As expected, Vladimir Putin won the election for president of Russia. By some estimates, he received 62 percent of the vote. Yet what are we to make of this election? Was it free and open as elections in the West are? Are we witnessing the evolution of a stable, generally democratic polity, the kind of Russia that Putin is said to want?
Indications suggest that serious, deep-seated problems remain before Russia will have that kind of political organization. There are too many people, standing impotently in the face of the “Putin Machine” in Moscow, tired of having this game of musical chairs played. Dmitri Medvedev has been president while Putin was his prime minister. Now, the two will simply change positions. Democracy? Hardly.
If this election was dishonest, how did the corruption occur? Consider the process. When a Russian voter went to the voting station, he was able to vote for whomever he wanted — in stark contrast to Soviet times. There was no stigma — as existed in Soviet times — for those who insisted on voting privately, as the rest of the world does. In Soviet times, voting privately in a booth was considered a sign of disloyalty to the Communist Party and the Soviet regime.
The votes were counted at local voting centers — normally honestly — and they were sent to the next level of the Election Commission. This is where the problems began — though not because individuals feared a trip to the infamous prison camps in Siberia. As far as I can tell, citizens were not reprimanded for not voting for Putin. Indeed, while Russia does not have the openness we enjoy, it is important to emphasize that the Russian media are relatively open and individuals can say what they want. So how does the problem emerge?
The biggest problem is simply that corruption pervades the entire political system. At the Election Commission, all of the ballots are again counted and a report is sent to Moscow. Election officials have to be careful. The number of votes for each candidate must match the number of ballots they possess. If they report 5,000 ballots for Putin but have only 3,000, they could theoretically face serious problems.
Prior to the election, reports circulated of ballots already marked in favor of Putin being taken to several voting stations. The idea was that these votes would be substituted for actual votes cast by voters. Why do election officials corrupt the process? Normally, it is not because they fear repercussions. Rather, it is because elections are just part of the corruption that pervades the system at all levels. Russia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Election officials are dependent on more senior officials for their largesse — money, status, access to schools or jobs, etc. One acts to please the boss because if the boss benefits, benefits would spread to subordinates as well.
Based on media reports, Putin’s supporters went to the point of contriving a plot by Chechens to assassinate Putin. He brushed this plot off as part of the job, while his opponents claimed the plot’s purpose was to generate sympathy for Putin.
I am not certain that even if he wanted to, Putin could make the changes necessary to end the corruption of the voting process. He and Medvedev, especially the latter, have campaigned against corruption throughout their tenure. They are aware that up to 40 percent of the money allocated for modernizing the armed forces is ripped off. It goes to unscrupulous officials, each of whom takes a cut as items are purchased, built or modernized.
Corruption is so ingrained in the Russian culture that it will be almost impossible to stamp out. Not only are government and industry officials involved, but so are the investigative and judicial officials who are supposed to be arresting and prosecuting them.
Yes, Russia is more open than it was in Soviet times; in most areas, it is as free as it was under Boris Yeltsin. But corruption lingers. Eliminating it is a complex and involved process. Back in 1989 as perestroika was at the top of Mikhail Gorbachev’s agenda, a Russian general told me, “You don’t understand the depth of our problem. We are trying to change human nature in Russia We want people who are honest, show initiative and accept responsibility.”
He understood the problem. Unfortunately, Russians haven’t yet been able to overcome it.
Dale R. Herspring, a Distinguished University Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.