The key participants in Russian elections are not the voters, and not even the members of the election committees who tot up the votes and then tweak them in favour of the United Russia candidate. The main players are the bureaucrats, at district, municipal and regional level, who are responsible for the organisation and results of this democratic exercise. These officials are as yet unaware of what is going to hit them in 2013, when elections of one kind or another will begin to be held not in October, but in September. The people behind this innovation designed it in the first place as a move against the opposition, but it is their loyal officials that will be hardest hit.
Some extremely unpleasant news and its consequences
Russians go to the polls every four or five years to elect local councils, mayors, and (once again) governors, but these elections are not synchronised across the country, and in any given year there will be elections in some regions. So each year towns and cities across Russia become the scene of events reminiscent of the opening of Gogol’s famous comedy ‘The Government Inspector’.
'In Gogol’s ‘Government Inspector’, the news of an impending inspection jolts the town bureaucrats into hurriedly paying attention to their official duties, or at least going through the motions. Today’s election briefings provide a similar stimulus.'
The regional governor, town mayor or district council head calls together his subordinates to inform them of some ‘extremely unpleasant news’. The news is not, however, as in Gogol’s work, that a high ranking official is coming from the capital to carry out an inspection, but that it is time to elect a new local or regional authority or its head.
In Gogol’s play, the news of an impending inspection jolts the town bureaucrats into hurriedly paying attention to their official duties, or at least going through the motions. Today’s election briefings provide a similar stimulus. Since elections mostly take place in autumn, on the second Sunday of October, officials are under strict orders to be back at their desks after their holidays no later than 1st August. And this applies not only to the heads of the health, education and utilities departments, but to their rank and file employees. Everyone who draws a salary from a federal, regional or municipal budget is to be at work from 1st August, ready to carry out their bosses’ instructions. Holiday package vouchers, flight tickets unthinkingly bought back in spring – all have to be cancelled. An absence of even one day becomes the equivalent of a battlefield desertion.
Not all management demands are strictly related to election preparations, except in the case of teachers, since schools are used as polling stations. All other public sector employees have a different role: to canvass on behalf of whoever is currently in power, which usually means United Russia candidates. This canvassing is not necessarily direct, although as Election Day approaches it becomes increasingly so. The aim is to create a more sympathetic image of the regime, to show that officials are conscientious in their work, or at least that managers are capable of making them do it.
Heat, light, courtesy
Two months before an election, the quality of life in Russian towns and cities improves substantially. If, for example, a mains pipe bursts the year before an election, local residents can be left without water for several days. If there is an election in the offing, repairs will take only a few hours.
The central heating season also begins earlier than usual. In Russia the heating of residential buildings in both towns and villages is centralised: hot water is piped into thousands of housing blocks from an enormous heating plant several kilometres away. The regulations state that heating should start after the outside temperature has stood at 8℃ or less for five days. But with Russia’s continental climate it often happens that September temperatures can reach 10℃ during the day but then drop to -3℃ overnight. Before an election, however, the regulations are forgotten – the main thing is that the voters will be warm.
'If street lighting is faulty, for example, local residents frequently resort to undisguised blackmail, writing a collective letter to the mayor threatening to withdraw their votes from United Russia if it isn’t fixed. In two days the street is lit up like Disneyland. '
Officials who have direct contact with the public also become very polite when there is an election coming up. Complaints normally take weeks or months to be dealt with, but with polling round the corner, they are sorted out in a few days. An employee who has not been sufficiently nice to an elderly lady may even be ordered to buy her flowers and chocolates out of his own pocket and take them round to her home. Older voters are, after all, the most reliable.
Russians are well aware that the regime only loves them at election time, and make the most of this window of opportunity. If street lighting is faulty, for example, local residents frequently resort to undisguised blackmail, writing a collective letter to the mayor threatening to withdraw their votes from United Russia if it isn’t fixed. In two days the street is lit up like Disneyland.
No beach, no mushrooms
For Russia’s enormous public sector, the moving of elections forward a month, from October to September, is a serious blow. Even under the old system, having elections in October seriously messed up officials’ summer holidays, which in effect ended on 1st August, so they could forget about trips at home or abroad after that date and get back to work. They also had to make sure that their subordinates were at their desks.
But under the new law, anyone working in the public sector can forget altogether about lying on a beach or indulging in typical Russian pursuits such as mushroom picking. Senior management may still be able to take time off in June to sun themselves on a beach in Egypt, Turkey, Spain or Montenegro, but lower grade employees will be completely stuck. In June, Russian lakes and rivers are still too cold for bathing, there are no mushrooms or berries in the forest and the hunting season is not yet open.
'Under the new law, anyone working in the public sector can forget altogether about lying on a beach or indulging in typical Russian pursuits such as mushroom picking.'
Teachers are in the worst situation. August used to be the month when they prepared for the new school year. Now they will have to spend it on the more important task of preparing their school for its role as polling station, as well as going to briefings on how to achieve the necessary results.
The rest of the Russian public are also in for a shock. No one is forcing them to return to work on 1st July; they will take the whole of August off as usual, but come September they will suddenly discover they are to vote in a few days.
Is it all the opposition’s fault?
So why did the Kremlin decide to blight the lives of bureaucrats and other public sector employees? Most probably, it drew hasty and badly thought through conclusions from a mistake made by the opposition last winter. The most widespread protests against electoral fraud came in December, after the federal parliamentary elections. By January the numbers of people attending rallies were tailing off, and not as a result of any smart initiatives on the part of Putin and his entourage. Simply, the leaders of the opposition took a two week break from campaigning. It is true that in Russia there is an unofficial winter holiday between 30th December and 10th January (which in fact is sometimes extended to 13th January – New Year’s Day in the pre-1917 calendar). This break is the signal for the better-off to go abroad, to European countries or tropical resorts. And this is precisely what the opposition leaders did. Aleksey Navalny flew to Mexico, Dmitry Bykov visited a South American volcano and Boris Akunin went off to his French chalet. Other prominent opposition figures also left the country.
'It’s not difficult to see the logic of the president’s analysts. If the opposition always goes off on holiday before elections, then elections should take place immediately after holidays.'
The people working for the presidential machine probably also had holiday plans, but unlike the opposition, they had Putin and Medvedev as bosses. They were ordered not to take any leave, but to get to work. And when the opposition leaders returned home to continue their protest campaign against Putin, their opponent was ready for the fight and was always one step ahead of them.
It’s not difficult to see the logic of the president’s analysts. If the opposition always goes off on holiday before elections, then elections should take place immediately after holidays. The main holiday month in Russia is August, so elections should happen in September. The opposition won’t deliver their supporters to the polling stations in any case, and there are enough people who will vote for United Russia everywhere.
A risky experiment
There is a risk with any trap that the hunter himself might fall into it, and this is certainly what has happened here. The people who have suffered most from it are the regime’s own servants, deprived of their summer break, and make to spend the best two months of the year, July and August, at their desks, organising elections.
Public servants in Russia, as indeed elsewhere, are not given to loud protests. They prefer a little quiet sabotage. At best, they will carry out their bosses’ orders, but slowly. At worst, they will throw a real spanner in the works, as revenge for their missed holiday. Desertion rates will go up: people will go away with their families for two days, and return after a week. In Putin’s power vertical, direct protest is unforgivable, but human weakness is taken less seriously. It’s very likely that in a year or two most officials will spend July and August as they did when elections were in October.
There is also a good chance that a new type of opposition leader will emerge, people who will take their role seriously. They will not repeat Navalny’s mistake, and go off on holiday at a point when every day matters. They will not spend August on the beach or in the forest. And if such a politician emerges in a year when the Kremlin makes serious social or economic miscalculations, then August may see a rash of hard-hitting campaigning activity by opposition forces.
'There is also a good chance that a new type of opposition leader will emerge, who will not repeat Navalny’s mistake, and go on holiday at a point when every day matters. They will not spend August on the beach or in the forest.'
I should add that in Russia the month of August has a very bad reputation. Since 1991, the year of the abortive attempt by part of the Communist elite to overthrow Gorbachov, many Russians always expect something awful to happen in August: a financial crisis, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, a war. In the tabloid press it has become standard practice to describe anything bad that happens in August, however insignificant, as a ‘catastrophe’. Up until now, with elections taking place at the beginning of October, September has always been a ‘buffer month’ when people could forget whatever happened in August. Now that buffer has disappeared, and some insignificant event in August could reawaken voters’ anxieties and fear, with who knows what unexpected consequences for the regime.
Among all the mistakes made by the Kremlin and United Russia in 2012, the introduction of a single day in September for holding local elections might seem the least important. But it could turn out to cause unforeseen damage in the future, when Russia has a strong opposition and the bureaucrats are even more sluggish than they are now.