The Minority That Really Matters


Russia’s Ministry of Communications is rushing ahead with the installation of webcams in polling stations. By March 4, the day of the presidential elections, more than 200,000 cameras, 100,000 laptops, thousands of servers and kilometres of wire will be installed all across Russia to monitor the elections. In just one day 246 years of video will be caught, transmitted online and stored – this is 60 times more than the world will upload on YouTube in the course of one day.

This will cost over $400 million, almost as much as will be spent on Skolkovo, a Russian Silicon Valley being built near Moscow. Some experts believe that the actual spending will be bigger - the difference will be absorbed by state-controlled telecommunications operator Rostelecom.

The idea that this technological binge will ‘cut the ground from under the feet of those who want to de-legitimize the authorities’ belongs to Vladimir Putin. Terabytes of digital evidence are about to silence thousands of men and women known, vaguely, as ‘the protesters’.

With a somewhat phantasmagorical perception of reality the prime minister seems to believe that the protesters are the unwitting servants of American interests. They are ‘useful idiots’ manipulated from abroad to put the country in a state of anarchy and chaos.

Surveys conducted by the Levada-Centre, a non-governmental research organisation, show that most protesters are under forty, three out of four have a university degree, earning more than the national average. Almost half the population of Moscow and St. Petersburg support their main demand for a fair election.

The protesters may be electrifying in their engagement, but there is one thing that they got wrong: count and voting do not make up and election. They think they were tricked during the voting. In fact, they were tricked much earlier.

There is indeed a lot of evidence that the parliamentary elections were tainted by fraud. The Internet is flooded with videos showing ballot-stuffing and carousel voting – that is when people are bussed from one polling booth to another to vote again and again.

This barrage of news creates a lot of heat but leaves the main question open: to what extent have these instances of apparent manipulation distorted the political preferences of the Russian people?

The protesters believe that they posses a mathematical proof of fraud.

Whatever is measured in large quantities, they say, should fit the normal, Gaussian distribution. ‘Make a plot of how many millions of men in the country have the height of 165, 170, 175 centimetres and so on—and you will also get a symmetric bell curve with the top corresponding to the most typical height in the country.’ If the average height is 175 centimetres, then there should be few men as tall as 185 centimetres and those taller than 2 metres should be far and few between.

There are suspiciously too many places in Russia where the ruling party received 60%, 70% and even 100% of the voters, a sure sign of fraud. In essence, they argue that the number of votes cast for United Russia in i.e. provincial Bryansk should be roughly the same as in Moscow.

According to Dr. Simkin from the University of California 'since there are so many distributions in nature and society that are not Gaussian, there is no reason to believe that vote distributions must be'. The presidential election in California in 2000 does not fit the normal distribution and if we use the same methods of ‘proof’ as Russian protesters to allege large-scale fraud in the Russian elections, we can ‘prove’ that Gore stole millions of votes from Bush in California. 'Of course', writes Simkin, 'such ‘proofs’ are nonsense, since the distributions should not necessarily be Gaussian in the first place.'

All opposition parties did better than on the last elections. Communists and Fair Russia received 70% more votes, Liberal Democrats are better off by 40% and Yabloko has done two times better than four years ago. The ruling United Russia, on the other hand, has lost every third place in the parliament it had.

These results are consistent with the exit-polls of all major sociological companies. Even if the violations did influence the election results, the overall distortion, most probably, was quite small.

Essentially leaderless, the protesters didn’t notice how their demands of fair elections were circumscribed to fair count.

Fair count is what Vladimir Putin is willing to give. The Kremlin will spend a fortune on proving the obvious: that in today’s Russia the prime minister is the most popular politician and that in a situation of choice between him and any other presidential nominee, he is the winner.

The real problem is that public politics in Russia is almost non-existent. The level of degradation of the political life during the Medvedev / Putin reign is simply astonishing.

State media openly and crudely play up to the Kremlin. The coverage of all national broadcasters in Russia except one channel, notes the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, favours the ruling United Russia.

Kremlin-controlled parties make feeble attempts to create the appearance of a struggle. Their programs are farcical sets of maxims ‘for everything good, against everything bad’ mixed with fanciful propositions such as the total nationalization of all large corporations. The quality of the debates, even on independent channels, is so dismal that one should make an effort to take them just a tiny bit seriously.

According to the Levada Centre, most Russians think that the election is orchestrated. Six out of ten see nothing but a clash of bureaucratic clans. This is a real scandal. Most active and educated people - the new middle class - has no political representation whatsoever and treats all political parties, regardless of the names and political slogans, as one corrupted organisation.

The importance of this group should not be underestimated. Dramatic changes are quite often started not by a slow majority, but by an active minority.

The Kremlin has succeeded in downplaying the public politics to a nominal state. There is only one politician surrounded by midgets. On March 4, Vladimir Putin will win, fair and square. However, he’ll have to admit that the period of controlled democracy is coming to an end. Otherwise, his victory may be temporary.


photo: © hellotim -


The protesters are wrong and few but very important