The New Observer Uncategorized UK Media coverage of the Russian Presidential election

UK Media coverage of the Russian Presidential election

Unfortunately I only have time for a stub. The subject demands more in-depth treatment.

I have been looking at the Independent and Guardian chiefly. What strikes me about the coverage of the Russian election is an unquestioned and unexamined premise. The charge is that the election is “rigged” or, a “sham” or a “Non-election”. They struggle a bit to justify this but the following factors are usually cited: only approved candidates can take part, Nadezhdin who was anti-war was blocked by the Electoral Commission (which is said to answer to the Kremlin), Russian ballots have in the past been shown to be fraudulent with ballot-stuffing common, Putin has “killed, imprisoned or driven into exile” all his opponents, the Kremlin had a large budget which they spent on orchestrating the outcome, state organisations pressure their employees to vote for the United Russia candidate (effectively Putin).

Some of this is intelligent. Some is fake. There does seem to have been a process which ensured that an openly “anti-war” candidate was not going to get on the ballot. I don’t know but I doubt that even if Nadezhdin had found 200,000 valid signatures he would have been allowed to stand. Yes; I know from personal anecdotes that the claims about state enterprises “getting out the vote” has truth in it. Some of the other claims are less convincing. There may be “political prisoners” in Russia but figures such as Kara-Muzra were never likely to stand for President. The only person in this category who could have feasibly been a candidate was Navalny. A relatively recent Levada poll put support for Navalny’s “activities” at 9%. This means his YouTube videos. Only some of these people would have voted from him as President. Nemtsov was killed. There is no evidence that the murder was ordered by Putin. The trail leads to Chechnya. The link to Putin is purely speculative. While there are a series of difficult to face events here, objectively speaking, the claim that Putin has been murdering and imprisoning credible rivals for the Presidency does not stand up to analysis. I don’t know the details of the large budget but I would hazard a guess it was for the election in general, rather than Putin in particular. (Even the Guardian which covers the story talks about the budget being designed to increase the turnout). The ballot stuffing claims are the kind of lie the liberal media are increasingly beginning to insert into their narratives on Russia. The OSCE report on 2016 Duma elections, for example, stated more or less the opposite. [1] The Election Commission ran a “transparent” process. (We are not discussing here the question of the media climate).

If you look objectively at the evidence what we see is something like “managed democracy”. A limited range of choices are on offer. It is a condition on being on the ballot that you agree with the current political settlement in Russia and don’t advocate to change it. (In this election it was quite probably also a condition that you didn’t call the special operation a huge strategic mistake. I would imagine that would have been seen as a gift to Russia’s enemies and therefore inadmissible). From the insider point of view this might be framed as having to agree with the Constitution. This is not “rigged” or “sham”. That is to judge it from the Western point of view. Russia, unlike the UK, is a Constitutional state. In such a state one can argue that the election should take place within the bounds set by the Constitution. (The current Russian Constitution was agreed in a kind of plebiscite, somewhat contended I am aware. I am not trying to provide a legal justification for anything; just suggesting how it might look from inside the Kremlin or State Duma). The UK does not have a Constitution. The situation is different; in such a state it is permissible that the foundations of the state are called completely into question every five years. (Whether it is desirable is another question). It is worth pointing out that there have been attempts to prevent Trump standing for election in the US because he has allegedly violated the Constitution.

A second factor, not unrelated, but separate to the question of the Constitution, is that Russians may have different tastes in elections than UK media pundits! I would propose the hypothesis: most Russians do not want the kind of “free election” we have in the UK. They would see it as a demeaning circus. That is, quite simply, for the majority of Russians this “rigged election” is exactly what they want. Anecdotally I can recall my Russian friend’s wife telling me that they simply didn’t want democracy. Or we can quote US scholar Peter Kenez:

The same polls show that the great majority of Russians do not believe that they live in a democratic country, and they are not much bothered by this. “If everything is going well,” they see no need for an opposition.

What I am trying to say is something like; maybe Russia is a different culture and this process of a managed election with limited choices and the same “strong” leader being elected time after time is just what they want. Something similar happens in Singapore and I don’t see the liberal media talking about “oppressed” Singaporeans!

The strange feature of UK media coverage of the Russian election is that they simply judge it on their own terms. They criticise it as if it were happening in the UK, with no, zero, sense of cultural relativity whatsoever; with no sense that Russia is a different country with a different history. That is very strange. They might find chopsticks a bit weird but most of these people understand that that is Asiatic culture and is “normal for them”. Why can’t they extend this kind of understanding of cultural relativity to politics and Russia? I am sorry to reduce it to chopsticks but with these people we really do have to get back to basics.


  2. Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy (p. 299). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.