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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Why Should Putin Cheat

The great paradox of the current situation in Russia is that Vladimir Putin's rating in the opinion polls declines as the accusations increase that he had arranged a massive manipulation of last year's parliamentary election and the recent presidential election. More and more evidence has been presented, some describe the most blatant vote stuffing, impersonation and non-identification of voters. Despite immense publicity, videocameras in polling stations, and the emergence of an army of 'observers' equipped with up-to-the-minute ICT, examples of the most idiotic visible breaches of the simple rules for the conduct of polling stations were reported in the presidential poll.

The great question in the western media has been; how stupid is this man? How arogant is he? Certainly his self-publicity shows a degree of hubris and of contempt for intellectual opponents. He and his cohorts do not seem to have recognised the profundity of the change in the Russian intelligentsia that has been facilitated by contemporary technology. Classically the Russian intellectual isolated himself in an unheated garret, with insufficient food, while he produced elaborate prose about issues that were imprecisely defined. His contemporary successor thrives in crowds and thinks in the cloud, the blogosphere. The new intellectual feels strength in numbers and reassurance in white ribbons - coincidentally the colour of the old regime's hopeless fightback against the Bolshevik revolution..

I reckon that the explanation for the 'cheating' by Putin's cohorts is much more simple. There is no sense of 'civil service' in Russia. People randomly survived - often well - as servants of the party, when the state was subordinate to the party. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the effectual evanescence of the Communist Party. The military stayed in being, and so did the security services: the notorious KGB. Putin was quite a minor officer in that immense service but as all institutions collapsed those who had been verified insiders were accepted by an informal network as 'one of us'. Ex-KGB officers will not welcome the analogy [though most of them are bright enough to accept it] that the reputed ODESSA network that spirited SS personnel out of Europe in the later nineteen forties was replicated - without attribution - by the KGB after 1990. Such a network brought Putin to the Presidency, as Yeltsin collapsed into alcoholic incoherence.
 Thereafter, all those officials across the whole of that vast country who had lost their directive from a 'centre' still knew very well how to ensure that 'advice' from Moscow were implemented at the local level. They enthusiastically supported Putin in a notionally-contested election, using the methods that had been routine in the Brezhnev era. They have simply carried on doing what had been done for more than half a century. They don't need to be told to stuff ballot boxes: they would find it strange to be told not so to do. The new city-slicker tactic of  bussing selected voters from polling station to polling station is new, a product of affluence [and an indication that the regime is slightly fazed by democracy] that was easily spotted by dissidents toting mobile-phone cameras.

It would probably have been impossible for Putin to make all the officials who were responsible for the conduct of elections behave as if they were the Town Clerk of Walmington-on-Sea, who was pompously obsessed to serve democracy without partiality.  Putin probably welcomed the assurance of winning successive elections that the soviet tradition gave to him in thousands of polling stations, but it is more likely than not that he did not ask for it. Plenty of crass examples of ballot-rigging have been collected by the opposition, but I would be astonished there was any trail of evidence that took the inauguration of such gerrymandering back to Putin personally, or to his immediate circle. When a country has been corrupted utterly for more than half a century, as was the USSR,  officials learn to guess what 'the Boss' wants and they try under their own steam to make that happen. If they guess wrong: tough. If they guess right, they survive a little longer and just may get a step of promotion. The successor regime has not yet scratched the surface of the embedded bureaucracy: especially those aspects of the system that are gathered together only occasionally, as for elections. It remains to be seen how far the favour that the 'corrupt' election officials did to the president-elect will harm his reputation in the medium term. That may influence the next election; but Putin is there now.

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