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Postcard from the edge: an election view from Sakhalin

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The island of Sakhalin, once described by Chekhov as ‘hell’, lies six time-zones removed from Moscow in the Russian Far East. But when it comes to the upcoming elections, the apparent inevitability of victory for the status quo provokes very similar reactions, no matter where you live. Ksenya Semyonova finds her sense of humour becoming ever more desperate.

Ksenya Semenova
24 November 2011

We’re going to the circus!
We’re going to see the trainer,

Uncle Vova, and his performing bear.

The big top holds its breath with excitement,
I hold on to my dad and giggle,
But the bear doesn’t even growl –
He only sucks his paw comically,

Gets himself by the scruff of his neck
And bows solemnly to the children.

What a lovely time we always have
With Uncle Vova and his performing bear!

[Vova = Vladimir, i.e. Putin; Medved is Russian for bear] 

Theoretically Sakhalin, the region the furthest removed from Moscow, should be the least interested in political events. Strangely, that's not the case: here the public gets involved in all manner of heated discussions. Before we go on to particulars, however, it might be an idea to say something about Sakhalin residents' attitude to more global matters. The concept of an ‘election’, for instance.

Elections (noun) "a procedure for identifying performers for key positions in various social structures (the state, organisations). Elections are carried out by means of voting (secret or open) governed by certain electoral rules"

To all intents and purposes, the events planned for 4 December in Russia come under the heading of an ‘election’. Seven political parties are vying for key government ‘roles’ (what an apt word!) as deputies in the State Duma. Their numbers on the ballot papers are already known. You turn up and tick the box. Is that an election? It would seem so. 

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But for some reason, people in Sakhalin are sceptical and more inclined to trust to fate than to themselves in such matters. Their conviction that the outcome of the ‘election’ (they can only write this word with quote marks) is predetermined makes more work for the authorities, as represented by the electoral commission. TV screens, internet pages and billboards all abound with joyful young faces urging you to vote for the future, because it ‘depends on each and every one of us’.

If past years are anything to go by, such political advertising will have absolutely no effect on the turnout, because Sakhalin’s population regard members of the electoral commission as being at the very least in the pay of the party in power, if not its secret agents. ‘Everything's already decided’ is a common reason for not voting.

Not everyone is so apathetic, of course. Party supporters sprang into life about a month ago, but they are not tasked with explaining their position – what they have to do is smear their opponents. The Communists accuse United Russia members of monopolising power, corruption and lies; the United Russia people remind the Communists of the repressions under Stalin and give daily updates on their achievements via the media outlets that are under their control.

Rivals of United Russia don't have these privileges (i.e. money): they have to make do with the Sakhalin Forum (link in Russian), which is where the most heated discussions take place.

voting with dark blue thread

As elsewhere in Russia, Putin's United Russia party
is able to receive blanket coverage in Sakhalin
without having to develop a programme.
(Photo: admsakhalin.ru, all rights reserved)

After the public dethroning of Prokhorov [recently-ousted as leader], the Right Cause party has gone rather quiet. Before that, local party leaders had done their best to masquerade behind the famous surname. In the Just Russia party, meanwhile, the only thing one hears about is supporters being kicked out of the party one after another. They don't go willingly either: the head of the Sakhalin branch of Just Russia is carrying out a real purge of the ranks, which makes people doubt the stability of the party organisation. The sacking offence is usually 'breaking party rules'.

The Liberal Democratic Party only figures when its famous leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, visits the island, usually just before the election. This year, however, his visit was timed four months before the election, possibly to avoid comparisons with past years. It will be remembered for the exactly the same things as before: scandalous, almost extremist, statements and gimmicky populism, such as handing out money on the basis that it has been ‘stolen from the people’. In 2003 everyone who came to his rally got 50 roubles, but in 2011 the figure was 1,000 roubles. Why the hike? Inflation? Party funds in a better state? Or have the ‘thefts from the people’ increased? Zhirinovsky didn't explain.

What about other parties, like Patriots of Russia or Yabloko? Who are they? I can't really say and I'm pretty sure that most people on the island would have the same reaction.

I won't even try to predict the outcome of the election. What I can say is that the result will certainly not be a surprise.

The Sakhalin Region has a population of about 500,000 and if one fifth of these come to vote, that'll be a good turnout. A fifth of that one fifth are officials, the military and prisoners i.e. people who can be told straight, with no need for subtle hints, where to put their cross. So as to be quite sure that they have done exactly what they were (most undemocratically) told, they are also instructed to photograph their ballot paper.

And that's no fabrica1tion, more's the pity.

The remainder of the voters will either vote according to their convictions (there are still some of them left – though not many) or spoil their ballot paper. The day after, when the results have been announced, the discussions, accusations, lies, ‘rows, intrigues and investigations’ will all start again. What’s so funny is that the voices of the people who didn't vote will be the loudest in the clamour.

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As many as 80% of Sakhalin's residents are unlikely to vote in the upcoming elections. Far from being irresponsible citizens, they simply understand they can only rely on themselves, not on politicians or the state. (Photo: sakh.com / Andrei Klitin, some rights reserved

The faintest hint of intrigue – even the most apparently innocent – in the parliamentary elections on 4 December will pale into insignificance beside the further presidential election in March 2012. People on Sakhalin refuse categorically to dignify this presidential process with the word ‘election’. Call it what you like – a circus, farce, comedy – just not an election. And as for the results being predetermined… well, of course they are!

I should like to quote a few comments from the Sakhalin Forum when it was announced that ‘Medvedev has suggested that Putin should run for president’. On this matter, folk eloquence attains a high level:

Spectators applaud, applaud some more, then stop applauding!

Putin suggested to Medvedev that he should suggest to Putin that he should run for president.

How totally unexpected! What a smart move!

He should get an Oscar for the Best Performance.

But Putin is so modest.  His reply was ‘Thank you, but this is so unexpected’.

Khodorkovsky is in prison and he'll never get out.

I can't make myself call Medvedev a president. He's a pathetic spineless creature!

We've got 12 years of Putin rule ahead of us – Brezhnev will be turning in his grave with jealousy.

Whatever organisation we create, it always turns out like the Communist Party.

A history lesson in a school of the future: ‘Well, children, in 2035 was Putin prime minister or president?’

Quite right. Better Putin than Putin.

Not one of these comments will give rise to any questions. Well, what did you expect? The last one is there for a purpose, though: there may not be many comments like this, but can be heard. OK – so not Putin, not Medvedev. Who then? Zyuganov? Zhirinovsky? Nemtsov, perhaps? Who will be able to revive Russia? Who can we trust?

One would like to think that 80% of the Sakhalin population who don't turn out for the election on 4 December are not of the opinion that nothing depends on them. Rather that they think just the opposite – that everything depends on them. That they can only rely on themselves, and that it is only self-reliance that will lift the country out of its current mess. 

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