Translation: Evgeny Minchenko – Seven Myths About The Russian Elections

Really now?

Apart from direct falsifications, which were extensively discussed here, the other really big criticism of the Russian elections process is that it isn’t a level playing field. As said by an OSCE bureaucrat, “The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia.”

Well wait a second. First, uncertainty isn’t the point of an election at all; otherwise, why not make it into a lottery? It’s to get the person who most represents the people into power. Second, there is no country where each candidate gets equal airtime, ad money, debating invites, etc. Cases in point: Ron Paul, Nader, Marine Le Pen, generic Green Parties and Pirate Parties, etc. Perhaps one day we will live in Internet democracies where anyone can nominate oneself and debates are won and lost via webcasts on Facebook but for now level playing fields are a fiction everywhere.

One can write a whole article on comparisons, but why bother when the Russian political scientist Evgeny Minchenko has already done an excellent job of picking apart these questionable assertions about how elections in Russia are much less free and competitive than in the West in his article Seven Myths about the Russian Elections? I translate his effort below. H/t @lindsey_bn for the link via Twitter.

Seven Myths About The Russian Elections

Evgeny Minchenko

Myth 1 – A prolonged stay in power can be the basis for proclaiming the government illegitimate. Here we can look at the examples of Canadian PM Jean Chrétien – 20 years, Federal Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl – 16 years. Ólafur Grímsson is the President of Iceland since 1996, and in 2000 his term of office was extended without elections as there was nobody willing to compete with him, he won the elections in 2004, he once again had his term extended in 2008 with no elections, and he does not exclude participating in the upcoming 2012 elections. There is a similar history with Chrétien and Kohl, although one has to note that it’s a slightly different state of affairs in parliamentary democracies.

Myth 2 – Elite collusion, in our context the Putin – Medvedev “castling”, can be a basis for proclaiming the government illegitimate. Unfortunately, politics is structured in such a way that elite collusion does happen. A striking example is the history of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. When they were nominating a candidate for Prime Minister, they agreed that Blair would go first, and then Brown. Vladimir Putin gave this very example: When Tony Blair stepped down after a scandal, there were no elections. Gordon Brown carried on for another three years as Prime Minister, with no elections, even though when the British voted for New Labour at the polls they were voting for Tony Blair as Prime Minister. On the other hand, when they finally did hold elections, Labour was crushed. In my opinion, this demonstrates that the public does have the opportunity to express their attitudes towards this kind of collusion. Our reaction was Bolotnaya Square and Prospekt Sakharova.

Myth 3 – Harsh screening and disqualification of undesirable candidates in the Russian Federation. True, we have our Grigory Yavlinsky with his 1.5% rating who couldn’t take part in the elections, but I want to draw attention to what is now happening in the Presidential campaign in France. They have a very specific system in that the candidate must enlist the support of at least 500 mayors or elected local officials.  Despite there being 50,000 such officials in France, Marine Le Pen – who has a 17% approval rating – has yet been unable to collect these signatures. And this isn’t Yavlinsky, with his 1.5%, this is a person, who has a real chance of reaching the second round. I hope that Marine Le Pen will be able to solve her problem, as did her father Jean-Marie Le Pen; the ruling authorities were forced to command signatures to be gathered on his behalf after public pressure. There are various technologies for filtering out undesirable candidates. A striking example is the impeachment of Rolandas Paksas in Lithuania: Only after he left did it emerge that the court had pronounced him innocent, but by then he could not return to the Presidency. Another example – the story of Strauss-Kahn, who  had a leading position among the French Presidential candidates, but who for reasons unknown to us could not take part in the elections. Bidzina Ivanishvili lost his Georgian citizenship, and is not allowed into the Presidential election.

Myth 4 – The dominance of one party or one candidate in the mass media. I think this problem with access to media resources exists everywhere. It’s obvious that in the US candidates from the two key parties dominate over all others. On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that the benefits which Mikhail Prokhorov enjoyed on Russian TV channels in the last elections were for a long time enjoyed by no other candidate.

Myth 5 – Vladimir Putin declined to participate in the debates, so the elections were illegitimate – the voters didn’t have an opportunity to assess him. Let’s take a look at other countries. There were 23 candidates in the last US elections. For instance, Ralph Nader was registered in 48 states out of 51, but the elected Obama debated exclusively with McCain. Having a minimum of 15% in opinion polls is a condition for participating in US debates. Or what about France, 2002 – Chirac vs. Le Pen. As a rule, there are no debates prior to the first round in France. The tradition of holding debates only applies to the period between the first round and the second round. Mikhail Saakashvili, who is frequently portrayed as a great democrat, has never debated anyone in his two Presidential elections.

Myth 6 (very common) – Russian legislation creates comfortable conditions for electoral falsifications. The suggested solution – rewrite the laws so that they match those of normal “democratic countries.” But the problems aren’t in the laws. As a matter of fact, ours are very stringent. They say, “Let’s abolish early voting!” But in the US, typically up to 30% of voters cast their ballots early. As for procedures on allowing observers into polling stations in other countries, in France you have to be a member of the Electoral Commission to observe the voting, and in the US observers are frequently denied access, especially foreign ones. In terms of observer access to polling stations, Russia is actually one of the world’s more liberal states.

Myth 7 – Big protest actions are a cause for a revision of the election results. One striking example – the attempted “Cactus Revolution” in Mexico in 2006. Compared to our modest turnouts, in Mexico up to a million people took to the streets. At the same time, there appeared the following phenomenon: “And I don’t know why this candidate was elected, none of my acquaintances voted for him.” The specific cause of this lay in López Obrador being Mayor of Mexico City, and dominant in the capital and the adjoining southern regions, where many people genuinely didn’t know anyone who voted for Calderón. Nonetheless, all those protests came to naught.

What is to be done?

For the elections to be more honest and transparent, we need to have an independent judiciary, and opposition representation in parliament and the regions. I think that if there were to be elections for governors, they would enable them to reallocate administrative resources between the various parties. Inter-elite conflicts, a stable tradition of political competition – which we still have to work out, as it unfortunately isn’t double within 20 years – independent media, true federalism, and so those proposals that were made by Medvedev are, in my opinion, adequate: The liberalization of political party registration, and the transition to direct elections of governors.


  1. I had dabbled with the idea of writing such an article debunking Russian election myths myself but this is a much better article than one I could have written and it is written by a Russian as well.

    I would just make one point about the supposed question of “castling”. What happened was that Medvedev nominated Putin for the candidate United Russia would support in the Presidential election. He did not appoint Putin President and there was nothing in any way undemocratic about what he did. To argue otherwise is to imply that Medvedev was under some sort of “democratic duty” or obligation to stand for President himself even if he didn’t want to, which is ridiculous and unfair to Medvedev himself. Anyone who did not want Putin to become President had the option of voting against him in the forthcoming election, which we know many people did so there is no sense in which the people’s democratic right to vote for their President was taken from them. In any country a political party has a right to nominate its candidate for a democratic election in accordance with its own wishes and procedures and this is all that happened in Russia on 24th September 2011. In any other country this would have been understood and respected and when events like the tandem switch happen in other democratic countries, as they do all the time, they excite no international complaint or protest at all.

    In reality of course what really annoyed certain people about the tandem switch was not that it was undemocratic or illegal, since it was neither, but that it opened the prospect of Putin’s return. In other words the objection is not to the tandem switch but to Putin himself.

  2. Just one further point, which is about media bias in favour of one candidate.

    I cannot follow the media in Russia but I question whether it can possibly mirror the utterly lopsided pro Conservative bias of the mass media here in Britain. Consider what happened here during the 2010 general election.

    Labour and Gordon Brown (who was then Prime Minister) had the support of just one national newspaper, the tabloid Daily Mirror. Cameron and the Conservatives were supported by The Times, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun. The last is Britain’s highest circulation tabloid newspaper. Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had the support of Guardian and the Independent.

    In other words the two parties that after the election formed the government had between them the support of eight out of nine of the country’s national newspapers with an two thirds of the country’s national newspapers (six out of nine) supporting the Conservatives with those six being the newspapers with by far the largest circulation.

    On television the situation was almost as lopsided. Television in Britain is supposed to aim for balance but in practice it is not difficult to sense the political allegiance of a particular broadcaster or channel. Cameron and the Conservatives had the support of Murdoch’s Sky TV whilst the BBC and the other big television news channel ITN were evenly divided between support for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

    Lastly the Conservatives were easily able to outspend in the election all the other parties combined with the Labour party entering the election in a practically insolvent state. Travelling around London during the election I saw scores of Conservative posters but not a single Labour or Liberal Democrat poster. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats also had a far better organised presence on the internet than did Labour, which tends to be supported by less articulate and less internet savvy working class voters, and here as well the pro Conservative bias was obvious and Labour in particular was swamped.

    In other words the pro Conservative bias of the national media here in Britain was extreme and surely every bit and probably much more lopsided than the bias of the media in favour of Putin in Russia. No one however so far as I know has called into question the legitimacy of the 2010 British election result because of this.

    • Anna Bailey says:

      Oh dear what a partial account – you imply that ‘pro-Conservative’ media bias is constant when actually the key newspapers you name backed Labour in elections before 2010, notably the Sun backed Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and The Times backed Labour in 2001 and 2005. Plus the BBC is notorious for having a left-wing bias (although in an ideological/cultural way, not a party political way) – something that has been admitted by many of its political correspondents including Andrew Marr amongst others. It does not ‘support’ any party like the newspapers do, and to say it and ITN were ‘evenly divided between support for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats’ is pure fantasy.

    • Very good points, Alex. My observations:

      (1) I don’t watch Russian TV (or TV in general), so I can’t comfortably vouch for it. Nonetheless, I did see that during the debates, many of which I watched on YouTube, the presenters took care to make equal amounts of time available to each of the candidates (or their trustees); likewise, during the breaks, they aired ads from all sides.

      These ads differed. Putin’s consisted of ordinary people saying what a great guy he is in simple terms. Zyuganov stood in front of dams and factories. Prokhorov uttered some empty right-wing slogans. Zhirinovsky whipped an ass. Everything as expected. Putin’s ads may have appeared a bit more frequently than those of the others, especially of Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov, but the effect wasn’t overbearing.

      This however may be linked to the simple fact that Putin (legitimately) spent a greater part of a bigger budget on TV ads than his rivals. Of Putin’s 368mn spent rubles, 177mn went on TV ads; of Prokhorov’s 320mn, 167mn went to TV ads. The others both spent considerably less in total: Zyuganov 250mn, Zhirinovsky 200mn, Mironov 120mn; and much less on TV (in a range of 65mn-80mn for all three, which would be less than half the sums spent by either Putin or Prokhorov).

      Of course, one crucial point is that at this time, Putin was also fulfilling the functions of a PM. So he was getting lots of “free” positive PR anyway as he is accustomed to do in that position. Still, that’s the benefit incumbents get while running for other positions almost anywhere the world.

      (2) I can judge a lot more accurately for the newspaper and online domains.

      While I don’t recall Russian papers taking up the explicit editorial positions that British newspapers tend to do, it is still possible to analyze their tone, coverage, etc. to read their preferred candidate between the lines.

      The two foremost business papers, the radical liberal Vedomosti, and the moderately liberal Kommersant, were highly anti-Kremlin during the period, many of their journalists expressing partisan support for the Meetings.

      There is obviously no need to mention Novaya Gazeta, or Nezavisimaya Gazeta, both of which have always been liberal and knee-jerk anti-Kremlin. Likewise with Echo of Moscow radio station. Prokhorov had his own mini media empire batting for him, including sites like, the online TV project Dozhd, and the English-language magazine Snob.

      The mood at Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of the highest circulation papers, seems to have been moderately pro-Putin. These moods appear to have been strongest among several Russian conservative Internet projects (e.g. Vzglyad, N.Starikov, Inosmi, Sdelano u Nas, etc.).

      Then there was Zyuganov with predictable media supporters (e.g. Trud, and various leftist sites). Bringing up the rear, with minimal obvious media support, were Mironov and Zhirinovsky.

      My assessment is that as regards newspapers and Internet publications, coverage of the Presidential candidates (barring Putin as current statesman) was balanced and proportionally allocated across their support levels with one major exception: Prokhorov had FAR MORE supporters in the journalistic world (which is substantially Moscow-centered and far more liberal than the population as a whole) than could be expected from his modest Russia-wide electoral base. Extra coverage for Prokhorov was not so much at the expense of Putin as of Zyuganov, Mironov, and Zhirinovsky.

  3. Anna Bailey says:

    Excellent and succinct article. I think Myths 1-3 are the most important ones. To the list of democratically elected ‘prolonged servers’ you could also add Mitterand and Chirac of France and Thatcher and Blair of Britain – while they didn’t serve as long as the examples you give, they all served over a decade each as either President (France) or PM (Britain). Myth 4 is probably the most credible one – if you watch Russian TV news the dominance of the media coverage of Putin is quite striking, but I think this it partly due to the lack of credible alternatives: it is also hard to imagine mainstream Western TV news giving serious coverage to a communist dinosaur like Zyuganov or a joke nationalist like Zhirinovsky. Myth 5 – politicians everywhere are notorious for ducking TV debates if they don’t think it’s to their advantage – Tony Blair did it for one. I would add ‘fraud’ as one of the big myths, the ‘myth’ being that Putin only won because the election was ‘rigged’, while the reality was that even without any electoral fraud (which statistical analyses such as Karlin’s put at under 5%) Putin would still have won comfortably in the first round.

  4. As regards Canadians, you’re wrong: Chretien was PM for “only” ten years (1993-2003). You may be thinking of Trudeau (1968-79 and again 1980-84) for a total of about 15 years. But everybody forgets the all-time champion Mackenzie King who clocked up over 20 years! (1921-30 with a short break and then 1935-1948). When we Canadians get a PM, we keep him! Our present PM is over 6 years and still going.

    But you point is only strengthened.

    • Jennifer Hor says:

      Hello Patrick,

      Didn’t Stephen Harper govern for a short period from October to December 2008 with a hung parliament? I recall that he needed the support of Bloc Quebecois to rule but when the opposition parties refused to support a motion regarding some money bills, Bloc Quebecois broke away and to avoid calling another general election and possibly losing it, Harper prorogued Parliament with the consent of the Governor General. It’s possible though that had Harper called a second general election, he could have won it with a bigger level of electorate support and the Conservatives could have governed in their own right.

      The Australian equivalent of Mackenzie King is Robert Menzies who served as Prime Minister from 1939 to 1941 and then from 1949 to 1966. Menzies benefitted from the weakness of the Australian Labor Party which split into the ALP proper and the Democratic Labor Party in 1955. The DLP was a conservative party in a traditional sense, in that its social platform was conservative (the party was dominated by Roman Catholic politicians) and an economic platform that emphasised some social welfare.

      Whenever a Prime Minister reigns for a long time, we should consider the strength of the political oppostion as that is usually the reason that some leaders just keep going and going. Margaret Thatcher lasted as long as she did in the UK due in part to a divided political opposition and to an electoral system that we Australians style as “first past the post”, whereby a party can still win an election even though it has less than 50% of the total vote if other parties each have much less of the total vote than the winner has, instead of one based on proportional representation such as is used in Australia.

      • Harper has been PM continuously in a minority govt until the last election. The 3 opposition parties contemplated a coalition but the Gov General (the Crown) wisely did not accept their application. The coalition soon fell apart.

        I recommend, as always, however, a study of Quebec voting patterns over the past century or so as a indicator of why the N Cauc votes for UR. Que has voted for the winner over this period, switching parties as required. Miscalculated last time around however.

  5. Jennifer Hor says:

    Dear AK,

    The position of President of Iceland is not really analogous to the position of Pime Minister of Canada or Federal Chancellor of Germany. The head of government in Iceland is the Prime Minister so it really doesn’t matter that Olafur Grimsson just keeps on going and going … what matters is if the Prime Minister of Iceland keeps on going and going. I believe Iceland had another President who seemed to last forever and that was Vigdis Finnbogadottir.

  6. The point of all this I think is that there are many different styles of what we call “democracy”. No one would call Iceland, Canada or Australia undemocratic: but each country has its own way of doing things.

    I think better words would be “constitutional”‘ “rule of law” “political pluralism” and things like that. In these factors Russia gets some points on the scoreboard and none of us gets 10 out 0f 10.

    Half the time “democratic” when applied to Russia means “doing what we want them to do”.