“…your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agin’/Please get out of the new one, if you can’t lend your hand/For the times they are a’ changin’…”
Bob Dylan knew a thing or two about democracy, even if the world was a very different place when he wrote, “The Times They Are a’Changin'”. What was Bob Dylan’s America like, in that brave summer of 1964? President Lyndon Johnson declared the “war on poverty”, and introduced Medicare. The first of many American military forces launched attacks on Vietnam. The first lung transplant was successfully performed. The Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” was tearing up the movie theaters, and “The Outer Limits” was a favourite on television. In Russia, Nikita Krushchev fell from power, to be ultimately replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. Russia was most assuredly not a democracy.
Well, right out of the gate, I can see a problem. Whether it’s a deliberate misconstruction or an honest misunderstanding caused by the inability to maintain concentration over the space of two sentences, the author has begun with “standards” and turned them into a “definition”. Unveiled by Mr. Medvedev were standards he believes a country ought to be able to achieve and maintain in order to call itself a democracy with any credibility. The Power Vertical believes this constitutes Mr. Medvedev’s definition of democracy.
It’s not necessary for Mr. Medvedev to define democracy; luckily, that’s already been done for him, and for everyone who thinks it’s open to interpretation. “A form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or their elected agents under a free electoral system”.
Let’s go back for a minute, to March 2008. There was an election. The outcome of the election was decided by popular vote. The voting was by ballots, which were counted and recorded. Dmitri Medvedev won this election with better than 70 percent of the vote. There was some complaint by European monitors that there were “irregularities” in voting. I’ve noted a certain disrespect for European views in American writing, but apparently that doesn’t apply when the Europeans say what America wants to hear. In any case, “voting irregularities” certainly did not extend to sufficient numbers that the next closest candidate (Gennady Zyuganov) might have won with less than 18 percent of the vote. I’ve noticed that complaints by the opposition of “voting irregularities” seem to follow elections that they lose, everywhere in the world.
Pardon this digression, but I feel obliged to mention that even Zyuganov’s piffling 18 percent was double what the Liberal Democrats’ Vladimir Zhirinovsky polled. Let’s be sure we understand – The Power Vertical would have preferred the new Russian government be formed by the Communist Party?
Well, what was international reaction like? An emailed statement from Gordon Johndroe, Bush’s White House spokesman, said, “The Bush administration looks forward to working with Mr. Medvedev”. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his government “looked forward to improving the relationship” with Russia and “improving areas of cooperation”. Only German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who apparently also wanted the Communists to win) said “…there were incidents and situations which caused us to determine that democratic and constitutional principles weren’t permanently complied with.”
Oddly enough, polls before the election suggested Medvedev would win with better than 70 percent of the vote, which is just about exactly what he did get. Well, I guess all that voting irregularity was unnecessary! Opposition candidates complained they couldn’t get equal airtime to Medvedev because they couldn’t match his resources. So? Whose fault is that? Does democracy carry a requirement that candidates receive free advertising if they can’t pay for it? If so, I can think of a few democratic elections whose results should be overturned. Russophobes certainly seemed overjoyed with Saakashvili’s re-election, in which he outspent his next-closest rival by a factor of 20 to 1, but was hailed as having achieved “blinding, awe-inspiring victory”. Typically, Americans have a name for the candidate who doesn’t win and complains that victory was stolen from him by cheating, and it isn’t “democratic hero”. It starts with “sore” and ends with “loser”. Unless, of course, it happens in another country and the one who loses is the one they wanted to win.
It seems, then, that what sticks in The Power Vertical’s throat regarding Russia’s claim to democracy is that the Kremlin manipulates the electorate, suppresses the free vote and brushes off accountability. That about cover it? We’re agreed, then, that a country which manipulates the electorate, suppresses the free vote and refuses accountability is not a democracy? Let’s take a look at one that falsely claims the qualification.
I hate to appear formulaic, but the reason I choose America as comparative model is that so many russophobic critics of Russia’s government are Americans. If you offer a criticism but no apparent intent to be part of the solution, you must obviously believe that where you came from offers a much better – if not the ideal – model. You don’t need to propose a solution, because the actions of your country speak for you.
That being the case, let’s take a look at American elections through Angela Merkel’s eyes, looking for “irregularities”. Each time, let’s imagine that Putin and Medvedev are doing it to Boris Nemtsov during an election in which Medvedev and Nemtsov are competing: I’d like to do it from a semi-scientific standpoint, to sample whether it would or would not inspire objection from sites like The Power Vertical. But if you’d like to imagine the actual shrieks of horror, we’ll just put it down to your not having my self-discipline. Let’s start with the phone jamming scheme – remember that? Republican operative Allen Raymond masterminded a scheme to jam the phone lines of the Democrats in New Hampshire – nominally a “Blue” or traditionally Democratic state – on election day in 2002. This was accomplished by flooding those phone lines with hundreds of bogus calls. Voters who wanted a ride to the polls, or just to clarify the candidate’s position on an issue before casting their ballot, were not able to get through. Raymond was paid for his work by Republican officials, and was convicted of a criminal offense. He later wrote a book entitled, “How to Rig an Election; Confessions of a Republican Operative”. Smell test? Medvedev’s buddies doing it to Nemtsov? Angela doesn’t like it, folks. Let’s move on. E-mail messages exchanged between Republican strategists leading up to the 2004 presidential election detail how the party planned to disenfranchise thousands of low-income voters, using a scheme known as “vote caging”. How does it work? Party operatives get hold of the list of individuals who failed to return their Confirmation of Address letter (registered mail) and use it to suggest those voters are engaged in fraud because they may not be properly registered to vote. Low-income people are the disproportionate victims of vote caging because they change addresses much more frequently, and they traditionally vote Democrat. It should be pointed out here that despite reliable Republican efforts to stir up the electorate with leaked news of massive voter fraud, only a handful of people have ever been convicted of voter fraud in the United States. Many of the working poor vote by absentee ballot because they don’t have transportation, so the effort focuses on disqualifying large swaths of absentee ballots. The voters who cast them would never know their vote was invalidated. Smell test? Angela doesn’t like it, folks. How about circulating false information; such as in Philadelphia, where a flyer was circulated which said the police would be using the election as an opportunity to arrest individuals with outstanding warrants and unpaid parking tickets. The police said they didn’t put it out, and had no such intentions. Remember, we don’t care which party did it (although the obvious beneficiary of this one would be Republicans), only that it’s undemocratic. Smell test? Angela doesn’t like it. Similarly, the McCain campaign sent out a mailer to Wisconsin voters which advised them where they could obtain absentee ballots, and stamped with the address of a local clerk. This mailer went to hundreds of thousands of voters, most of whom would have had their votes disqualified because they were not eligible to vote in the district to which the absentee ballot would have corresponded, and all would have found out too late to do anything about it. The McCain campaign said it was a mistake. Angela? Assuming this had happened to Nemtsov in a way that favoured Medvedev, Angela finds that hard to believe. In Michigan, the Chairman of the Republican party said he planned to use a list of foreclosed homes to prevent those homeowners from voting, although losing your home in no way makes you ineligible to vote. What a low-down hound, says Angela. Alabama and Georgia improperly used Social Security information to screen new voter registrations. The commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Michael Astrue, sent letters of protest to election officials in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio, saying to interviewers, “It is absolutely essential that people entitled to register to vote are allowed to do so”. Louisiana illegally removed thousands of voters from the rolls after the deadline for such action. In Colorado, the president of Colorado College received a memo that claimed out-of-state students who still claimed dependent status on their tax forms would be ineligible to vote. This is incorrect. Hey, anybody mind if Angela takes a break? She says she needs to lie down, she feels a little queasy.
We don’t need her for this next bit anyway, because it’s technical. Let’s talk for a minute about those Diebold voting machines. Princeton computer professor Edward Felten and two graduate students demonstrated, using a typical Diebold machine, how anyone who gained unsupervised access to the machine for less than two minutes could install undetectable vote-stealing software that would delete itself at the end of the voting day, leaving the bogus votes to be recorded. I’m not going to bother Angela on this one, because Russia uses actual ballots that can be counted and reexamined if necessary, but I think she’d agree it takes ballot-box stuffing to a whole new level. Hey, let’s ask Power Vertical; would you be comfortable knowing this technology was used in the hypothetical Russian presidential election, knowing its vulnerabilities and assuming Nemtsov wailed that he was cheated?
It might appear that I pounded pretty hard on the Republicans and John McCain, but John McCain could tell you himself what it felt like to be on the end of political and thoroughly undemocratic dirty tricks. During the 2000 South Carolina primary, a smear campaign initiated against him by the George W. Bush organization circulated rumors that his wife was a drug addict, and that his Bangladeshi adopted daughter (who joined him in campaign appearances) was a black child McCain had fathered out of wedlock. Although he was the favourite to win the state, he did not have the money or the resources to respond, and he lost to Bush. You know the rest. Remember how we decided the world of politics doesn’t owe everyone equal representation if they don’t have the money or the resources? Well, this is exactly the same thing.
Should somebody be allowed to win an election using tactics like that? Regardless what you might think, the world democracy that is most anxious to export its system to the world sees nothing sufficiently wrong in it to declare it illegal. However, it may have something to do with that country’s declining status in international influence and force of personal example.
Russia is a democracy. Putin and Medvedev – as his successor – are popular because the country has prospered under their leadership. The minimum wage has steadily gone up while interest rates have steadily gone down, and the national debt is the lowest in the G-20. Things aren’t perfect, but the only country that can currently claim perfection is Finland, sitting at number 1. If every time Medvedev announces he’s going to have another crack at changing things for the better, you just piss all over it and snicker and nudge each other, you’re making your opinion look pretty partisan, don’t you think?
Sing us out, will you, Bob? “Come writers and critics/who prophesize with your pen/And keep your eyes wide/the chance won’t come again/And don’t speak too soon/for the wheel’s still in spin/And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’/For the loser now/will be later to win/For the times, they are a’changin’…”