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Russia Breaks My Brain
I don't understand this place, I just live here.
#16: Elections Part 2: The Revenge!
April 9, 2004

Hi everyone. I guess it's been month or so since you heard from me, but don't worry. It's been due to me being too comfortable and lazy rather than anything unsavory or dangerous. There's a decent amount of stuff to talk about of course, so I'm probably going to shift into "email binge" mode and be sending you all a few updates in the coming week, just to warn you.

The big news on everyone's lips this last month was the reelection of Vladamir "Pootie-Poo" Putin as President of the Russian Federation.

Ok, so that's a huge lie. Nobody cared. The outcome of that election was known so long ago that the real debates are on topics like "will Putin try to get the constitution changed so he can have another term in office?" and "how much of a mess were the elections this time?" Just like the mayoral election in St. Petersburg a few months back, this election was a little less than fair, as any Putin opponents had less of a chance than Nader in getting elected. But god is in the details, right? So here's some of the more interesting and unpredictable tidbits that culminated in the presidential election being page 3 news:

Who were Putin's opponents? Good question. I doubt many people here could answer that because their platforms were rarely, if ever, discussed in a public forum. One woman ran as a "protest candidate" from the very beginning, and she did pretty well by focusing strictly on the idea that democracy needs a lot of help in Russia. Another "protest candidate" sort of went the other direction, saying he was a Putin supporter and used all of his resources to promote the President. Actual challengers had a pretty hard campaign though. Possibly due to regional governors wanting to "bring in the vote" for Putin, other candidates routinely faced amazingly blunt administrative problems while trying to get their message out in public. From town to town planned rallies for a given candidate would often be canceled at the last second, to the point of the electricity being cut in a few meeting halls. Permits were also torn up, and the police occasionally came in and dispersed what was left of a crowd. But still, nobody was particularly surprised. Definitely not as surprised as the guy who got kidnapped for a week.

As suddenly as the candidate disappeared, he was back. There was just enough time for him to be reported as a missing person when he turned up again, describing how he had been kidnapped. He quickly went to London, where he felt safer, and told how he had been forcibly taken and drugged, only to wake up tied to a chair in an apartment somewhere with two armed guards. They showed him a videotape of him doing something (he wouldn't say) that supposedly had been made while he was drugged, and said that if he didn't drop out of the race they'd release the tape to the public. He stayed in the race a little while longer, but finally quit saying that the whole election was such a mess there was no point in trying. I don't think there was ever an investigation into who kidnapped him, as most people assumed there was some official influence into its occurrence in the first place.

You'd think that with this much drama happening in a race that people would get excited about the election. Hell, in California all we needed was Arnold and Gallagher to get one of the better voter-turnouts in a gubernatorial election ever. But the kidnapping wasn't enough to spur extra interest. One poll found that 12% of voters thought that Putin's United Russia party did the best in a recent televised debate. Unfortunately, United Russia didn't actually participate in this debate. The newspaper tried very hard to explain how so many people were so misinformed, and in the end chalked it up to people simply having no faith and therefore no interest in following what was actually happening. This sort of thing was surely compounded by the fact that the major Russian TV networks (which are indirectly under the control of the government) broke election laws and only
covered Putin in the weeks before the election. The only time other candidates were even mentioned in the nightly news were either due to some negative issue being brought to light about them, or because they went missing. Instead, there was plenty of coverage of Putin making token appearances in military uniform around the country (not unlike Fighter Pilot Bush).

This is not to say that the powers that be just want to scrap elections altogether. There was a considerable amount of advertising dedicated to getting people to go vote. Some of the more dry ads simply touted the fact that "you DO have a voice!" while some of the more elaborate ones airing on MTV and the other Russian music channel went with the slogan "Voting: It's Not for Babies." This ad started with students making fun of one guy because he was going to bother to vote, but when he gets up to leave, the attractive girl at the table gets up to follow him ("Voting: It'll get you laid?"). Then everyone left in the room is shown with a pacifier in their mouth, embarrassed by their own silence.

So what has Putin done with his continued authority? The majority of people have always supported him, and with this sort of election system you'd think he could just kick back and start ordering gold-plated cigar boxes and other extravagances. Instead he fired most of his cabinet, replacing them with a much leaner group that has been described as having a good balance between the major elite political factions. He's also come out swinging against major groups like the police, telling them that if they don't start dealing with corruption themselves, he'll do it for them. On one hand, there's still part of this that makes him seem quite authoritarian, finding a way to pit factions against each other while keeping him on top. But on the other hand, there's a lot of evidence to help continue his reputation of being "at least better than Yeltsin," who was seen
as leading a very corruption-oriented administration.

But hey, I'm sure you've all read all this in the newspaper, right? Well next time I'll spice things up with some less educational stuff like street fighting, Badfighting, and maybe my new address. Until then, I'm off to enjoy the weather, which has finally been above freezing for a whole week (you almost don't need your wool hat!) Talk to you all soon,

Angry Giant