On March 18, Russian citizens faced a painfully familiar dilemma — to vote or not to vote. What on the surface may look like a simple choice between exercising an inalienable right and sinking into political apathy is, in fact, much more delicate and nuanced. For many of us election day was the climax of confusion and despair, a cringeworthy celebration of our civic impotence and the system that is broken by design.
To an outside observer this electoral dead end may appear to be purely a function of an indifferent society. However, as insiders who do not sympathize with the regime in power, we know that the roots of this predicament run deeper — into the country’s past, into its institutional and cultural landscape.
Russia’s history as a developing democracy started less than three decades ago. As a matter of fact, on a larger timeline of the country’s presence on the world map, this protodemocratic stage is but a blip. And to a great extent the new political framework has been broken in to fit the old authoritarian government paradigm.
This is not a trivial insight. In fact, it offers a profoundly different interpretation of Russia’s sociopolitical reality. For one, it reveals that many of the country’s democratic institutions serve a very different purpose than their counterparts in developed democracies — including the institution of elections.
Set aside the reports of irregularities at the polling stations and the whole idea of Russian presidential elections being rigged — there is still hardly any disagreement that their results are unfailingly predetermined. It is common knowledge that the most consequential multiple-choice question in the country will be reduced to the binary choice of answering it or not.
Several factors at play are linked in a vicious cycle that leads to this inevitable outcome. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin really is popular with certain key demographics — his ambitious message, strong rhetoric and hard-line policies resonate with a large swath of the Russian population. On the other, the opposition is in no shape to challenge his leadership. Even with Alexei Navalny in the race the winner would undoubtedly have been the same.
Add on top of that an ever-growing number of political, financial, media and other, more unsavory, forces working to keep the predestined candidate far ahead of the pack in the polls and the justifiably grim outlook of opposition-minded citizens. Neither voting nor going out into the streets to protest seem to offer a constructive and effective way to bring about change — to our collective frustration we simply haven’t reached the tipping point.
With all these conditions in place, the electoral process is compromised to such an extent that its outcome becomes a certainty. This means that Russian presidential elections do not fulfill their only purpose — provide a mechanism for the people of Russian Federation to choose their president. Why, then, do we even bother having them, a logistical nightmare and a money hog that they are? It begins to make sense once we abandon the familiar notions of what elections are about in developed democracies and look at them through the prism of what is known in economics as signaling.
Russian presidential elections are a busy information marketplace that spans 11 time zones. Millions of transactions are made in a single day. While the result that ends up in the crosshairs of media attention is known in advance, a lot of valuable information changes hands in the process. Both casting a ballot and abstaining from the vote disclose an important part of an individual political narrative — in other words, both send a strong signal to the government.
Asking over 100 million people for their opinion is a daunting statistical endeavor. But a survey of such proportions is not a waste. As a matter of fact, there is hardly a better way to gauge the public sentiment on the overall trajectory of the country. The elections, then, are not a means of choosing the president — they are the government’s tool for reducing information asymmetry.
As part of the electoral process signals are sent both ways. Citizens reveal their political preferences while the government conveys a message of its power to subvert organized dissent, thereby legitimizing its domestic and international standing. That way the matter of voting takes on a whole new meaning. To vote or not to vote translates into another question — what is the right signal to send?
For the supporters of Vladimir Putin this decision is about how strongly they want to formalize his grip on power. And for the rest of us it is a high-stakes game-theoretic conundrum. Effectively, only two options are available, and here is what each one entails.
A vote for any opposition candidate signals dissatisfaction with the incumbent president and the party of power. However, there is an important distinction to be made between systemic and non-systemic opposition. The former offers a rehashing of old and familiar ideas representing a moderate and somewhat reluctant departure from the status quo. The latter, however, is about a radical shift in power structure.
Understandably, non-systemic opposition is deeply flawed — its political immaturity, inability to unite and limited political programs are major hurdles on its way to becoming a viable, electable option. The fact that a significant portion of the population is willing to embrace it despite its shortcomings makes the message to the government that much more unequivocal.
A decision not to vote, on the other hand, leaves room for more interpretations. Against the backdrop of general disengagement from the political process, many people see non-participation as a strategic way to discredit and delegitimize the elections. Some of the most prominent critics of the regime, Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, echoed that view and called for a boycott of the vote.
There is another, less obvious argument in favor of not voting. Even a minor uptick in opposition vote share sends a strong signal to the government. But if the timing is wrong a message of dissent may come at a high price. Instead of taking it as a sign that the time has come to change something for the better, the government is likely to clamp down on opposition before it can pose a real threat to the regime. It means that increasing information asymmetry can be of more advantage than explicit signaling — and it is a very fine balance to maintain.
Russia’s presidential elections are by no means what democratic elections should be, but they are not an entirely useless sham either. The concept of signaling helps understand many of the things that are going on under the surface. And it is important to keep it in mind as we look ahead.
The official results of the 2018 vote, for what they are worth, do not seem reassuring. Putin has gained ground, the opposition is being pushed off the political chessboard and so far no beacon of change has appeared on the horizon. With the next elections six years away and no clear pathway for the newly reelected president to stay in power, it is hard to tell where we are headed.
All we have learned so far is that in Russia’s volatile environment six years is a really long time and a lot can happen. There is still hope that the next time Russian citizens will be facing the familiar dilemma — to vote or not to vote — we will not be signaling. We will be choosing our president.
Ivan Makeyenko is a Moscow-based economist and freelance writer who offers social and political commentary with a global perspective. He tweets @iMak7tweet.