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Dilemmas of the Russian Voter

posted 1 Dec 2011, 12:19 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Dec 2011, 01:47 ]
The Russian parliamentary elections on 4th December have put Russian voters in a difficult situation. Aware of the fact that many parties have not even been allowed to register for the elections, and certain that to some extent or other vote-rigging will take place, what can those who oppose the ruling United Russia party and the illegitimate elections do? The debate has been going on in Russia for months. Broadly speaking, there are three main points of view on what to do: 

1) Voting for any party other than United Russia (this is the option favoured by Alexey Navalny, who dubbed United Russia the "party of crooks and thieves ").

2) Putting a cross against all parties and thus rendering the ballot paper invalid (this is the tactic recommended by Boris Nemtsov and the "Nakh-Nakh" movement, among others).

3) Protesting against the elections by ignoring the polling stations altogether and rallying in the streets instead (this is supported by Edouard Limonov and Vladimir Bukovsky).

Rights in Russia decided to ask members of our international advisory committee, journalists writing on Russia and other westerners concerned about the situation in the country: What would you do if you were eligible to vote in the Russian elections on 4 December and why? We are publishing some of their answers below: 

Martin Dewhirst
, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK, a member of Rights in Russia's international advisory committee.

If I was a citizen of the RF I would definitely vote on Sunday, despite knowing that the 'election' would be far from free and fair. More importantly, I would already have been observing the pre-'election' process and informing the excellent 'Golos' organisation of any violations of the rules and regulations that I had noticed. The run-up to polling day is in some ways more important than what happens on the day itself. ('Golos' seems to have got the Russian neo-Soviet political Establishment really rattled. Its name is etymologically connected to 'glasnost'', not entirely adequately translated as 'transparency'. The present Moscow White House and Kremlin seem to be less tolerant of 'glasnost'' than the Gorbachev faction of the CPSU was in the late 1980s.) What to me is really important is the overall trend or tendency. Are the 2011 'elections' more free and fair or less free and fair than the corresponding 'elections' in 2007, 2003 and 1999? I would be trying to answer that question in my area and discussing it with friends and colleagues elsewhere in the RF.

Why would I vote (as well as observe) on Sunday, being sure that the results would be manipulated at a higher level, if not at any 'observable' levels? Because I think that for all their faults 'elections' even under the wretched Putin regime are at least somewhat more like real elections than 'elections' were in Soviet Russia from 1918 until the late 1980s. I have been an official observer (for the OSCE/ODIHR) of a dozen elections and 'elections' in the former USSR, and on many occasions I have been really moved by how seriously (often in contrast to the situation in my country, where elections are taken for granted by most people, and a huge proportion of the electorate doesn't bother to vote) the opportunity is taken to express one's preference, if one so desires, for a party other than the one in power. At least afterwards such people can tell their friends and family that they at least tried to improve the political situation in their country, however minimal the chances of success. And on this occasion, the more votes there are for parties other than United Russia just might increase the chances of forcing the regime to tolerate the development of a stronger, more active and more tolerant independent society.

Personally, I always prefer to be proactive and positive rather than purely negative, and so I vote for a person or a party rather than against certain people and certain parties. So, if I could, I would vote for Yabloko, if only as the least bad choice. 

Oliver Carrol
, Editor, open Democracy Russia 

I think, in the current circumstances, both Navalny's and Nemtsov's suggestions seem appropriate courses of action. Neither is a failproof way of registering dissatisfaction with the system, but complete disengagement with political process, such as suggested by Limonov, is a much more dangerous road to go down. A fixed and corrupt electoral process is, in my opinion, better than no process at all. 

Robert van Voren, Chief Executive of the Global Initiative on Psychiatry 

I would go for option 1, because I think by not participating in the vote you make your point only once, and then have no chance for the next years. Better make sure there is a strong opposition within the Duma and then pressure the government as much as possible and on every occasion. 

Jens Siegert
, director of the Moscow office of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a foundation closely linked to the German Green Party, 
a member of Rights in Russia's international advisory committee.

As this is a poll, my answer may not suit you, because I would not choose one of these three alternatives, but vote for the Yabloko party. And please do not count this answer to Navalny's proposition to vote for any party than United Russia. This is not the same, though many observers think so. 

Edward Lucas
, Editor, International section, The Economist, author of “The New Cold War,” Bloomsbury 2008 

I would spoil my ballot (option two) and also demonstrate (option three). I would spoil the ballot paper because none of the parties are real parties and the election is not a real election. Voting for a phoney party (which they all are) legitimises the electoral process. Spoiling the ballot is an unambiguous expression of dissent. I would demonstrate because a physical protest on the street, with all the risks that entails, is at least potentially the biggest threat to the regime. They can fake elections but they cannot make large numbers of people invisible. Sadly we have only small numbers at the moment but you have to start somewhere. 

Jamison Firestone
, Managing Partner of Firestone Duncan, a law firm which employed Sergey Magnitsky. 

I would chose option 1 and probably combine it with 3. I would choose 1 because with option 2 you can say that of X percent votes, Y percent voted for United Russia and the United Russia percentage will not be drastically effected. By reducing X, the people who vote, all you do is make it look like Russians are just disgusted with everyone and that is not all that dangerous for United Russia. If on the other hand people don't throw their vote away but give it to anyone other than United Russia, Y, the percentage of people who voted for the Party of Crooks and Thieves becomes a smaller percentage of X, the total number of people who voted, and it becomes clear that what people are really disgusted with is United Russia. This is something that the government would not be able to spin and it would scare the shit out of them. 

Mary McCauley, is an Associate of the International Centre for Prison Studies, a member of Rights in Russia's international advisory committee.

I would vote (with a heavy heart) for Yabloko, not because of Navalny but because Nakh-nakh won’t work, and Yabloko is the best of the bunch. 

Luke Harding
, journalist, former Guardian correspondent in Russia, author of “Mafia State”, Guardian Books, 2011 

I'm not sure I should be commenting on how Russians should vote in next week's "election", since I'm not Russian. BUT I think it's an individual matter of conscience and that all three options are valid ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the current status quo and the total absence of meaningful democracy in today's Russia. None of the three methods are likely to be very effective, given the certain use of "administrative resources" to fix the vote in United Russia's favour, even though the party has now completely lost the trust of most Russians. This is the first depressing moment in Russia's election season. The next comes on March 4, when Putin is "re-elected" as president.

Acknowledgement for photos to: HRO.orgOliver CarrolJamiston FirestoneEduard LucasRobert van Voren.