Truth and falsifications in Russia

The numbers indicate that, despite fraud, Russia’s election results generally reflect the will of the voters.

Russia ballots
Despite widespread protests, Russia is not on the verge of having its own ‘colour revolution’ [GALLO/GETTY]

As I watched the results trickling in, flicking between Twitter and political blogs, I was under the impression that the 2011 Duma elections wouldn’t exactly be a bombshell. The party of power, United Russia, was polling between 40-50 per cent – well below expectations, as all major opinion polls in the previous month had predicted it would get more than 50 per cent. This would make for a big drop from its 64 per cent blockbuster win in 2007, when Russia’s economy was growing at Asian Tiger rates and confidence was at its peak. But considering its far more modest 37 per cent result in 2003, it was hardly the catastrophic loss that many were claiming it to be.

Oh, there would be the usual malcontents. A desultory meeting at Triumfalnaya Square in which journalists outnumber the placard-waving protesters, with one of the grand old men of Russian liberal politics expounding on the country’s never-ending descent into ‘’thievish totalitarianism” to a BBC reporter. Expressions of “concern” about electoral violations from the State Department and sundry human rights organisations that are soon forgotten before business as usual resumes … Oh wait, what?

Russian protests go nationwide

The Russian winter is beginning to turn hot. Not quite hot enough for Moscow to sprout palm trees and adopt the Greek alphabet, but one could perhaps forgive Fox News for its faux pas in the excitement of the moment as reports of falsifications run rife through Runet (the constellation of blogs, social media and newspapers frequented by what is now Europe’s largest internet population) and thousands of demonstrators gather to rage against the Kremlin machine. Police battalions and armoured vehicles pour into the streets. “Dear Vlad, The #ArabSpring is coming to a neighborhood near you,” tweets Senator John McCain.

The legitimacy debate

McCain’s outburst reflected the spirit of the moment. Hillary Clinton described the elections as “neither free nor fair”; liberals such as Nemtsov and Gorbachev demanded their annulment. Commentary was suffused with vapid, partisan mud-slinging matches between representatives of “the party of swindlers and thieves” (ie United Russia) and “the mercenaries of GosDep” (the US State Department). British journalists took turns comparing Putin to nasty critters such as rats and gremlins.

On a slightly higher intellectual plane, both sides have valid arguments. The liberals claimed that United Russia’s real share of the vote was actually 40 per cent, or even 25 per cent, and that therefore its mandate was illegitimate. Just look at the thousands of violations reported by Golos, the elections monitoring organisation so ham-handedly harassed and persecuted by the Kremlin. Supporters of the Kremlin retorted that the results were closely correlated with both pre-election polls and exit polls, so any violations must have been minimal in scale; besides, wasn’t Golos sponsored by US “freedom promotion” outfits, those dread instigators of colour revolutions, to the tune of millions of dollars per year?

As there is already enough rhetorical hot air wafting about cyberspace and Moscow’s cafes for several election cycles in advance, little can be gained from further pumping the bellows. It is high time to take a cold shower of figures and statistics.

It’s a numbers game

In a perfect world, even a single violation would be one too many – and by all accounts there were many, many violations in this election: ballot stuffing, forced voting, roving “carousels”, the works. But the world isn’t perfect and elections are never entirely flawless, even in advanced democracies such as the US.

For instance, the 2004 US presidential elections featured “caging” scandals, dodgy voting machines in Ohio, and a turnout exceeding 100 per cent in several Alaskan districts. But few would go on to argue that Bush’s win was fundamentally illegitimate, because ultimately, the official results reflected the will of the electorate.

And why should standards be any stricter for the Russians? Just by themselves, grainy YouTube videos and Golos’ lists of violations do not constitute proof of illegitimacy. It is statistically illiterate to extrapolate from small and biased samples – be it a few polling stations or someone’s (inevitably narrow) circle of acquaintances – to make judgments about an entire election.

Most of the polling evidence on the federal level supports the Kremlin narrative that the elections in Russia were legitimate.

The closest approximation to the “voice of the people” we have – apart from honest elections – are the results of pre-election opinion polls and exit polls. If, say, multiple pre-election polls and exit polls show that 35-40 per cent of respondents said they supported a certain candidate, and that candidate ends up getting 80 per cent of the vote, it is fairly obvious there was huge, systemic fraud, and that the election is thus illegitimate (this is, by the way, a real-life scenario: Our protagonist being Aleksandr Lukashenko, winner of Belarus’ 2010 election). On the other hand, if the opinion polls consistently agree with official results – plus or minus a few percentage points for error – it is exceedingly hard to make a convincing case that fraud was large-scale and systemic.

How does Russia do on this test? The reality is that, during these elections, most of the polling evidence on the federal level – just as in all the other elections during the “authoritarian” Putin period – supports the Kremlin narrative that the elections in Russia were legitimate.

Of the three major polling organisations that tried to predict this election’s results, all predicted United Russia would win a somewhat higher share of the vote than the 49.4 per cent that it received at the polls. The Yabloko party – beloved of liberals and émigrés, if not most other Russians – performed better than two of these polling outfits predicted, and the Fair Russia social democrats did a whopping 50 per cent better than the average prediction.

You may question the polling agencies’ figures – perhaps the Kremlin pressured them to inflate their poll results? I’d say that’s hardly probable when Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, scribbles things like this in his spare time: “Putinism is a system of decentralised use of the institutional instruments of coercion … hijacked by the powers that be for the fulfillment of their private, clan-group interests.”

I don’t know about you, but to me he hardly sounds like the biggest Putin fanboy out there.

The exit polls paint a more conflicted picture. The three biggest exit polls all gave United Russia a lower result than the official tally (VCIOM predicted 48.5 per cent, FOM 43.1 per cent, and ISI 38.1 per cent).

The VCIOM figures are well within the margins of probable error and can be said to support the election’s legitimacy. ISI’s figures are troubling, but the polls covered fewer than a third of Russia’s regions and are thus the least reliable of the three. The same cannot be said of FOM, a state-owned agency that polled 80,000 people and had the most comprehensive geographic coverage. Problematically, United Russia’s rivals got significantly fewer votes than FOM’s exit polls predicted: Nine per cent less for Fair Russia, 11 per cent for the Communists, 14 per cent for the LDPR,  and almost a quarter less for Yabloko.

A difference of six percentage points between an exit poll and the official result is large, but hardly unprecedented in free and fair elections. For instance, in the 1992 UK general election, this discrepancy was 8.5 per cent points, due to bad sampling methods and the “Shy Tory” who refused to answer pollsters’ questions. Can we extend the benefit of the doubt to the Kremlin?

The Moscow-Caucasus axis of fraud

No, we can’t. The FOM exit poll also had a breakdown by each of Russia’s eight federal districts and Moscow. The differentials from official tallies in the Volga region, the North Caucasus, and Moscow were huge: 9.4 percentage points, 20.8 percentage points, and 23.0 percentage points respectively.

It’s also telling that these inconvenient regional details were soon airbrushed from FOM’s website. Fortunately, some enterprising sleuths saved the relevant files beforehand, enabling me to cite the data below from Alexander Kireev, a blogger specialising in elections analysis.

One is immediately struck by the extent to which the discrepancies seem to confirm an unkind Russian stereotype – that of Muscovite swindlers and shiftless minorities. In the Volga region, United Russia got its highest results in the ethnic minority republics of Mordovia (92 per cent), Tatarstan (78 per cent), and Bashkortostan (71 per cent). The level of falsifications in the North Caucasus are flabbergasting: Whereas ethnic Russian Stavropol gave United Russia 49 per cent, no Muslim-majority republic gave them less than 80 per cent.

Now it’s not as if United Russia is unpopular there; leftists and LDPR nationalists hold little attraction to conservative Muslim minorities, and some have argued that the traditional social structure of these societies – headed by teips and village elders – encourages conformist voting patterns in order to maximise their numbers of deputies and thus lobbying power.

Even so, the FOM exit polls suggest United Russia’s true percentage in the Muslim Caucasus regions was perhaps 70 per cent, which is quite a bit lower than the cool 91 per cent it actually received in Ingushetia and Dagestan. The strongman Kadyrov wasn’t satisfied with merely Mubarak-like results; United Russia’s figures in Chechnya were at a decidedly Stalinist 99.5 per cent. On the positive side, the Moscow authorities ignored the advice from the leader of Russia’s most united province to use tanks to crush the protests.

It is too early to proclaim the coming of a “Snow Revolution” or “Cabbage Winter”.

But they weren’t so big-hearted as to abstain from the falsifications game. Moscow is to Russia what Chicago is to the United States – not renowned for its probity. In the 2009 local elections, United Russia got 20 percentage points more than pre-election polls indicated, at the expense of all the other parties. In this election, the 44.6 per cent official result stood in uncomfortable contrast to the 23.5 per cent predicted by FOM and the 27.6 per cent predicted by ISI in exit polls. An investigation by the “Citizen Observer” initiative found that United Russia’s results in stations where no violations were seen to occur was a mere 23.4 per cent, putting it in second place to the Communists – ironically, including at the very station where Putin voted.

Now, yes, there are many caveats: Error margins are significant; the “Citizen Observer” results were drawn from a very small sample; and as regards the FOM exit polls, 37 per cent of voters refused to answer pollsters, indicating the possibility of a “Shy Edross” effect – it’s not exactly hip and cool to admit oneself as a supporter of the “party of swindlers and thieves” nowadays. But even taking all this into account, it’s hard to credit United Russia with more than 30 per cent in Moscow at the very most. It was probably more like 25 per cent.

Reform or revolution?

But it is too early – ridiculous, I would even venture to say – to proclaim the coming of a “Snow Revolution” or “Cabbage Winter” or whatever the latest version is. First, the reality is that at the federal level, the results are fairly accurate – they perfectly correlate to pre-election opinion polls, as the Kremlin’s grey cardinal Vladislav Surkov is keen to stress, and they are only six percentage points lower than both the most comprehensive exit poll and the average of the three exit polls.

This suggests that the aggregate level of falsifications is probably at around five per cent, and almost certainly less than ten per cent. Russia is not Belarus or Mubarak’s Egypt. Either way, United Russia won, and it won resoundingly; the will of the Russian people was not fundamentally subverted. When Hillary Clinton says that the Russian elections were “neither free nor fair”, she contradicts the opinion even of the OSCE observers, who were highly critical – as they have been with every Russian election after Boris Yeltsin left power – but acknowledged that, despite numerous technical flaws, the “voters took advantage of their right to express their choice”.

Neither is it Ukraine on the eve of the Orange Revolution: There is no single personality or gripping narrative, such as a telegenic Tymoshenko and a sinister poisoning, to rally around. What the Western media typically presents as the “only real and independent” opposition to Putin are mostly right-wing, pro-Western liberals (Nemtsov, Kasparov, Kasyanov, etc.) who are, electorally if not ideologically, basically equivalent to fringe groups like the Communist Party or the Black Panthers in the US. Regardless of their political stance, most Russians do not see them as patriotic or loyal, and are annoyed by and suspicious about the motives of foreign politicians who support them.

If you want proof, just go to, a popular website that translates articles from the foreign press into Russian. Do you envision it as a hotbed of pro-Western liberalism yearning to hear the latest word from the Holy Lands of Media Freedom? Nope. What your Inosmi reader sees is things like the police breaking up an Occupy Wall Street rally, followed by a McCain lecture blasting Russia for not allowing freedom of assembly. It is hard not to be cynical after that – and as a rule, cynics can’t be bothered making revolutions.

No doubt the votes of many Muscovites, in a real way, were stolen on December 4, and people are understandably angry about that. In this sense, I identify with the protesters at Bolotnaya this Saturday. It is also true that the dominance of Russian politics by a single party will breed corruption, complacency, and instability in the long-term.

Nonetheless, most Russians strongly favour evolutionary reform over “a Russian putsch, bloody and merciless” (as described by a great Russian poet). Nor is a “colour revolution” desirable, considering their unimpressive legacies in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. That is why the real significance of these elections isn’t so much the protests they have spurred, but the surprise emergence of Fair Russia as a major political force – a development that is tellingly celebrated by Surkov himself, on the basis that open systems are more stable than closed ones – and a “leftist revival” in general. They and the Communists will soon control a third of the Duma, opposing a reduced – if still formidable – United Russia. In later years this election may come to be seen as having laid the foundations for genuinely multi-party politics after the next legislative election in 2017.

Anatoly Karlin is finishing a degree in Political Economy at UC Berkeley. He runs the blog Sublime Oblivion about Russia, geopolitics, and peak oil.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.