his office—was interpreted by some as a sign of weakness rather than strength. In a caustic essay on EJ.ru, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky depicted Putin as a lame duck lashing out angrily as the realization of his looming political impotence descends upon him. Wishful thinking or astute insight? In today's Russian political scene, it's often hard to tell the two apart.
For now, as the post-election days have made clear, Russia remains in a semi-authoritarian limbo in which every sign of freedom's survival is countered by evidence of steady and perhaps growing repression.
In the pro-government Izvestia, officious reports on the remarkable success of the election as an expression of the popular will coexisted with a scathing March 6 column by Dmitry Sokolov-Mitrich, who dismissed triumphalist rhetoric about the gains of the Putin-Medvedev era as a tissue of lies, "widening the gap of alienation between the government and the people" and leading Russia back into a Soviet-style dead-end. The paper's website, Izvestia.ru, also hosted a heretical video made for a student comedy festival, satirizing the election: a clip from the 1971 Soviet comedy Kidnapping, Caucasian Style, redubbed into a short in which a geeky "Medvedev" is invited to participate in a "pretend election" against three buffoonish rivals, but is chagrined to learn that Putin will become prime minister because "he just loves to be in the driver's seat."
Meanwhile, the day after the election also saw the return of Nashi, who held a couple of boisterous rallies in Moscow —perhaps, some Russian commentators speculated, as a message to Medvedev from their hard-line sponsors. Street action by the opposition fared far worse. The anti-Putin "Other Russia" coalition was initially denied permits to hold demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg on March 3, on the grounds that the requested locations were not available. In violation of the law, the authorities did not suggest alternate locations. Finally, the city government in St. Petersburg relented and offered another route, with less visibility and access. In Moscow, about 50 dissenters defied the ban and tried to hold a protest, resulting in the now common arrests and beatings by the riot police. In St. Petersburg, the march took place without incident, but it coincided with the launch of a blatantly political case against a leading opposition activist, Maksim Reznik, chair of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Yabloko party.
In the early morning hours of March 3, Reznik was arrested outside the party's offices for "attacking a police officer" in a scuffle that was almost certainly a staged provocation. At the prosecutors' request, and without interviewing witnesses, the judge agreed to hold Reznik in pretrial detention for two months. In an especially troubling development, Reznik's participation in protest marches was cited by a prosecutor as proof of a "pattern of illegal behavior" and "a negative reflection on his character." Reznik remains in jail, and while some protests on his behalf have been allowed to proceed peacefully, others have ended in police provocations and arrests. In another transparently political case, Kasyanov's campaign workers around the country are harassed by the police and threatened with prosecution for "forging signatures."
This isn't an auspicious opening to the Medvedev—or "Putvedev"—era. The next "thaw" may yet be a few seasons away.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is the author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality and Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.