Regional Elections in Russia as Seen by Foreign Media: Truth and Myths

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The regional elections that took place in Russia in September gave a number of positive signals. First and foremost, even in the conditions of international tensions and economic challenges, institutions and mechanisms of democratic governance work quite effectively. The electoral system is stable across the country, which is very important: more than 90000 mandates overall were to be filled in. Such a scale of electoral campaign is relatively rare in the world practice. Secondly, the voter turnout, which averaged 30-35% nationwide, is within the international mean figures and also good for regional-level elections. Thirdly, although the United Russia party apparently managed to strengthen its positions thanks to well-carried preparations and efficient electoral campaign, the opposition parties, with the Communist Party, Liberal Democrats and A Just Russia among them, demonstrated strong results in a number of regions. In other words, there are competitors confronting United Russia, and they don’t sit idle but wait for any gaffe or mistake from the leader. This can be clearly shown on the example of the Irkutsk region, where a Communist Party candidate managed to beat his United Russia opponent in the second round of the gubernatorial race. This list of conclusions that can be made following the regional elections in Russia is in no way full and can be expanded.

However, if in the Russian media the elections’ results were covered in a relatively constructive way, the publications of foreign media outlets contain more misperceptions and hollow reasoning. They can substantially distort the picture of the processes that take place in Russia in the eyes of the foreign audience. We have summarized key points from leading foreign media into groups of “myths” and present them for your attention.

Myth 1: elections in an isolated, pressured Russia
“The elections tested the mood of the Russian electorate after more than a year of economic troubles caused mainly by low oil prices, Western sanctions over Moscow’s interference in Ukraine, and Kremlin countersanctions that have barred imports of many Western foods and increased the country’s isolation,” writes Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty on its portal.

This myth is linked with attempts to explain Russian electoral processes through the prism of international relations and the image of Russia as recipient of sanctions. One can hardly argue against the fact that low oil prices have worsened the economic situation in Russia, but the rest of the citation given above raises the question whether perception of the reality of the article’s authors is proper and adequate. Truly, the elections demonstrated that in crisis conditions the country is able to close the ranks and confirm the credit of trust to the government. At the same time, it is strange to read that the counter-sanctions do more harm to Moscow than to those who initiated them. Russian MFA many times pointed that by introducing and extending sanctions the Western partners rock their own boat. According to an Austrian survey referred to in June 2015 by Die Welt and Newsweek, the sanction regime can cost Europe around 100 billion Euros and two million jobs. Counter-sanctions that appeared as a forced reprisal by Russia left without profits, taxes and jobs many European companies and economies. According to Forbes magazine, by spring 2015 European food exporters had already lost more than 500 million Euros. It is logical to suppose that by these days the sum might have well exceeded 1 billion.

Overall, the image of ‘isolated Russia’, very much liked and used by American politicians in the last months, looks quite naïve. The recent international events, especially the role of Russia in resolving the Syrian crisis, the quantity and level of contacts of Russian top officials with their foreign counterparts, by contrast, show that the US and their partners’ attempt to isolate Russia de-facto failed. In this light, even more inadequate seem attempts to describe Russian elections’ results strictly through the prism of international problems.

Myth 2: elections in decaying and poor Russia
If one examines the photos which accompany publications about elections in Russia by many media, it would seem that they were deliberately selected to provoke only negative emotions, not to speak of the fact that in general publications about Russia are most often negative, while positive news from the country (including pieces about the elections) is obstinately ignored and doesn’t reach the pages of European and American newspapers and websites. In order to get evidence on this, it will be enough to study materials about the Russian elections that are published on the Internet in open access.

Myth 3: the Russian opposition is RPR-PARNAS
“The main challenge to the Kremlin came in the sleepy city of Kostroma around 350 kilometres northeast of Moscow, where the RPR-Parnas liberal opposition coalition is fielding two candidates,” say observers of Gulfnews on the pages of its portal. “The opposition party RPR-Parnas only gained approval to contest the regional parliament in largely rural Kostroma, where it gained less than 2 percent of the vote,” note DW reporters. “The [Democratic] coalition includes the party of muredered politician, Boris Nemtsov. It also includes the party of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny,” writes BBC.

In almost all materials of the foreign media on the Russian elections lots of attention is paid to the results of the opposition. It is, however, not the ‘systemic’ opposition that respects the federal legislation and honestly competes with United Russia, creating lots of problems for the latter, but RPR-PARNAS, a bite-size structure that can hardly be called representative and influential opposition.

“Defenders of democracy”, “besieged opposition”, “one of the largest opposition parties in Russia” (the authorship for the latter characteristic belongs to International Business Times) – such doubtful labels, or similar ones, are used by many Western media when they describe a small but ambitious Russian party RPR-PARNAS which unfortunately has been itself making too many mistakes and paying the price for that.

Obstinate limiting all the opposition in Russia to Alexei Navalny who even didn’t participate in the elections, being deprived of this right for committed fraud, as well as to RPR-PARNAS, means ignoring harsh reality in which they cannot be treated as a considerable opposition force. In this light, there is hardly any sense in commenting points about “main challenge” to the Kremlin in the “sleepy Kostroma”. However, it is worthwhile mentioning that RPR-PARNAS was admitted to the elections where it managed to comply with the qualification requirements. The fact that the party failed to comply in most of Russia’s regions is, before all, a question to the party itself, especially about its methods of signatures collection and other fishy business that provoked such an univocal reaction of election commissions nationwide.

Finishing with the issue of RPR-PARNAS in the “sleepy Kostroma”, which attracted unjustifiable huge attention from the foreign media (respectively, the author of this article was forced to do so as well), it is necessary to touch upon the episode with actions of the Russian police in the apartments which, as it turned out, served as headquarters of the party. Not all foreign journalists bothered to write about those events, but those who did described the actions of the police almost as a gangster attack on innocent angels. They did so without mentioning cash money of dubious provenance found in the apartment, real reasons of the detention of RPR-PARNAS representative Andrei Pivovarov (gaining illegal access to the personal passport data of citizens, allegedly for “checking the signatures”), and also the fact that the owner of the apartment found out that his apartment served as party headquarters only from the police.

Myth 4: “independent surveys”
Quite often one can find in foreign publications references to so-called “independent surveys” (for example, that of Golos NGO in an article by the Guardian), which are described to the reader as an objective source of information about the Russian elections. Most attractive for the foreign media in such “surveys” are points on suppression of “opposition” and “independent candidates” (under which, of course, ‘non-systemic’ parties and candidates are meant). It is, however, not specified, from whom exactly these candidates are independent. Also exit-poll data provided by the ‘non-systemic’ opposition is taken seriously and positioned almost as more authoritative than information from election commissions and major Russian sociological think-tanks. Relying on such “independent” surveys, it is much easier to tell the European and American audience the “truth” about authoritarian Russia suffering from tyranny.

It is, of course, not the full list of myths, and attentive reader will be able find even more mistakes, inaccuracies and stereotypes when studying publications in foreign media about the regional elections in Russia. The problem of objective perception of Russia abroad touches upon not only electoral processes but the country as a whole, its domestic and foreign policies.

Yan Vaslavskiy,
Director, Rethinking Russia,
Associate Professor, MGIMO University

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