The Russian Elections
By Iain Elliot, May 2000
Observing the Russian elections
A certain understandable cynicism is expressed regarding foreign observers at the Russian elections, especially by the Russians themselves. For instance, in Novya Gazeta (No. 13, 3-9 April) there is a page-long article by Boris Kagarlitsky, in which he claims that once again, in the Presidential elections of 26 March, foreign observers had the wool pulled over their eyes: "Even the fact that three out of the four leading candidates publicly accused the authorities of falsifying the results as early as the night after polling does not arouse the slightest interest among western experts on free elections. The foreign observers declared that everything was exceptionally honest and correct".
He says that we just come along and have a look at the actual polling on election day, check that the ballot boxes are correctly placed, that there are curtains hanging over all the booths, and, if the curtains are there, and if ink pens are laid out rather than pencils, well that is all right then, we go back and say that the elections were free and fair. But also he points out that the flood of voters which has officially been claimed for the final hour of voting is physically impossible: there would be vast queues into the streets. I think he exaggerates, but there is certainly some truth in his comments. Critics maintain that foreign observers miss the most important parts, the campaign before the poll, and the count afterwards, because they have to rush back to Moscow in time for the press conferences. If you are a long way from Moscow - and in the Russian Federation you can be nine time zones from the centre - you normally have to travel overnight to be back in time for the de-briefing and press conference.
In the December 1993 elections I was in Vladivostok, seven hours on from Moscow time, with temperatures below minus 15 degress centigrade and piercing off-sea winds. But the worst threat was the repeated invitations to drink vodka with the local electoral commissions - even early in the morning. A major factor was the clash between the mayor and the regional governor. The main local newspapr was threatened with closure for taking the wrong political line. In December 1995 I was asked to accompany the head of the British delegation, Baroness Rawlins, and therefore stayed in Moscow. When we appeared before eight a.m. at a local polling station to check that all the boxes were properly sealed and so on, I noticed that the chairman of the electoral commission had the beginnings of a gum-boil. We popped back at different times during the day because we had decided that we would see the count through in this particular polling station. As the count, which incidentally was very badly organised, proceeded, the gum boil got bigger and bigger.
Then in summer 1996, which was a presidential election, I was asked to be the head of delegation mhyself, since we were unable at short notice to find anyone more distinguished. This had the advantage that I again stayed in Moscow in comfort rather than going off to somewhere remote like Vladivostok. Although Yeltsin was clearly the preferred candidate of the majority of Russians, international observers were very concerned that he seemed to have spent much more than permitted on his electoral campaign, and there was a clear bias in his favour in the mass media.
In December 1999, we organised a delegation from Britain together with the OSCE. It was the OSCE role to coordinate all the national delegations rather than having the national delegations decide for themselves where they were going to go, causing wasteful overlap. I was allowed to indicate my preference, however, and I thought I would go to Kazan, because I was told by some friends that Tatarstan was one of the places likely to be subject to violations of electoral procedures. The president of this national autonomous republic, Mintimer Shaimiev, was reputed to have a very skilful way of ensuring that the candidates he wanted would actually win. As it turned out, that was indeed the case. He was linked with the "Fatherland - All Russia" party of Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and Yevgeny Primakov, the former Prime Minister. While the country as a whole did not vote strongly for that particular party, which was subjected to flagrant attacks on public television, in Tatarstan, not surprisingly, the official returns showed that some 41 per cent voted for that party (as compared with 13.33% for the whole Federation). It was indeed fascinating, not just as a political tourist having the chance to see Kazan, but actually to see how the local manipulation worked. I was particularly interested in what happened on the national front, which I would like to come back to in a moment.
This last election, I have to confess, was the easiest election that I have had so far, since I was not in fact in Russia on election Sunday, 26 March. Down in Brighton I have a satellite dish which allows me to watch ORT, the RUssian public television, and I can get the newspapers from Russia.
Do you know who is going to get the Finance portfolio?
The answer is no. Mikhail Kasyanov is going to have a say in who is appointed to that. Actually it seems to me there are quite a good range of possibilities, which is not the case for some of the posts, where you wonder who on earth is qualified and who can take over. I think there are some quite good possibilities. Pragmatics is going to play a large part. The President is not installed until May 8, and then he has to nominate the Prime Minister to the Duma. Russians celebrate Victory Day on May 9, and then they have hangovers on May 10. I think the Prime Minister will be appointed fairly quickly. Kasyanov is getting fairly positive coverage even in media which is fairly negative towards Putin, so I think he is pretty confident that he is going to get the nomination. As for the Duma, there is a kind of deal being done between the Putin party and the Communists, which should give Putin the support he needs for his candidates. Then we should know exactly who is going to be in the Cabinet.