The Kremlin’s Stooges
Putin is reshaping Russia’s electoral system almost to his liking ADOCUMENTARY video has just gone viral in Russia. A man and a woman — he a political activist, she a radio reporter — videotaped themselves entering an auditorium they say is located in Moscow’s State University of Transportation. It is a weekend day during winter break, and the room is full. About 50 young people — presumably students at the university, though this is never made clear — are seated at desks, with stacks of papers in front of them. Hundreds of completed forms sit on a long desk at the front of the auditorium.
During the nearly seven minutes that the recording lasts, the man and woman keep asking: “What are you doing?” They never get an answer and in the end are forcibly removed from the premises.
What the students appear to be doing, as the man who made the video suggests at the beginning of the footage, is “drawing up signatures” — copying from a database the personal information of thousands of people and forging their signatures — to get a man named Dmitry Mezentsev on the ballot for the March 4 presidential election. This procedure has become an integral part of what passes for the election process under Vladimir Putin.
Becoming a candidate for president in Russia involves two steps: a candidate has to register his intention to get on the ballot and then he has to collect enough signatures to secure a spot. In January 2003, a year before facing his second election, then-president Putin changed the election law, doubling the number of signatures necessary (from one million to two million) and cutting by more than half the amount of time a candidate has to collect them (from 75 to 35 days). Half of the period during which the signatures are to be gathered falls during Russia’s traditional New Year’s and Orthodox Christmas hiatus, when businesses are closed and people go into hibernation. In a further restriction, no more than 50,000 signatures can come from any one of Russia’s 83 regions.
Every signatory has to put down his or her complete identity information: full legal name, permanent address, internal-ID number and issuing details.
The slightest error can invalidate a form: the Central Election Commission has been known to throw out an entire sign-up sheet with a dozen signatures because one person wrote “St.
Petersburg” instead of “Saint Petersburg.” If more than 5 percent of the signatures checked at random by the commission are deemed invalid, the prospective candidate is denied registration.
In other words, the system is so restrictive that virtually the only way to get on the ballot is to “draw up signatures,” as the young people in the video appear to be doing, and have them rubber- stamped by election officials.
Dmitry Mezentsev, the appointed governor of Irkutsk, should have no problems: He is a long-time friend of Putin’s; they worked together in the St.
Petersburg city administration in 1990- 1996 and then moved to Moscow at the same time.
If preparations for the presidential election continue this way, come March, all the names on the ballot will have been approved by Putin; even his opponents will be Kremlin stooges.
Putin’s current strategy seems to be to spread the liberal vote as thinly as possible — some for Mezentsev, some for the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, some for the social democrat Grigory Yavlinsky — so that he can face the Communist old-timer Gennady Zyuganov in the run-off. The Kremlin MASHA GESSEN | IHT-NYT SYNDICATE assumes that Putin will then easily crush Zyuganov because liberals will be unable to bring themselves to vote for a Communist.
The protest movement that has shaken Russia in the last month-and-a-half was touched off by rigging in the parliamentary election in December. “We want honest elections” is its battle cry, and a peaceful transition of power following the March presidential election is its hope. But as the country enters its brief presidential election season, one thing is clear: You cannot out-strategize the Kremlin; it’s been rigging the game for too long. To have any hope of restoring either honesty or faith in the elections, the protest movement will ultimately have to take on Putin himself.
(Masha Gessen is a journalist in Moscow. Her biography of Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face, will be published on March 1.)