A review of "Maximum Security Elections: How Did Elections in Russia Turn Into Non-Elections and What is to Be Done About It?" by Yelena A. Lukyanova et al.
Legitimizing the government through a fair and free election is an essential tool for creating a democratic state. It is a relatively new tool by historical standards, though one that underwent much development in many European countries in the 20th century. In this regard, Russia moved in lockstep with Europe until the October Revolution of 1917. In Soviet Union, elections ended up existing in name and ritual only — the fact acknowledged even in the current government paradigm.
Perestroika, which dismantled the totalitarian Communist regime, brought about change into the essence of elections in Russia and pushed them towards the actual goal of free elections — the government as the best and most effective representation of the collective will of the people. Instead of a wordy description of the electoral process, the 1993 Constitution contained a short provision that set free elections and referendum as the supreme direct expression of the power of the people. Over the next decade, Russia was actually walking the path towards real elections — quicker in terms of legislation, slower in terms of applied law.
Alas, the 21st century saw a throwback, and 30 years after perestroika we are nearly back to elections in ritual only. What we have here is a book about how it came to this point .
The book puts a strong emphasis on electoral legislation. The repeated statement that "the electoral system and electoral legislation are the very magic key that either locks or unlocks the doors of democracy" [5: 26, 189] seems to me an exaggeration of sorts, although an excusable one for authors whose book is focused on elections. There are many keys to democracy, and a solid electoral legislation is not a guarantee of fair and free elections. There are many facets to social structure, and many of its factors affect one another.
The book itself is not limited to changes of electoral legislation, but also dwells on social processes (like those within the government structure, economy and media) that affect elections and — indirectly — the legislation. The correlation described in the book is its most significant advantage — something we do not usually find in most of writings on the topic of elections in Russia. It is very important that the authors call the outcome of political changes that took place under the guise of degenerative election by its name — "usurpation of power" that is.
The book's second unique advantage is the classification of legislative changes. That said, the classifier of choice — by impact on various aspects of election quality — is highly important [5: 193]. As far as I am aware, this is the first such classification. Naturally, it will not find its way into the many works focused on spelling out Russian electoral legislation and providing guidelines that have nothing to do with the actual electoral processes in Russia.
It is possible to dispute the periodization of the evolution of Russian electoral legislation presented in the book, but the dispute will be one beside the point. The book presents all the major blows suffered by Russian electoral legislation, which took quite a civilized form compliant with international standards with the adoption of the Federal Law "On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right to Participate in Referendums of Citizens of Russian Federation" in 1997. The offensive against this legislation was coming in waves, with several apotheoses in 2005–2007, late 2012–2014 and 2020–2022.
The first apotheosis happened in the era of Vladislav Surkov , who for some reason barely gets any mention in the book. In the meantime, Surkov's concept of "sovereign democracy" is very close to the concept of "electoral authoritarianism" that the book often refers to. The first apotheosis of legislative innovation was mostly related to the State Duma elections. Federal elections of 2007–2008 were not just harshly conducted, but also saw the spread of electoral fraud all over Russia . The fraud went unpunished, and public resentment towards it took shape of mass protests in 2011 only.
The second apotheosis is the onset of systemic offence against all electoral standards. Rattled by the mass protests against the cynical violations of electoral law, the updated President Administration decided to amend the law itself, thus prompting the second apotheosis of legislative change. As rightly pointed out in the book, this was the transition from seizure of power to its defence.
However, the resources for legislative adjustment of elections as well as the resources for directly ignoring the law are bound to run out. The 2020 constitutional amendments became the point where these two methods converged. Russian elections ran out along with the legal state. "Along with" is key here; neither was the consequence of the other.
The inclusion of sections on mathematical methods [5: 341–364] seemed to me a little excessive. Citing the results of calculations done by Sergei Shpilkin, who estimated the number of "anomalous" votes in federal elections (and the book does exactly that, in fact) would have sufficed. Electoral mathematics and statistics deserve books of their own — some of them are already out (see, for example, ), and more are surely to come out. It seems that the impact of legislation (electoral system, to be more exact) on vote returns would be better illustrated through estimates made through applying different electoral systems to the same official vote returns (see, for example, [3: 840]).
On the other hand, it is quite possible to justify the fact that the book includes an essay on REV (remote e-voting) [5: 381–397], since this innovation fits well with the last stage of degradation of quasi-elections in Russia. The point is that today, there is no way to publicly monitor REV (as opposed to other methods of voting), so the ruling government can use it for conducting mass fraud that cannot be traced through documents [1; 7].
Although the book focuses on legislative evolution, the authors did manage to achieve most of the set objectives by identifying the connection between the changes in legislation and political system. The book therefore makes an excellent bibliographical contribution to the meandering history of the Russian state.
Received 02.08.2022, revision received 17.10.2022.