"Political technology": why is it alive and flourishing in the former USSR?

Since the 1990s, post-Soviet elites have used manipulation, corruption and the government machine to maintain their grip on power. But with countries' paths diverging over time and with little opposition to speak of in many cases, Andrew Wilson asks: why is there still a need for these dark arts?

Andrew Wilson
17 June 2011

"Political technology" – a term largely unfamiliar in the West - is the euphemism commonly used in the former Soviet states for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation. There is a general understanding that elections are fixed in most countries of the region, from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, but we still do not look closely enough at just how they are fixed.

"Political technology" – a term largely unfamiliar in the West - is the euphemism commonly used in the former Soviet states for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation. There is a general understanding that elections are fixed in most countries of the region, from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, but we still do not look closely enough at just how they are fixed.

I first sought to describe the workings of ‘political technology’ in my book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Former Soviet World, which came out in 2005. The timing made sense. Political technology had by then helped the Kremlin achieve almost total control of the political process in Russia. The opposition was shut out of the Duma at the parliamentary elections in 2003, creating a four-party oligopoly of official Kremlin parties that more or less persists to this day.

The presidential election in 2004 represented a different type of peak of control: overwhelming victory was achieved for Putin on a target of ’70 and 70’ (vote and turnout). The high vote was achieved by ensuring that even the Kremlin parties only put forward second-string candidates to stand against Putin. High turnout was supposed to follow by forcing local authorities to act as competitive vote-farmers, but the two aims conflicted. Elections without real contestation inevitably lower public interest, forcing the Kremlin to use rising levels of ‘administrative resources’ to pad the turnout. Putin won 71.3% of the vote, but participation was a disappointing 64.3%.

The Yukos affair played a big part in both victories. It made bashing the oligarchs the main theme for the elections (the more descriptive Russian word is dramaturgiia ), and it established the Kremlin’s monopoly on manipulation. It is often said that Mikhail Khodorkovskii was arrested because he had been ‘interfering in politics’. More exactly, he had been playing the political technology game and funding everybody from Yabloko to the Communists. The rule of the game defined at the famous meeting in 2000 between Putin and oligarchs never said the oligarchs should (completely) stay out of politics: they were still required to do their share of funding the Kremlin parties (Khodorkovskii was also funding United Russia). But it was now firmly established that they should stay out of political technology.

2004, however, also marked a potential turn in the opposite direction after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which was a protest against both crude election fraud and the manipulation techniques of political ‘technology’. There were many reasons why the Orange Revolution ended in such disappointment – but one of these was undoubtedly the fact that political technology continued to infect the system, even though the formal conduct of elections improved. Viktor Yanukovych, having failed to manipulate his way to power in 2004, ironically won a largely free and fair vote in February 2010; and has since tried to turn the clock back as far as he can go.

Vote counting in Moldova

Elections in the former USSR countries vary in their freeness and fairness. Some countries like Moldova (in picture) and Georgia are now trying to clean up their act, while the Baltic States have moved quickly towards stable political systems. Yet uses of "political technology" can be found right across the region. (Photo: Demotix / John Roshka)

Three sets of questions suggest themselves.  First, why does Russia still bother with political technology? Does it still need its techniques? Isn’t the Kremlin going to win elections anyway?

Second, what types of political technology were able to survive in Ukraine in the changed circumstances after 2004? Which techniques could not be used? Which have revived since 2010?

Third, how much political technology is used elsewhere in the former USSR? Some states, like the Baltic States, seem clean; but are not as perfectly clean as their image might suggest. Some are trying to clean up their act, like Moldova and Georgia; but as with Ukraine in 2005-10, the persistence of political technology reflects a deep-rooted corruption of political culture. At the other end of the spectrum are the local autocrats who are nervous that the Arab Spring will affect all dictators rather than just Muslim ones. Will they respond with liberalization or preemptive control? Political technology will obviously help with tightening the screws, but ironically it might also help with faking a more democratic facade.

Why does Russia still bother?

In Russia at least, in an atmosphere of almost complete control, most political technologists seem to have done themselves out of a job. Only a few are still connected to a very narrow circle of power.

The dominant political party in Russia, United Russia,
is a classic "party of power". Set up to feed Putin's
dominance into the party political system, it is "dry"
and almost entirely without programme - "like
Pinocchio, it is trying to become real, but it can't".

But political technology has also been a victim of its own success. Over-control has squeezed political life out of the system, and left it brittle. The general public may not spot every trick, but they are quite rightly generally cynical that they are being conned. And puppet life is not real life: political technology can create Frankenstein’s monsters that escape the bonds of control, but mainly it creates fake dramas and inert political agents. According to one Russian practitioner, “United Russia is like Pinocchio – it is trying to become real, but it can’t. It’s trying to become a political subject, but after all, we all know that there’s only one political subject” (Putin).[1] United Russia has suffered from its lack of a real active role. It is used too much as a shield against potential challengers: it is more of a party to protect power than a party in power. There is therefore work for political technologists in cleaning up their own mess.

System maintenance

The first reason why political technology survives in Russia is that the system that has been built has to be maintained. First, political corpses need to be revived. The Putinist ‘Popular Front’ launched in May 2011 is an obvious attempt to refresh the jaded United Russia brand. 

Second, as Graeme Robertson points out, regime supporters will be inconsistent over time. So-called ‘satellite parties’ may spin out of orbit when the regime is under pressure, as when the Polish Communists’ two tame allies, the Democrats and the United People’s Party, defected to Solidarity’s side in 1989.[2] And short of actual defection, apparently coopted parties will flirt with the real opposition when the regime is weak.

Conversely, previously disloyal parties or individuals may decide to win official favour, which is roughly the story of the Russian Communists since 2003.

Rodina party logo

The Kremlin's management of the party system has
looked to marginalise the genuine while retaining a
veneer of pluralism. Few projects have succeeded,
due to their artificial nature. Rodina ("Motherland") is
a case in point, having been created as a way to split
the Communist vote, but then merged into the blander
Just Russia, which itself now seems to be on the wane.

The right mixture of sticks and carrots therefore needs to be kept in place to keep regime oligopolies intact. In Russia, the Kremlin seems to have a persistent problem with the fake left; first Rodina proved impossible to control after 2003, now its successor Just Russia is trying to leech some energy from real opposition groups, but seems itself to be in decline.

System change

The changing balance of power within the ‘deep state’ may also lead to new projects, especially if existing formulae grow stale. Just Russia in 2007 was backed by the Russian ‘siloviki’.[3] A ‘Medvedev party’ may one day emerge, but maybe not just yet. The ‘Popular Front’ will seek to monopolise the political space to prevent rival projects emerging in the short-term – which is deeply ironic as the term was used in many Soviet Republics in the Gorbachev era to mean united opposition to the regime. 

Meeting new challenges

The system also needs to respond to outside developments. There may be some inherent types of blowback. Robertson writes that, as with monopolies in economic theory, dominant ‘generalist’ parties like United Russia may prompt a proliferation of niche competitors. The abolition of elected governors after 2004 also means that the system has fewer lightning rods. [4] Local protests during the economic crisis have been fewer in number than many originally predicted, but have tended to have more national effect.

Vote counting in Moldova

Two sides of the remarkable Kremin-sponsored youth group, Nashi. Determined to challengethe narrative that equated youth groups with colour revolutions, the Kremlin set up its own pro-government youth movement. It has been a recipe for some very bizarre results

Other challenges come of course from unforeseen events in the outside world. The first challenge to the Kremlin was already imminent in 2003-04. After the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Kremlin political technologists, to compensate for the declining number of ‘real’ elections in Russia and for the mistakes they had made in Ukraine, developed a new brand of what they openly called ‘Counter-Revolutionary Technology’. According to Gleb Pavlovskii, organisations like Nashi were deliberately set up to ensure that ‘what happened in Georgia and Ukraine will not happen here’.[5] The election in Belarus in 2006 was used as a testing ground for neutralizing many of what the political technologists saw as the key triggers of ‘coloured revolution’: exit polls were made less effective by ‘cloning’ them with polls that echoed the official fake result, much effort went into sponsoring alternative regime-friendly NGOs and ‘ersatz social movements’.[6] Russian efforts were copied in states like Azerbaijan, where the regime also set up the youth group Ireli (‘Forward’).

The Kremlin has tried to cover all bases since the global economic crisis led to a fear of revived protest movements. Interviewed in October 2008, Gleb Pavlovskii initially talked of the likelihood of setting up a new Kremlin left party as a protest shock-absorber.[7] In 2010, however, anti-regime protest seemed more likely on the right. The Kremlin has always been more afraid of a Putin-plus force - that is, some combination of nationalism and social populism. Patriots of Russia has therefore been used as shock-absorber on the right. But the regime is increasingly also aware of its own failure to deliver on reform: there are some signs that it may wind down Just Russia and promote the right-centre project Just Cause, now headed by the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, as a new second string regime party instead.

One advantage of political technology is that it is ‘dry’. It helps regimes function without ideology, and move from one option to another. Ivan Krastev claims that authoritarian regimes may actually be more stable without an official ideology, which gives oppositions something to mobilise against. But, as stated above, without any real ideology political technology parties tend to be ‘dry’ too.

Meeting new challengers

The Kremlin maintained its four party oligopoly at the 2007 Duma elections: barriers to entry remain high. But the Kremlin also maintains an outer line of defence. Any real opposition that even gets close to challenging the 7% barrier for representation is likely to meet counter-measures.  ‘Fly’ parties that only exist to take small bites out of opposition votes have proven more, not less, important since 2003, even if they are normally on suicide missions. Projects like Civic Force and the Democratic Party (1.05% and 0.13% respectively in 2007) seem like a waste of time and money if it is assumed their mission was to win 7%, but make perfect sense if it is understood that their mission was to stop the likes of Yabloko getting anywhere near the target (it won 1.6%).

Varying the formula

Every election seems to require a new dramaturgiia, in part because voters are unlikely to be fooled by repeat tricks. The 1996 election was about bashing the Communists; in 1999-2000 it was the turn of the Chechens, followed in 2003-04 by the oligarchs. The 2007-08 elections were about Russia resurgent versus just about everybody, in order to make sake the transfer of the amorphous popularity of ‘Putin’s Plan’ to Medvedev. Arguably, one reason that earlier versions of would-be ‘parties of power’ failed in 1993 and 1995 was that they were not puffed up by an enemy to engage.

Vote counting in Moldova

Russian elections have to have a narrative, or "dramaturgiya", which the ruling elite ensure dominates proceedings. In 1999-2000 it was the threat posed by Chechnya, Moscow bombings and Putin's action-hero posturing. In 2003-4 it was his similarly macho attitude to the threat posed by the oligarchs, symbolised by the fall from grace of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. 

So by now it seems to be an established principle that all Russian elections have to have a dramaturgiia. The Kremlin doesn’t yet do routine - though Sergei Markov said as early as 2007 that ‘People are tired of being mobilized; they want to relax. That’s why they support Putin. People are tired from too many conflicts’.[8] Political technology may have an inbuilt tendency towards drama inflation, or at least towards inventing a new drama for every election, which is likely to be destabilising in the long run. The electorate can sense a lack of competition, and political technologists constantly have to fight against the declining turnout they themselves have caused – either with more drama or more fraud. At any rate, the virtual competition between Putin and Medvedev may become increasingly sharp, not just because Russia faces real choices in 2012, but to give the Russian electorate a sense through the apparent competition that there is a real struggle for their votes.

Russia’s post-modern pre-modern political culture

Russia’s ubiquitous new slogan is ‘modernisation’. But post-Soviet Russia is a curious mix of the pre-modern and the post-modern. As Richard Sakwa puts it, Russia ‘is a redevelopmental state struggling to overcome the legacy of Soviet mismodernization’.[9] Many of the political technologists’ own justifications for their trade rest on this paradox.

Sergei Markov has given a variety of explanations: ‘in Russia we had a tremendous peak in political technology in the 1990s’ (he is too modest about his own role in the early 2000s), followed by a temporary lull. But its importance was rising again. ‘In a situation when institutions are very weak, these techniques become influential. As institutions grow stronger, there will be less need for political technology. But in the world in general, institutions are becoming weaker’. ‘Public opinion is not disappearing, but it is becoming more artificially created. Political competition is increasingly a competition for the right to programme public opinion’. [10]

Markov’s colleague Gleb Pavlovskii also talks of both temporary and long-term factors: "in the 1990s you couldn’t base yourselves on social groups, you couldn’t use administrative structures. So you drew a picture". So a more stable Russia ought to have less need for political technology. But Pavlovskii also says that today ‘we live in a mythological era, where it is difficult to distinguish between myths and reality – like for the ancient Greeks – politics is not based on political knowledge, but on the myths promoted by the mass media’.[11]

The self-serving argument that Russia is no different from other post-modern political cultures where cynical manipulation is the norm implies a longer-term future for political technology. Indeed Russian practitioners would argue that it is the global norm: all politics is realpolitik, political technology also exists in the West, but we simply disguise it better – which rather downplays the extent to which they have corrupted their own system.

The Baltic States

Apart from Russia, the other former Soviet states fall into three basic categories. As the three Baltic States are now in the EU and NATO and like to think of themselves as new model Scandinavian democracies, the persistence of some types of political technology is therefore a useful reminder that they are not as clean as they would like to suggest. The Savisaar affair before the Estonian elections in March 2011 showed that covert action, subterranean party finance and the persistent use of kompromat are still features of local political culture. Local oligarchs providing opaque sponsorship to political parties remains a problem, especially in Latvia, where Andris Šķēle (People’s Party), Ainārs Šlesers (Latvia First) and Aivars Lembergs (Greens) dominated politics until the 2010 elections. Nevertheless, wholly fake parties don’t really exist in the Baltic States: they are too small and their media markets are too free.

The soft authoritarians

Most of the post-Soviet states, however, are "competitive authoritarian" regimes like Russia. Some are relatively "hard" and have little need for political technology; some are relatively "soft". Many Russian political technologists ply their trade abroad, though countries like Ukraine are joining in the export trade too.

In Belarus there were rumours before the December 2010 elections that the "grey cardinal" heads of the Presidential Administration Uladzimer Makei and Natalia Piatkevich were toying with the idea of introducing a form of controlled pluralism, with various political technology parties orbiting a new regime party "Belaya Rus". However, Lukashenka seems to fear that a regime party would be a lobby for bureaucratic interests. Hardliners like Viktar Sheiman and old-style fixers like Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich were put back in charge instead, and Belarus has entered a new and unpredictable phase, with extension use of repression tearing up the previous rule of the game.

Lukashenka was lucky that his crackdown came before the Arab Spring. Elsewhere, particularly in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, regimes have to second-guess whether stability is more likely to be preserved by tightening or by loosening the screws. There are signs that regimes like Kazakhstan and possibly Azerbaijan may move towards more apparent pluralism out of nervousness at the Arab Spring – but only as an alternative to actually democratising. Limited copycat protests in spring 2011 were suppressed in Azerbaijan and in Armenia, where the commemoration of a local anniversary – the previous suppression of protests after the last rigged election in 2008 – made them more resonant. 

The Orange Revolution as antidote

Aside from the Baltic States, three post-Soviet states can be considered as serious potential democracies: Georgia since 2003, Ukraine since 2004 and Moldova since 2009. But to varying degrees each is still marred by the continued use of political technology. 

Ukraine was the one state where popular expectations for the eradication of political technology were high after 2004, but some practices proved harder to eradicate than others. The parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007 were big improvements, but still not entirely free and fair. The Party of Regions in particular still benefited from its monopoly of power in "controlled regions" like the Donbas, where one study calculated they were still able to shift between 102,000 and 163,000 votes to try and benefit their Socialist allies in 2007.[12]

Fake parties and "technical candidates" ought to have disappeared, given the ‘exposure effect’ of improved media freedom, but were still around at both elections. Indeed a lot of money was wasted on such parties: including Ne Tak!, Eko+25% and Viche in 2006, and the ‘renewed’ Communists, Hromada and Regional Active in 2007. One such project was successful, however, for the former Kuchma allies and second-tier oligarchs who backed Volodymyr Lytvyn, who won 20 seats and the balance of power in parliament in 2007. But, although you could still fool some of the people some of the time, the kind of broad-based project equivalent to Russia’s Unity in 1999 was now a difficult sell in Ukraine.

However, Ukraine’s mass media, even in the orange era, was more pluralistic than it was free. Rival TV channels and papers still functioned as ‘toilet pipes’ (slivnoi bachok ). "Virtual parties" may have declined in importance, but ‘black PR’ and "kompromat wars" continued to flourish. In fact, they were arguably more virulent because leading actors were deprived of other weapons.

Moldova and Georgia have also had varying success in trying to get rid of political technology. Both are small states, which makes selling fake projects more difficult. Even under Vladimir Voronin (2001-09), the eminence gris of the ruling Moldovan Communists Mark Tkachuk concentrated on manipulating the mass media and administrative resources. Most political parties remained real. Though the use of agent provocateurs  to stage violent protests as an excuse to hold on to power after the elections in April 2009 was a classic political technology ploy.

Georgia under Shevardadze saw several minor parties secretly backed by oligarchic and Russian money. Georgia under Saakashvili has a hegemonic ruling party, but has specialised in black PR and the selective use of the tax police to harass political opponents. Even after 2009, Moldova’s judiciary remains an "administrative resource" and party labels still disguise business groups seeking to colonise the state.

Ukraine revives political technology under Yanukovych          

Ukraine under Yanukovych may be dismantling democracy, but it is unlikely to move towards full-blooded authoritarianism. It is restoring political technology where it can instead.

The first step was the revival of "administrative resources" in the local elections in October 2010. The opportunities for direct ballot stuffing were limited, so the authorities used "legal technologies" to prevent the opposition registering in many localities and setting up fake "clone" branches instead.

But the main opposition Tymoshenko Block still secured second place in the elections. Constant legal harassment and the luring away of business supporters have weakened but not destroyed it. One faction in the regime sought to up the ante against the opposition when formal charges were laid against Tymoshenko in May 2011. Another has promoted satellite parties to try and replace it. Oligarchs close to the regime have covertly financed the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda ("Freedom"), which also serves as a "scarecrow" - a chimerical "worse alternative" to the current authorities; but recent polls have shown Svoboda reaching a ceiling (3.1%). In Ukraine the potential audience for a radical right-populist party may have grown during the economic crisis, but is historically limited to radical fringes in western regions. The idea that Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tiahnybok could serve as an easily defeatable opponent for Yanukovych in a second round presidential election instead of Tymoshenko is fanciful (though it has been mooted); but his party could still help divide the opposition vote at the parliamentary elections due in 2012.

So regime technologists are toying with the idea of copying the Russian strategy of having two official "regime parties" instead. Though Ukrainian circumstances imply a different division of labour to Russia, where Just Russia is "to the left" of the catch-all party United Russia. In Ukraine, the Party of Regions’ electorate in south-east Ukraine is largely left-of-centre: a second regime party might therefore either be quasi-liberal or quasi-rightist, to undercut the Tymoshenko Block in western and central Ukraine.

The original candidate for the second party in 2010 was Serhii Tihipko’s Strong Ukraine; but Deputy Prime Minister Tihipko was handed responsibility for tax and then pension reform, alienating his natural supporters. He also suffered simply because he was in government. Polling by the Razumkov Centre in April 2011 showed support for Strong Ukraine dropping sharply to 4.9%: although the Front for Change fronted by another regime-friendly politician Arsenii Yatseniuk had risen to a respectable if not decisive 8.1%, so the second party idea could be revived or transferred to another, newer project.

One final trick may be to exploit new parties like Udar! ("Punch!") headed by the popular boxer Vitalii Klychko. The Party of Regions has not obstructed its recent rise in the polls (to 3.2%), as the party could be used for "parachutists": i.e. some current Party of Regions MPs could be placed on its election list, if Regions drops further in the opinion polls.

Political technology: here to stay in soft authoritarian states

The politics of deception ought to be a passing phenomenon. Post-Soviet voters are rightly cynical that they are so often tricked or fooled, so political technologists tend not to use the same trick twice (except when they sell cheap repeat performances to clients in other countries). But political technology is what makes ‘soft authoritarianism’ in states like Russia soft, and the Kremlin is likely to continue to prefer it to full-blown authoritarianism. The deterioration of democracy in Ukraine also increases the scope for its use. Elsewhere, the Arab Spring is likely to prompt nervous regimes towards the imitation of democracy rather than real democracy. Political technology is therefore likely to remain a feature of post-Soviet politics for the foreseeable future.


[1] ECFR interview, Moscow May 2011.

[2] Graeme B. Robertson, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes. Managing Dissent in Post-Communist Russia , (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 164-6.

[3] Luke March, ‘Managing Opposition in a Hybrid Regime: Just Russia and Parastatal Opposition’, Slavic Review , vol. 68, no. 3 (Fall 2009), pp. 504-27.

[4] Robertson, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes , as above.

[5] Author’s interview with Gleb Pavlovskii, Moscow, 19 December 2007.

[6] Robertson, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes , pp. 192-7.

[7] Author’s interview with Gleb Pavlovskii, Moscow, 20 October 2008.

[8] Author’s interview with Sergei Markov, Moscow, 19 December 2007.

[9] Richard Sakwa, The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism and the Medvedev Succession , (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 57.

[10] Author’s interview with Sergei Markov, Moscow, 19 December 2007.

[11] Author’s interview with Gleb Pavlovskii, Moscow, 19 December 2007.

[12] Mikhail Myagkov, Peter C. Ordeshook and Dmitri Shakin, The Forensics of Election Fraud: Russia and Ukraine , (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 219.

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