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Vote or You’ll Walk Away Empty-Handed

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (March 11−15)

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The first day of voting in Russia’s presidential election showed us exactly how the electoral machine reconfigured by Sergei Kiriyenko’s political bloc operates. By Friday, the day’s final turnout had already exceeded 30 per cent of all eligible voters. In the morning, polling stations were filled with queues of public sector employees or employees of companies loyal to the government. Corporate mobilisation means that the majority of the electorate dependent on the state for their employment and incomes should vote as early as possible, so that managers can bring the «laggards» up to speed. A high turnout on a week day is a clear sign of corporate mobilisation. It seems that the campaign managers are no longer embarrassed to resort to this form of voter coercion: election commissions have published photos of «collectives of workers», to use the Soviet parlance, arriving at the polling stations at a certain time in organized groups, sometimes even wearing their work uniforms.

Electronic voting (remote e-voting) was also part of the corporate mobilisation. The «electronic voter» is easier to control. In the regions where this form of expression was used, the authorities tried to drive as many dependent voters as possible to the e-voting centres. By Friday evening, more than half of the «electronic voters» had cast their ballots electronically (the figures exclude Moscow). In Moscow, almost 30 per cent of the total number of voters (2.2 million out of 7.65 million) had voted electronically by 6pm. Only 5 per cent of all registered voters turned up at the actual polling stations in the capital.

One could say that the Kremlin’s political bloc has almost perfected the mechanisms of mobilising and controlling the dependent electorate over the last six years. But this machine has proved to be rather cumbersome, noisy and uncomplicated. It is clear even to those who support the authorities that the elections have become a voluntary and compulsory event, a kind of tax collected by the Kremlin. The election formula is simply described as «vote or you’ll walk away empty-handed». The «it» can be a pay rise, a promotion. Some people might even get sacked if they ignore the elections. Even the passive supporters of the authorities are not really excited about this approach: they are distracted from their work duties, forced to get up early to vote before work starts, or deprived of lunch time.

The political bloc and the regional authorities are trying to disguise the coercion to vote by sending actors to the polling stations dressed as cartoon characters, historical figures or fairy tale characters, but these mobilisation efforts look rather ridiculous in a country embroiled in war. The situation is somewhat alleviated by various competitions and lotteries held at polling stations, often linked to corporate mobilisation. At least the voter is offered material benefits and is «compensated» for his or her anxiety.

Erasing the voluntary nature of elections and, in the medium term, turning voting into a compulsory tax-like duty, could create problems for the Kremlin and for Putin personally. Even loyalists who are unhappy with coercion are willing to tolerate it as long as the authorities have something to offer them in return. If economic and social problems arise and the country’s leadership rating falls, people will be sure to remember the coercion to vote. Even former supporters will think that no one really voted for the president in full seriousness, that he was not elected or voted in in the true sense of the word. This is what happened with the Soviet elections, which few believed to be free or truly legitimate.

The fight begins

Yuri Kovalchuk’s son Boris Kovalchuk has become deputy head of the Presidential Control Directorate. If one brackets out the context, this news looks like another proof of the omnipotence of the Kovalchuk family and its further expansion. However, Boris Kovalchuk did not just drop into his new job from the sky: for a long time he had been at the helm of an energy company Interrao. A position in a state corporation or an enterprise close to the state is a dream for many Russian officials, including the most senior ones. In this sense, Boris Kovalchuk has moved in the opposite direction: from his position as director of Interrao, he moved to a less important Kremlin chair. At the same time, the media reported that Kovalchuk could have gotten much more important positions in the Russian power hierarchy. He was expected to become general director of Rosneft or Gazprom, or vice prime minister for the fuel and energy complex. The most important in this line of succession are the positions of heads of Rosneft and Gazprom, large state corporations that trade in raw materials. If Boris Kovalchuk were to move into one of these positions, he would have become one of the key players in the Russian power system, and his family’s position would have been dramatically amplified. A position in the government as deputy minister of Energy would be less desirable, but quite acceptable to Boris Kovalchuk, his father and uncle. In this way, the family would have been able to influence decisions about the fuel and energy complex.

However, their wishes were not granted: Boris Kovalchuk found himself in the Kremlin, not in the real sector or the government. It is possible that in May, after Putin’s inauguration and during the major general reshuffle, he will be able to become a full-fledged head of the Control Directorate. This promotion will not be an impressive career move either. Even people interested in Russian politics will probably struggle to remember the name of the current head of this structure, Dmitry Shalkov. One can think of the previous heads of the Directorate: Konstantin Chuichenko and Alexander Beglov. Both did not get lost in the power vertical and hold on to good positions within it. Chuichenko is a Minister of Justice, Beglov is the current head of St. Petersburg. Beglov’s job comes with a lot of power and influence, many prominent political dream of becoming governors of Russia’s second major, but the incumbent governor had travelled a long and winding road till he got to his chair. It is likely that Boris Kovalchuk and his patrons have a long-term strategy in mind, but the current appointment is clearly not what they have hoped for.

Apparently, the Kovalchuk family was really hurt by the failed appointment. The pro-Kremlin Telegram channels were quick to stress how influential the Directorate really is, and how it might serve as a «springboard» for Boris Kovalchuk’s further career, given that Vladimir Putin used to work in the exact same department in the 1990s. If the appointment had suited Boris Kovalchuk and his family, such posts would hardly have appeared: a promotion that feels worthy and authentic does not require explanations.

The former Interrao chief’s unsuccessful career move is the first indication of the under-the-rug struggle for key positions in view of the much hoped-for «great reshuffle». Influential groups are trying to get their representatives into important positions, but they have no ready-made solutions and agreements. Public announcements of promotions for figures such as Boris Kovalchuk become a tool in this struggle, but also, an evidence of failure in the great bid for power.

Top reads
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  • Will Russia Face a New Mobilization?
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