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Virtual Politics and the Corruption of Post-Soviet Democracy

"It's hard to open the newspaper or turn on the TV in the former USSR without reading or hearing about political technology," said Andrew Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies, SSEES, University College London, and Honorary Fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. However, the concept of political technology is rarely used and little understood in the West. At a 27 March 2006 Kennan Institute talk, Wilson analyzed the many ways in which politicians and consultants in the former Soviet Union use technologies to manipulate political processes while maintaining the appearance of a democratic system.

Even in the most democratic systems, political actors will attempt to spin stories and events to their own advantage, Wilson noted. However, he argued that post-Soviet "political technologists" play a very different role than Western "spin doctors." Political technologists play a much broader role, serving as "political meta-programmers, system designers, decision-makers, and political controllers all in one, applying whatever technology they can to the construction of politics as a whole." According to Wilson, political technologists create a system of virtual political objects and institutions, such as parties, that mimic their real democratic equivalents. By the mid- to late-1990s, he contended, these virtual elements overwhelmed the real democratic elements in many post-Soviet states, including Russia and Ukraine.

Wilson described five key elements of post-Soviet virtual democracy. The first element, he argued, is the extensive use of "black PR" and compromising information to blackmail opponents, both by technologists and state officials. The second element is the abuse of state power—commonly referred to as "administrative resources"—in order to assist pro-government candidates and hinder opposition candidates. The third element, Wilson continued, is the use of KGB tactics known as "active measures." These can take various forms, including infiltrating an opponent's party with false members, and sponsoring "double" candidates with similar names and platforms to popular opposition candidates. The fourth element is the creation of virtual objects, such as parties that exist solely to draw votes away from opposition parties or make claims that a mainstream party is unwilling to make. The final element is "dramaturgiia"—the creation of a narrative around an election or other event, allowing technologists to control the content and tone of political discourse.

As Ukraine's Orange Revolution demonstrated, virtual democracies are not invulnerable systems, Wilson noted. Political technologists are not aiming for absolute social control. Instead, they strive to manipulate a sufficient number of voters in order to stay in power. Alternative voices, Wilson argued, are tolerated at the margins, but marginal voices can move into the mainstream. "Virtual politics depends, above all, on systems of information and thought control. Post-Soviet states, therefore, are vulnerable to key segments of the population rejecting the technologists' message," he said. In Ukraine in 2004, voters rejected the East versus West dramaturgiia of the political technologists and made the election about corruption and governance, which Wilson described as a triumph of reality over virtuality.

The success of the Orange Revolution does not mean that virtual politics is dead in the former Soviet Union, Wilson said. Some states, such as Uzbekistan and Belarus, have resorted to force to ensure the continued stability of the regime. However, political technology has adapted and survived in Russia and even in Belarus, he argued. In Belarus' recent presidential election, the real contest was between incumbent president Alexander Lukashenko and opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, but two additional "fake" candidates participated in the election, thus dividing the anti-Lukashenko electorate.

In Ukraine, political trechnology is definitely in retreat, but there were still a number of fake candidates and parties in the recent parliamentary elections, according to Wilson, including several which nearly passed the 3 percent barrier to win seats in the parliament. The virtual parties included an ecology party funded by the Industrial Union of Donbass, the pro-small business Viche Party funded by oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, and the populist Bloc of Nataliya Vitrenko, which was intended to draw votes away from Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc and provide an extra column of support for the Party of Regions in parliament. These parties tended to have "virtual" platforms that were either very nebulous or closely resembled that of another, more popular party. Even the real parties, Wilson argued, had a "post-modern, virtual veneer," and avoided mentioning their platforms in campaign material. Nevertheless, he believes that the use of political technology is declining in Ukraine: "The Ukrainian electorate has certainly gotten wiser. The critical mass of politics now tends toward the real."

Wilson concluded with predictions on the use of political technology in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia in 2007 and 2008. He argued that "the necessary virtual objects are in place, but the dramaturgiia isn't." Wilson predicted that the animating narrative behind the next elections in Russia will be either the threat of extreme nationalism or the threat of Islamic terrorism, with Kremlin-backed candidates positioned as the guarantors of stability in the face of these threats. However it manifests itself, virtual politics will play an important role in Russia's elections: "The Kremlin's natural instinct is to arrange a succession, or even a Putin third term well in advance, and then stage the subsequent contest with no actual contestation."


About the Author

Erin Trouth Hofmann

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology, Utah State University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more