My extended thoughts on the Russian elections for the national parliament (Duma) which took place on Sunday, 4 December.

I played a modest part in the proceedings as an official international observer accredited to the elections under the auspices of the International Institute for Integration Studies, a Moscow-based grouping close to senior circles of power in Russia. The Institute supports various public conferences around the world, including the strange one I attended in Belgrade in June. Full disclosure note: I was offered (and accepted) a fee for observing these Russian elections, but it was agreed that I was under no obligation to say anything other than what I thought about the elections or about developments in Russia in general.

Other groups of official international observers were also criss-crossing Russia as elections day approached and on the day itself. The OSCE delivered what looked like the largest observer effort, not least ‘long-term observers’ tasked with looking at the elections in the context of the wider Russian political process. The OSCE’s provisional findings include a number of very critical observations on these elections, but also give credit where credit was due in a number of significant respects.

Anyway, I arrived in Moscow on the evening of 1 December to join a dinner with other IIIS group observers, namely some Serbs and Italians. The Serbs were all at the ‘patriotic’ end of the political spectrum in Belgrade and included the Radical Party’s Dragan Todorovic who had started spluttering uncontrollably during my presentation in Belgrade in June. One of the other guests was Borislav Milosevic, brother of Slobodan, who had served as Belgrade’s ambassador in Moscow after the NATO bombing of Serbia. I did my very best to explain to him the private frustrations of Western leaders and diplomats in dealing with his late brother.

The next day we had briefings about the elections process from the Russian Senate and National Elections Commission and I gave an interview to SKY TV before we set off on our various journeys to watch actual voting. I was relatively lucky (or so I thought) by being sent to Nizhny Novgorod, 400 km east of Moscow. Some of the Serbs had to go to Vladivostok.

IIIS deliver senior access. In Nizhny Novgorod I was given excellent personal briefings by the Deputy Governor and the head of the local elections commission, who showed me one of the new electronic counting machines being used in a number of polling stations across the country.

I then headed for my first polling station. Mistake! I slipped on the ice and wrecked my ankle. I was taken to the nearby basic but efficient wrecked ankle clinic doing its usual brisk business on a Sunday afternoon in Russian winter. An x-ray revealed no breakage of bone, but I had seriously damaged everything else.

The result of this fiasco was that I visited only one polling station, not long before it was due to close. It was run by cheery no-nonsense Russian women. The different parties taking part in the elections had their representatives there – almost all women (Russian men have better things to do on a Sunday afternoon). The party representatives reported no problems. I was intrigued to see arrangements for small portable ballot boxes to be taken to any voter unable to visit the polling station; party representatives were entitled to accompany the ballot boxes during such manoeuvres. It all looked very normal.

After a painful overnight train journey back to Moscow, I attended a desultory press conference at which a smug Bulgarian observer proclaimed that the elections as a whole had been more than free and fair. It was not made clear on whose behalf he was making this bold assertion: his statement was brought round for other observers to sign, and I of course did not sign it. I then departed for home, enjoying a forlorn ride by wheelchair from the aircraft at Heathrow through Terminal 5 to spare my sorry foot.

* * * * *

So much for the little I saw of the elections themselves. Wider considerations?

International election observers have to try to do three things. They need to look at the rules-in-themselves to see whether they make sense and are reasonable and comprehensive. They need to look at how the rules are then applied to real life: are the procedures on paper being properly followed and interpreted? Finally, they need to look at the process as a whole and to see where it fits into the country’s political life.

It cannot be said often enough. Russia is an unfathomably huge country with unique issues of command and control (and associated attitudes to governance) going back many centuries. Until the collapse of communism in 1991 there was no tradition of representative democracy. Setting up democratic institutions and practices (and, most important) creating democratic instincts had to be slow.

The arrangements laid down by Russia’s law for conducting elections are technically impressive, albeit detailed to the point of obsession. Russian procedures are better than ours here in the UK in at least three respects:

  • Votes are counted in the polling station concerned immediately after the polls close, in the presence of party and other observers (ballot boxes are not moved to central counting points with the risk of mischief en route)
  • No ID, no vote
  • No postal voting

Moreover, there are streamlined and well monitored arrangements for getting the election results sent fast to Moscow for central compilation. Amidst the complaints about Russia’s elections, you don’t hear the argument that the counting of the votes as cast has not been fair and accurate

Remember (again!) the sheer scale of the voting process. Russia has 96,000 polling stations catering for nearly 110,000,000 voters. People are voting for national-level politicians, with totals for individual parties simply added together to get a final total (on one way of looking at it a much simpler and fairer system than they have in eg the USA). The Law of Big Numbers kicks in. Cheating on a scale that makes a significant difference has to be massive – and obvious.

So what’s the problem?

First, there inevitably are a large number of electoral violations of different shapes and sizes. When I wrote my book review for the LSE on Electronic Voting, I was struck at how we all take for granted the procedural complexity of voting. The following (and many more) are all essential:

  • voters lists compiled and kept up-to-date
  • secret voting
  • ballot boxes sealed throughout the process
  • accurate ballot papers printed and distributed under controlled conditions
  • identification for voters
  • meticulous and transparent counting, to make sure that all votes are counted and only votes properly cast have been counted
  • procedures for disputes as to what a messy mark on a given ballot paper might mean
  • arrangements for recording the final outcome and storing all ballot papers securely in case of future legal challenges.

At literally every stage of the process in any country there is scope for human error and/or deliberate mischief. Ruling out both 100% is impossible.

Thus we need to be careful in agreeing with those who allege “massive violations “of electoral procedures in Russia or anywhere else. If every polling station in Russia has only one complaint about some or other procedural violation, there will be 96,000 complaints! Massive violations! Yet many of those complaints (including two we heard: one party doing some campaigning on the “day of silence” before the elections and not printing its name on election materials) will have been trivial in themselves and quite irrelevant to the final outcome.

Some violations are deliberate and (as far as local conditions allow) systematic. One frequent claim again in Russia is that ‘captive’ voters in mental illness institutions and the Army were lent on hard to vote for the Putin party. Unofficial crowd-sourced election monitors Golos have put on the Web all sorts of other examples, some filmed as they happened.

Complicated official arrangements such as running a nationwide election work in good part because they are transparent. Yes, in formal terms Russia does all it needs to do to host international and political party observers. But this time round the blatant official and unofficial pressure put on Golos (including denial of service website attacks and the usual insinuations that foreign support for such organisations was illegitimate or sinister) created a very bad impression.

More generally the post-Communist ruling establishment in Russia has changed the law to make it harder for new political parties to make a breakthrough. (Note: UKIP has views on the subject here in the UK.) Smaller parties are not allowed to form a single voting bloc. The rules for forming a national party able to contest national elections are excessively strict and not easy to meet. An earlier, excellent option of including on the ballot paper a vote for “none of the above” has been withdrawn. And so on.

Add to all this the violence suffered by some journalists who try to expose official corruption, unrelenting pro-Putin media coverage and the way far too many Russian media outlets condemn or marginalise any liberal views, and you get the sort of outcome which the OSCE fairly criticises.


Just look at the results. Four parties have made it into the national parliament, after roughly half the Russian population voted:

  • The Putin/Medvedev partyUnited Russia.
  • The retreadCommunists who still rant on about Marxist-Leninism (now with added Patriotism)
  • The erratic pro-EstablishmentLiberal Democrat populists led by Zhirinovsky, whom we fondly remember on a Russian train taking pot-shots at voters’ pets with a hunting rifle.
  • And A Just Russia, a relatively new party claiming to be social democrats which has proposed an alliance with the Communists

Parties representing a more liberal policy-set involving reduced state control and better human rights either did not get into the race or (as in the case of Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party) failed dismally once again. A new supposedly centre-right party Right Cause won only 400,000 votes.

Western commentators and some in Russia are claiming these election results show rising dissatisfaction with the performance of Vladimir Putin. They might even be right. But that dissatisfaction is rising from a low and apathetic base, and insofar as it translates into changed voting it boosts tendencies which are even worse. Compared with the other three national/socialist parties which crossed the threshold to enter the Duma, Putin’s party look almost normal. Putin remains the favourite to be voted back in as Russia’s president in the forthcoming elections next March.

In short, the legacy of Soviet communism lives on powerfully in Russia. Lenin still moulders in red Square. Nizhny Novgorod railway station welcomes you with a vast Communist mosaic. Former KGB-type people have prospered since Communism ended, and use their power and wealth to frame things in their favour.

Under current management Russia is getting steadily more prosperous and steadily more pluralistic, albeit in a specific Russian way. Russians en masse have a (for us) startling capacity for putting up with hardships, including overbearing and neurotic state power. They are not bothered by their leaders sneering at foreigners or homosexuals or liberal attitudes. They do want to see progress and get richer, and they hate corruption and get-rich-quick types. But it takes a lot to rouse them to take a stand against the existing “system “.

Are things changing, with young urban people in particular demanding wider changes? If so, does it matter?

Maybe. After the elections the head of the National Elections Commission proclaimed that evidence of electoral malpractice produced by Golos would not be investigated unless it was backed by ‘official’ complaints. This cynical view reflects a ruling Russian mindset going back centuries, namely that only ‘official’ procedures count.

Yet in Russia as in so many other countries the mass of people are getting more powerful vis-a-vis the state. Perhaps the main story of these elections is the way many Russians are now using cheap mobile technology to follow and record what is happening across their vast country – and Vladimir Putin’s so far uncertain response