Recently, I have spoken with Ksenia Anatolyevna Sobchak, a potential candidate for the president of the Russian Federation; it would be incorrect to refer to her as a presidential candidate until she is registered by the Central Election Commission, which is yet to happen, if it happens at all. Nevertheless, I am going to share some of my thoughts on the matter.
First, let us define the basics, the most meaningful notions that actually matter, unlike superficial news items that we have aplenty. At large, the electoral circle, which I have explained many times over, encompasses a number of important events. In particular, this period offers the political system an opportunity to renew itself without losing its principal features. In democracies, the renewal occurs after the election according to the will expressed by the citizens. In not-quite-democracies and not-at-all-democracies, it occurs before the election, partly continues throughout the election, and finally comes to a halt shortly after. Importantly, what happens after the election has little to nothing to do with what the winning candidate, whose name everyone knows in advance, declared or promised during the campaign. The electoral circle includes a public stage – the election campaign as such. It goes on for a few months, which is shorter than in America, for instance, where elections also include party primaries. In Russia, an election campaign is normally short. Not only is it short, but it is also rather inconsequential. That is, the campaign does not include any elements that characterize the system in general, its plans, or the direction of its transformation. Basically, we need to keep in mind that the entire process bears little importance. Yesterday, I looked through the lists of people who have run for president starting from 2000. I remain convinced that you cannot tell, either by the list of candidates or by the outcome of the election, what the subsequent presidential term has in store for us; there seems to be no connection.
Nevertheless, what is important about this stage of the campaign? At this stage, regional authorities have to come up with the required results in their constituencies. Not only do they have to procure the required numbers, but they also have to use the required method. These conditions are set by the center and they change with every campaign. Some elections are focused on high turnout, while other prioritize legitimacy and transparency (or whatever stands for it in their understanding). As I see it, the current motto is «lawfulness,» which is achieved through satisfactory turnout. A high turnout is not a self-sufficient goal; they are after lawfulness because they want to look good. It should be noted that «the good looks» are not so easy to achieve on the regional and the local levels because everyone is afraid of one another, with security services at the throats of other agencies, including fellow security services, with CCTV cameras everywhere, and special instructions from the Central Election Commission. As a result, there are «soft berths» with old-fashioned ballot rigging, but most districts find it harder to pull off. How does it relate to the presidential candidates? Let us start with the following: regardless of his or her background, no candidate can turn the election into a farce or a comedy. An election only becomes a farce or a comedy if there is no actual political competition and, by consequence, no possibility of a resulting power shift. This is the chief purpose of elections as an institute of democracy. Elections are about changing power. If power does not change hands, it does not matter who the candidates are. In this context, saying that someone is compromising our sacred election with his or her presence is absurd – the election cannot be compromised because there is nothing left to compromise. This is my first point.
My second point is that an election campaign is a campaign defined by a single feature – its public nature. It is a period when disclosures are made, when people enter the spotlight with loud declarations. Is it what we need? Can it do any good? Can it trigger any changes for anyone? I don't know; I cannot know for sure. Generally speaking, it could be good if, during the months and weeks of the campaign, the speakers give birth to a certain stream of words, with some of them focused on slightly different things than «Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality,» which will inevitably be promoted by the vast majority of candidates. It could do us good. Those who counter this position say that the values we want promoted could be compromised if they are voiced by candidates of questionable decency.
My third point concerns the ill-fated question of participation. It is common knowledge that I am the main advocate in favor of participation in whatever initiative is out there. I follow in the steps of Aristotle, considering it the core quality of a citizen. I flatter myself with the hope that my incessant presence and wordy broadcasts during the Moscow municipal elections enabled me to explain to people why it is important to show up – and so they did. I am not saying they attended because of me, but my efforts contributed to the turnout as well, enabling Muscovites to elect many new municipal deputies. It gives me great pleasure to watch them show themselves in the best light. We are yet to see the real payoff. The Moscow elections were a milestone. I keep thinking that a similar approach could have been taken with deputies for single-member districts at the parliamentary elections. I do not want to throw around accusations, but it could have been possible to keep a list with candidates for single-member districts, one similar to Gudkov's, at least in such major cities as Moscow and St. Petersburg, so as to win a couple seats in the Duma. It would have been a good idea. It never happened, though. Elections to collective bodies, such as parliaments of all levels, are different from personal elections, such as gubernatorial, mayoral, and presidential elections. They are harder to control and there is a slight chance that your participation could secure a seat for your candidate, a fraction of access to power, a tiny bit of publicity, which is a good, useful thing and not to be taken lightly.
Does any of it pertain to the presidential election? As I remain convinced – or rather, remain confident that it is true because the dictionary says so – a boycott campaign is organized by election participants, not voters. In other words, if we think an election is wrong or compromised, we refrain from participation – we do not run for the post in question and call on our supporters to follow our lead. When citizens do not show up at the poll stations, it is called absenteeism. The phenomenon itself does not speak of anything particular. At the same time, the political system sets the target turnout rate at the level that would be seen as adequate and would legitimize the system. Consequently, anyone who spurs public interest in the election contributes to a higher turnout and thus legitimize the system. It appears to be true. Yet the truth is more complicated. At the presidential election, the turnout is expected to be high because it traditionally is: the post is so prestigious that people will come to vote one way or another. Nevertheless, the voters' social background matters as well: it is important to reach out to the urban population and to young people. Will the candidate in question change this aspect of the election? I am not so sure. I am not sure that, come March 2018, non-participation and non-attendance will be really the best tactics in this election. It is a possibility. To make any further predictions, we need to see how the campaign develops. The idea of listing all the discontented through voting for a certain candidate does not look valid to me. However, gauging the number of the discontented by their non-attendance does not make absentees a political subject because the discontented who ignored the election are dissolved in the entire multitude of citizens who simply did not come. You could have forgone the election because you do not like any of the candidates, because you cannot walk, or because you had better things to do that day. What matters is that absentees do not become political subjects.
Do those who voted for a certain candidate become political subjects? If a certain «against-all» candidate suddenly comes out second by winning, say, 30 percent of votes, it is indeed a political fact that cannot be dismissed. In 2012, we had Mikhail Prokhorov, who won 8 percent of votes on the national level; so what? Nothing changed. Did it have any impact on the agenda of the following presidential term? No, it didn't. In the course of the campaign, did anything forewarn us about the impending six years of bigotry and feverish attempts of isolationism that have not yielded any favorable results? Nothing did. Similarly, the upcoming election campaign is not a reliable source of information when it comes to the agenda of the next presidential term.
Basically, the simple truths I am telling you now are what I shared with our esteemed potential presidential candidate. In fact, if you are under the impression that so-called insiders share special, exclusive insights at their confidential meetings, saying things they never say in public, you are very much mistaken. People are more or less the same everywhere. People are exactly what they look like. They always say things you normally hear them say. As for me, I always say the same things, so it is hard for me to understand why anyone would want to have a confidential meeting with me. I have never been approached with any indecent offers. No one has ever made me an indecent offer; it is even a bit insulting, when you come to think of it. Everyone writes about offers he or she has received, but I have nothing to share. In my company, everyone instantly becomes virtuous for some reason. Anyway, if other presidential candidates or potential candidates should want to speak with me about political science, I am open for a conversation. However, I would ask them to book a meeting in advance. As Soviet shop assistants would say, "You are many, and I am one."