Records from the Black Box



Review: A View of Elections in Russia: Inside, Outside, Sideways by Andrei Buzin.

This book [1] is written by an expert, for the experts. However, it is neither a manual, nor an academic study. It does not attempt to describe a philosophical concept either. This book is more of an empirical overview of 30 years of post-Soviet electoral democracy – a description of its rise and fall, and everything in between.

The book's main feature is a chance for the reader to get an insider's view of elections in Russia. The view of someone who is also standing a little to the side, as the title suggests. All while looking through a magnifying glass. The view is neither from the top nor from the bottom – it is the view from between a polling station (Russia has about 96 thousand of those) and the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation. This is the ideal spot for what social studies call "participant observation".

The book is an easy read supplied with ample factual evidence. One could even put it under analytic, if not for its intimidating academic volumes and structural uniformity. Overall, it is more of a brightly illustrated empirical overview of the complicated history of Russia's electoral system. A catalogue, if you will, of events that the system itself would prefer to ignore as well as keep out of everyone else's sight – a typical case when it comes to data collected through participant observation.

It seems that the author is determined to lay bare each and every detail of the system's modus operandi, especially since he never really felt like he belonged in the system in the first place. One should give him credit for not stooping to unnecessary exposés, however; he simply recounts his own experiences, reasonings and conclusions. What Buzin does is describe the doings of certain individuals in certain situations. Self-censoring in the book is minimal, and is mostly dictated by common decency rather than corporate or political loyalties.

As for target audience, someone with a good grasp of political context would get much more out of the book than a casual reader. This is the case for both the academic aspects and the author's signature sarcastic remarks. Take the following phrase, for example: "The next day... Igor Borisov – an avid champion of electoral rights – arrived from Moscow on an urgent mission of representing Ilyumzhinov" (p. 147). There is no doubt that a reader unfamiliar with Borisov's various exploits will get an entirely different impression of the man as opposed to a member of the professional circle. Anyone who is "in the know" will likely have heard of this character's particularly sagacious observations on how statistical methods are inapplicable when it comes to electoral data analysis, or the story of his expulsion from the ranks of ODIHR observers for interfering with the election procedure to protect electoral fraud in CIS countries and former socialist countries. Understatements like this do give the text a touch of exclusivity, but may confuse a casual reader. The same goes for the numerous "cases" that are scattered throughout the book without an in-depth context.

Buzin's writing is driven by the idea of sapienti sat, which is quite logical, considering he is referring to an informal institution comprised of political scientists, strategists and election observers. Someone without an appropriate background will likely be more bored than hooked. However, the book may have turned out a bit more compelling had there been slightly less "cases". That said, they are still used to the book's advantage, forming a typological scheme of the few "direct" (as the author puts it) electoral fraud methods: "early voting", "home voting", "rewriting voting transcripts by night", "sabotaging the voting process by day", including "stuffing", "carousels" and so on. The methods are subsequently analyzed in terms of their circulation, frequency of use and evolution in light of the administrative hierarchy being restored and consolidated.

A work like that would have been closer to purely theoretical in nature, Andrei Buzin, however, seems to have set a different task before himself: to create a record of electoral events arranged by years. For that matter, he accomplished the task indeed, and the information contained in the book will prove a useful data source for future researchers.

Famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin once called Nikolay Karamzin Russia's first historian and last chronicler, implying there was a methodological difference between stating historical facts (largely a chronicler's job) and developing analytical concepts (largely a historian's job). As is the unspoken rule of the 21st century, Buzin acts as both chronicler and historian in his book; and yet the former still prevails to an extent.

That is not to say the book is lacking in historical interpretation – quite the contrary. He more or less defined the three stages of development of electoral democracy in Russia, which, for the sake of discussion, we will call growth, stagnation and degradation. One way or another, the three stages manifest themselves every time a meticulous approach is taken. It makes no difference if it includes formal statistical methods, territorial or comparative analysis. The book gives special attention (and deservedly so) to the 1999 legislative election – the tipping point of Russia's electoral history. The competitive struggle was real at the time, and everyone involved understood its distinctive nature and not-so-sterile environment it created. It was, in fact, the pinnacle (as well as the start of the slow decline) of electoral freedoms of the 1990s – the freedoms Putin's pyramid of rule dreads so today. And yes, Buzin states point-blank that in 1996, Boris Yeltsin indeed beat Gennady Zyuganov to the presidential seat. This is simply a recorded truth that not everyone today is willing, able or daring enough to admit. Naturally, this is not so much a characteristic of the "freewheeling 90s" as of the "shameful 2000s".

As for the 2000 Russian presidential election, Buzin views it as more or less acceptable (then again, far from sterile, too) in terms of the universally accepted norms of electoral democracy – and he is spot-on once more. Thanks to the occasional opportunity to observe the electoral process from the very heart of the Central Election Commission of Russia, the author of this review saw the raw data from State Automated System (SAS) "Vybory" (Rus. for "elections"), followed by reaction of the senior-most CEC officials to said data. There were no signs of a predetermined outcome whatsoever. Only those of pressure. My personal conclusion regarding the 2000 election campaign is that Vladimir Putin's near-20% lead over his runner-up was the objective reality. The only thing worthy of debate is whether he took the lead in the first round (the official result was tallied at 52.9%), or his actual result stopped at around 48–49%, with the remaining points resulting from manipulations in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and some other republics that did not submit their data to SAS "Vybory" on time. Personally, I have reason to believe the second point of view. In any case, this is an entirely different matter, and the scale of manipulations at the time was a far cry from what took place during Vladimir Churov's era. This factor is what makes Andrei Buzin's provisional periodization effectively correct, despite his relatively lenient attitude towards Churov.

As Buzin rightly points out, the 2000s were the time when the new pyramid of power was taking root, accompanied by active administrative efforts to restrict electoral freedoms on the legislative level and by systematic vote manipulation in favor of the central government (the Center).

This is not to say electoral fraud did not occur before, especially in the so-called "electoral sultanates". The point is that it was mostly in favor of local power structures that still deployed Soviet methods of electoral control. The first (and key) round of the 1996 presidential election in particular saw the administrative resource of republican regions work largely against the Center and its nominee Boris Yeltsin. The exceptions were few and hardly consequential, like the Tyva Republic, the Republics of Kalmykia and Chechnya as well as Ingushetia to a lesser extent. Consolidating the interests of regional elites and the Kremlin following the success of the state-capitalism-based semi-market economy was the essential task for the new president, which he coped with quite successfully. Such victory came at a cost; the public was left with the sterilized electoral legislation on the one hand and the expanded number of informal electoral manipulation practices on the other. The book contains the full set of objective characteristics of the process, from descriptions of specific court cases and conflicts within election commissions of various levels to electoral statistics, thorough analyses of video recordings and detailed observer reports.

The transition between the provisional period of stagnation to absolute degradation was dragged out and inconclusive. This is why it seems almost impossible to determine the exact transition point to the final phase.

For example, in the section describing the events of 2011, Buzin discusses an "amusing fact" stated in the report by the ex-chair of Tambov Oblast Election Commission Nikolai Vorobyov:

"...The five neighboring polling stations revealed identical vote percentages for every party (this phenomenon later occurred during many elections and was dubbed "the Gabdulvaleyev effect"). In truth, the fact is neither amusing nor new, as it was first recorded as part of official statistics during the 2003 legislative election. At the time, all 10 polling stations of a small Territorial Election Commission (TEC) in Dokuzparinsky District of the Republic of Dagestan registered a turnout between 96.9 and 100% at a zero rate of invalid ballots and NOTA votes (the latter was not abolished until 2006). The inspiring activism of the 8881 registered voters in Dokuzparinsky TEC is not the only admirable thing: none of the voters spoiled their ballot either accidentally or on purpose, rendering it invalid (during a fair election, such ballots usually make up 1–2% of the overall count). The party list results too were worthy of admiration. Out of 22 parties, only three (United Russia, CPRF and the Union of Right Forces) received a considerable number of votes (the rest of the parties, including Yabloko, the Party of Pensioners, Agrarian Party, LDPR and others received zero percent at all 10 polling stations). The three winners, however, were quick to form a neat line with their results: United Russia received between 79.9 and 80.2% (averaging 80% across the TEC), CPRF received between 14.8 and 15.1% (averaging 15%) and the Union of Right Forces received between 4.9 and 5.2% (averaging 5%). At the time, the vote threshold for State Duma conveniently stood at 5%.

Never before had the planets aligned as perfectly in the severe electoral space of Russia as they did in 2003. That said, the "Gabdulvaleyev effect" (or the "Nikolai Vorobyov effect", if you will) had, in fact, manifested itself quite distinctly two electoral cycles earlier, long before Azat Gabdulvaleyev, the activist of Tatarstan's Association of Election Observers, entered the federal electoral stage. This means that the practice of recklessly fabricating the results with impunity did not appear out of nowhere. That said, it was not until the times of Churov that the practice spread across the vastness of Russia and became the norm even in certain regions of the Central Federal District after crawling out of the social and cultural gutter in the far-off republican periphery. Tambov Oblast became the most notorious example in the Central Federal District. After his resignation from the post of the chair of the region's Election Commission, Nikolai Vorobyov was replaced by Aleksei Puchnin, a prominent electoral manipulator. And then, in the 2012 presidential election, the region went to support Vladimir Putin with 71.8% of votes – a consensus of opinion that for a central region was unprecedented. Moreover, the claim was that 20% of voters voted at home, which was technologically impossible.

Unfortunately, certain actions of certain individuals within Russia's electoral system are largely depressing in their pedantic monotony (with certain human exceptions). This is indeed old news for those who have been watching the process for quite some time. While Andrei Buzin's new book may not provide such individuals with many fundamentally new insights, it is still a great source of numerous detailed eyewitness testimonies, numbers and facts. Naturally, these are mainly testimonies on the eternal question of how the black box of Russia's electoral management produces the output numbers that could not and would not be there at the input.

Overall, the book is one of the most essential and accomplished accounts describing one of the more relevant – if not pivotal – aspects of the 30 years of post-Soviet Russian reality. A fundamental record of this reality indeed. One can only hope it will not be its gravestone.

Received 31.10.2020.


  1. Buzin A.Yu. Rossiiskiye vybory: iznutri, snaruzhi, sboku. Zapiski negosudarstvennogo cheloveka [A View of Elections in Russia: Inside, Outside, Sideways. Diary of a Non-Statesman]. Moscow: KnigIzdat, 2020. 850 p. (In Russ.)