06 December 2007

Give Russians a bit more credit!

As Sean Guillory observes, many Western mass-media observers describe the Russian elections of last Sunday, and their outcomes, using the same basic list of negative clichés. To the extent that much of the electioneering conducted by the winning party was like Karl Rove on steroids, this gloomy chorus is not entirely baseless. These observers described some actual phenomena, but the facts and emphases they chose were one-sided. As you no doubt realize, the reality was far more complex.

These personal observations are my modest contribution to a more balanced picture.

Russian television gave far from balanced coverage, but nevertheless any alert viewer got plenty of chances to hear the voices of all of the competing parties. News programs were the least balanced. For example, once again we had the Soviet-era propensity to present meetings of the president with his own cabinet and staff as newsworthy.

(I have the same complaint about American news coverage of the American president. Why is it considered newsworthy that a president—either president—and his staff have meetings and talk about government business? Isn't that what they're paid to do? Why is it considered "news" when a president travels to various locations and delivers predictable, elaborately staged speeches?)

We're not surprised when Russian opposition candidates don't get the same attention for their speeches and meetings and travels as the incumbents. But is it that different in the USA? It's hard to compare the evolving campaign styles of our two countries. The USA is essentially a two-party system, but here eleven parties fielded candidates in last Sunday's election. Maybe an appropriate comparison would be the current U.S. caucus and primary campaign; few of the candidates for party nomination for president of the USA get equal time with the front-runners of their own party, never mind the current president. When was the last time Dennis Kucinich was in the news?

In the Duma elections, news stories may have been the most unbalanced aspect of the campaign, but there was much more equality in other forms of media exposure. All parties got three hours of prime-time exposure; all parties (or at least most) ran ad campaigns; all or most participated in TV debates, except for the ruling party; printed materials for many of them littered the entrance area of my apartment building.

The debates and interview programs on television were the most fascinating phenomenon to me. Every political point of view was aired at one time or another, from outright adulation of the incumbent president (who headed the Duma candidate list for the ruling party, though he is not a member of that party) to blunt warnings of a one-party system and accusations of fraud and vote-rigging. I saw no hint that interviewers and audience members could not say exactly what they wanted to say—but, equally importantly, the range, depth, and sophistication of the viewpoints was all one could hope for in a diverse and intelligent electorate.

On one program two days before the election, the head of the federal election commission was being questioned by audience members. He was asked straight out whether it wasn't true that one party was getting most of the free air time. His answer seemed a bit weak to me, but he did say that this was one of the questions he heard most frequently. (He cited analyses that showed only a few percentage points separating the amounts of free coverage gained by the leading parties; what he didn't mention was whether the coverage was flattering or unflattering.) Both before and after the elections, Churov had to respond to awkward questions and unflattering insinuations. Of course, a dominant power can afford to let criticisms fly—treating them like water off a duck's back—and there's no guarantee that those criticisms are actually taken seriously, but some of the coverage from outside Russia makes it sound as if such voices are not tolerated, or soon won't be.

Here in Elektrostal itself, I saw no sign of the kind of election squeeze tactics that were being reported around Russia—to the effect that employees, students, and others were being required to produce votes for the dominant party or risk reprisals. There's an enmeshment of party and government here that isn't normally allowed in the USA (not now, anyway—but remember the not-too-distant past of my beloved Chicago!!!). Even so, most of what I picked up from my vantage point was strong encouragement to vote—period. Gifts were given to any first-time voter at some polling places, not just to voters for one party. At the polling place nearest to me, organizers did their best to produce a party atmosphere, with colorful signs and loud music.

Furthermore, everyone I spoke with personally was able to talk about the spectrum of political choices accurately and dispassionately. I saw neither fear nor rapture. Again, this isn't to deny that undue pressure existed in some places. I'm simply trying to fill in the picture.

One of the most interesting statistics I saw on the evening of election day, as the results were rolling in, came from a running unscientific survey on one of the television channels. Viewers were asked to respond by phone to this question: did you vote for party or personality? When I finally turned off the TV, "personality" was winning over "party" by a more than two to one margin. I think this is absolutely correct. The president himself said that the ruling party was a mixed bag, attracting opportunists as well as the sincere; I think the results did not reflect strong loyalty to any party. (After all, the winning party didn't do spectacularly better than in the previous Duma elections, despite all the alleged strong-arming.) Instead, the results reflected a strong sense of gratitude on Russians' part that they have a "normal" president who gets things done. Whether they believe that he's perfect is another question, one that nobody is asking them at election time. When his opposition mainly consists of discredited theoreticians and compromised has-beens, running on platforms of opposition to the ruling circles rather than persuasive programs and achievements of their own, it is hard to imagine another outcome consistent with common sense than the one we got last Sunday.

As an American, I have one bone to pick with my own country. There was a debate show that pitted one pro-American political commentator against one who, at least by contrast, was pretty strongly anti-American. Even though the pro-American guy seemed to me to be the more thoughtful, interesting, and persuasive of the two, the anti-American guy was able to score lots of debating points by simply citing unilateral actions taken by the USA—whether it was attacking Iraq, pressuring people to skirt oil pipelines outside Russia, building anti-missile defenses on Russia's boundary, or quitting the ABM treaty. We need a new president who is capable of far more nuanced and ethical leadership in foreign affairs. But most of our candidates seem to be vying to seem the most testosterone-driven (Hillary included), making exactly the kind of belligerent noises that we fear and resent when we hear them coming from Russian politicians. Worst of all, these noises on both sides may mainly be designed for domestic audiences, but of course they perversely reinforce each other and drive us further toward an unintended, unnecessary, and stupid hostility.

Two days before the election, a student and I went to a carefully-organized "Russian Soldier" patriotic rally at the Oktyabr cultural center. For a Christian pacifist like me, this was definitely foreign territory, with video clips from World War II, wartime heroes on film and in the flesh, demonstrations of martial arts right up there on stage, all before a hauntingly blood-red backdrop of war images.

But two things about the event ran counter to what one might expect from such an event happening just before an election in which patriotism is definitely part of the campaign. First of all, the name of the dominant party was never mentioned during the program, and President Putin's name came up just once as far as I heard. Second, the actual definitions of patriotism, and attendant exhortations, were almost completely related to love of country, devotion to duty, mature citizenship. The speakers made no comparisons with other countries, and they didn't even hint at enemies of Russia, aside from World War II war stories; there was no mention of any supposed Russian exceptionalism or messianism, or imminent threats to the country, except for one relatively mild mention of terrorism. The WWII veteran talked about true heroism involving self-sacrifice, illustrating his point with a story from Berlin about a comrade who risked his life to help a wounded friend. The Afghan war veteran was just as impressive; he simply said, "The most important thing is to remain human. If you can keep your humanity, everything will be OK."

Now I know I'm predisposed to see the best here; that's how I'm wired. But I'm also enough of a cynic to wonder about subtexts and hidden messages. It's certainly no coincidence that the "Russian Soldier" rally happened at the time and place it did. But if we're going to look for hidden messages, we also have a responsibility to report the actual up-front message. And that's what I'm reporting. Compared to the bombast of some of our American public patriotism, what I experienced here last week did not seem particularly off-key.

Righteous links: The Web highlighters from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship are always interesting. The current one has several gems for this Christmas season. ~~~ Speaking of patriotism, does the USA need, as Eugene Robinson puts it, "professional help"? ~~~ Willow Creek's "Reveal" study of itself and other seeker-sensitive churches may, I hope, signal a new breakthrough in overcoming one of American evangelical culture's most obnoxious features--its relentless self-congratulatory happy-talk. Here's coverage from mondaymorninginsight.com. Note the interesting variations on how the story has been reported. ~~~ Liz is back! And, yes, we're in the middle of a major and messy thaw. Give me an honest winter anytime.

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