Stealing the Future in Russia

Garry Kasparov. Source: Maxim Shipenkov/European Pressphoto AgencyStealing the Future in Russia
By Garry Kasparov
March 10, 2012
The Daily

The adjective “Orwellian” has become cheap currency in modern political discourse. Liberals and conservatives alike in open democracies like the United Kingdom and the United States enjoy using the term to describe nearly any infringement on civil liberties by the state. Video cameras to deter crime, wiretaps of suspected terrorists, security checks at airports – all have been deemed worthy reference to George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984. As much as I share these concerns, those of us who live in actual police states would prefer to preserve the power of the vocabulary required to describe our circumstances.

The most powerful theme in Orwell’s book is not that of the all-seeing Big Brother, but that of the control and distortion of language, especially in the form of newspeak. Words take on inverted meanings, terms expressing unapproved ideas are eliminated, and human thought itself is curtailed through the reduction and simplification of vocabulary. This attempt to warp reality via information control is not science fiction to anyone brought up on Pravda in the Soviet Union – or anyone living in Putin’s Russia today.

And so, the presidential election of March 4 — the most fraudulent in Russian history — is proclaimed “fair and clean” by the state-controlled media. Peaceful civilian protests are dubbed “extremist provocations” and the riot police who brutally suppress the protestors are “maintaining order.” The public outcry over fraud in the December 4 parliamentary elections was followed by even greater corruption and the preordained reinstallation of a KGB lieutenant colonel who clearly aims to install himself as dictator-for-life.

I would be a poor patriot indeed if I did not point out that 1984 was modeled on the totalitarian state in the dystopian Russian novel We, written by Evgenij Zamjatin in 1921 and, of course, banned in the USSR until 1988. There are still elections in Zamjatin’s futuristic universe and each year “The Benefactor” is reelected unanimously. Disturbingly familiar! You might not think that they are burning many books in Putin’s “dictatorship-lite,” which attempts to mime the functioning of an open society and to keep the clich├ęd images of oppression behind the scenes as much as possible. You’d be partly right — if only because the authorities realize that piles of burning books look particularly bad on YouTube. Instead, they simply confiscate the books as “extremist materials,” as was just done with 250,000 copies of former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov’s book detailing Putin’s corruption.

Perhaps it is for the best, as the recent elections could provide Boris with material for several extra chapters. The blatant visible fraud of December 4 was still present three months later. In what we call a “carousel” here, herds of voters were moved from polling station to polling station in quantities large enough to clog the center of Moscow with dozens of buses. Fake polling stations appeared just a few days ahead of the election and collected thousands of votes. Threats went out to CEOs, school administrators and many others directing them to get out the vote for Putin or suffer cuts in funding or worse.

The regime had to adapt to the awareness of the hundreds of thousands of protestors, however. Webcams were installed in every polling station and tens of thousands of observers arose from the outraged citizenry. This forced Putin’s election commission head Vladimir Churov to rely on tricks that could be performed behind the curtains. Supplementary voter rolls, intended for those who need to vote away from where they are registered, swelled to incredible size. Unsurprisingly, in the precincts where numbers were available, Putin received a much higher percentage of votes cast from the supplementary rolls than in the regular ones. Absentee ballots were also in high demand all of a sudden, as were the services that allow the infirm to vote from home.

Yet all of Churov’s wizardry could not get Putin over the fifty percent mark in Moscow, where the official number was just forty seven percent, even though there were no credible candidates on the ballot. (Our calculations estimate his real total was closer to 35 percent.) But this is the great trick, you see: to steal the election long before the voting takes place. With no opposition access to the media and with the regime in charge of approving each candidate, the voting is the least of our worries. The candidates were all Kremlin-approved, from the tired old Communist and Nationalist leaders to billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a Putin creature installed on the ticket to syphon away protest votes. The global media descends only on election day and leaves soon afterward, ignoring the root and branch corruption and repression that is the real story.

A KGB mafia state is not built in a day and it will not be brought down in a single day. The literally and morally bankrupt USSR clung to life for decades. We know from experience that Putin will not shy away from spilling the blood of his own people. A sharp escalation in confrontation could lead to a catastrophe. But time is not necessarily on our side. If Putin resists reform and cracks down harder, the backlash could have unpredictable results. If there is violence and chaos, those who channel it and replace Putin are unlikely to be the liberal intelligentsia who desire greater civil liberties and closer ties with Europe.

The March 4 election was not the end of our resistance. We must channel the newfound concern so many thousands of Russians are showing in taking back their country. The Putin cancer has spread throughout the Russian body and popular outrage is an imprecise tool with which to perform difficult surgery. The signs are promising, including the daily flood of new jokes and parodies of Putin that appear online. When you rule by fear, laughter is the beginning of the end. (One sign in Vladivostok, where the “carousels” of paid repeat voters were in heavy usage, read, “For Russia! For Putin! For 500 Rubles!”)

As Russians tire of Putin, it remains to be seen if the rest of the world will continue to pretend he is the elected ruler of the country. Early signs from foreign capitals were not encouraging. President Obama waited a few days but eventually called Putin on Friday – one day after the 29th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. There is little I would not give to hear Reagan making a phone call to Putin! I imagine Reagan would work with Russia today the way he worked with the Soviet Union, by establishing clear lines on human rights even while engaging on nuclear arms and trade.

There has, however, been progress in the European Parliament and in the UK in punishing the officials who carry out Putin’s orders at home while retaining the privileges of honored guest abroad. Just this week, the British Parliament demanded action to freeze assets and levy visa sanctions against sixty Russian officials complicit in the imprisonment and eventual murder of whistle-blowing attorney Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Several weeks ago, the European Parliament called for similar measures. Such laudable legislation also exists in the United States, but it is largely being ignored. In fact, President Obama’s first mention of Russia after last week’s election was about the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, the Cold War-era legislation that tied economic relations with the USSR to emigration rights. This sends a strong signal that Washington is willing to overlook mere election fraud (and just about anything else Putin does domestically) as long as NATO can continue to use Russian pathways into Afghanistan.

Today’s western leaders seem destined to repeat the same mistake of sacrificing human lives and moral values for the sake of the ephemeral stability of a tyrant. Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak — they had their western supporters, too. I admit there is never a guarantee that your national interest will be on the right side of the equation when a dictator falls. If we are all to live in a better world, however, it should be far more important to be on the right side of history.

Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Russian pro-democracy group the United Civil Front. He is the former world chess champion and he lives in Moscow.