Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Election farce in Sochi

E!Sharp, 1st July 2009 09:47

Observing elections in Russia is a sport that the late Franz Kafka would have enjoyed.

It’s not for nothing that Kremlin officials are often accused of staging an elaborate, even surreal, imitation of democracy. But in April, Russia’s affable president – Dmitri Medvedev – said things had changed. He was referring to a mayoral election in the sub-tropical resort of Sochi. It was, he said, “a real political contest”.

Usually, such elections wouldn’t get a presidential comment. But Sochi is no ordinary town. It is hosting the 2014 winter Olympics, it enjoys Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s personal patronage, and it is about to receive billions of euros in Kremlin cash.

Add to that the fact that a famous anti-Kremlin “big beast” – Boris Nemtsov – was contesting it and it is clear why this was not just another local vote.

As it turned out, Medvedev was wrong. The election was as dirty as they come. The pro-Kremlin candidate hid from voters and foreign media. His campaign team refused to reveal his whereabouts, disclose the location of his campaign HQ, or allow anyone – including their own candidate – to put up election posters. “What’s the point?” one official asked me.

Meanwhile, pliant local TV stations rubbished his opponents, making claims that bordered on the absurd. The icing on the cake: workers on the government payroll – teachers, policemen, and doctors – were bussed to polling stations early. Some reported being browbeaten into voting.

The overall result? The pro-Kremlin candidate won. Not bad for a politician the foreign media had christened the invisible man.

It is almost fifty years since Yuri Gagarin blasted into the unknown, becoming the first human in space. His feat handed the Soviet Union a famous Cold War propaganda victory.

Now, Russia is hoping for more of the same as it tries to kick-start its own cash-strapped space programme. Plans are afoot to build a new cosmodrome, an overhauled space museum has just been opened in Moscow, and a tender to design a new generation of spacecraft has been launched. Indeed, both Putin and Medvedev seldom miss a chance to revel in the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. Their rhetoric is romantic. There’s only one problem: times have changed and the gap between that rhetoric and reality is yawning.

I was reminded of this when visiting Russia’s revamped Museum of Cosmonautics which has had a multi-million euro makeover. Walking through its cold rooms, it seemed like time had stood still. The exhibits – a collection of satellites that looked like children’s toys, moth-eaten space suits, stuffed dogs, and cosmonauts’ tracksuits – looked like old hat. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s only space shuttle – the ill-fated Buran – languishes in Gorky Park on the banks of the Moscow river, a tacky tourist attraction filled with disappointed children.

After a long hiatus, the Kremlin has started spending big on space again. Yet its budget is dwarfed by NASA’s. If it is to get serious about rekindling its Soviet-era glory it has – as in so many other areas – a lot of catching up to do.

Russia’s relationship with the EU – rarely smooth – shows signs of fraying further. Beyond platitudes and staged photo-ops, common ground seems harder to find.

The Kremlin has traditionally held back from harsh rhetoric when it comes to the Union. The inconclusive EU-Russia summit in May marked a turning point in that respect. In particular, Moscow seems genuinely irked by the EU’s Eastern Partnership plan – a scheme to strengthen ties with six former Soviet countries including Georgia and Ukraine. “We don’t want the Eastern Partnership to become a partnership against Russia,” Medvedev complained.

The truth is that Russia doesn’t think the EU has any business in what it calls its “near abroad”. It sees the former Soviet Union as its own sphere of influence and is as hostile to European manoeuvring there as it has been to growing US influence in the region. As tensions around Russian gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine steadily rise again, EU-Russia relations seem – not for the first time – mired in mutual misunderstanding.

The financial crisis halted Russia’s “We’re back and we’re richer and more powerful than ever” campaign in its tracks. Putin and his associates are hoping it’s just a temporary blip.

Although the downturn has hammered the Russian economy, there are tentative signs that the world’s biggest energy exporter may bounce back. The rouble has stabilised, Russia’s stock market indices are the best performing in the world this year, and the price of oil – its big export earner – has staged an unexpected recovery.

Medvedev has cautioned that it is too early to break out the champagne though. So far, Russia’s famously profligate super-rich are following his advice. When they open their bulging wallets wide again, we’ll know the crisis really is over.