Winning elections is a science in Russia, though not a particularly elegant one. The term polit-tekhnolog (political technologist) is, after all, a Russian neologism. There are well-paid teams of them in Moscow who do nothing but hatch ways to confuse voters, skew results and, when necessary, stuff the ballot box. Reports of their handiwork have been rife ahead of Russia's parliamentary elections on Sunday, calling to mind the country's unofficial electoral mantra, which is usually attributed to Stalin: "It's not important how they vote. It's important who is counting." So with all this experience to draw from, with all these technologists available to help, how did Moscow manage to screw up the ballot last weekend in the tiny Russian vassal state of South Ossetia?
It should have been a cakewalk. Insofar as South Ossetia even has an economy, it relies on trade with the Russian military, which conquered the region from the Republic of Georgia after a weeklong war in 2008. (If you check Google Maps, or ask the U.N., the region is still technically a part of Georgia.) The region's budget comes almost exclusively from Russian aid, which has added up to about a billion dollars since 2008, when Russia became the first to recognize South Ossetia as an independent state. (Since then, only four other countries have followed suit: Venezuela, Nicaragua and the two Pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Nauru, all in exchange for loans or other goodies from Moscow.)
Besides, the region has only 28,000 registered voters, most of whom hold Russian passports and worship Russia for liberating them from Georgian rule. The region's President, Eduard Kokoity, openly stated in 2008 that South Ossetia should eventually become a part of Russian territory. So it seemed obvious that when Kokoity's term in office ran out this year, Russia's favored candidate would easily succeed him. It wouldn't require a lot of finesse on Russia's part, just a bit of old-fashioned campaigning. But even before the elections began, things started going wrong.
In June, a group of armed men, representing the South Ossetian army and the office of the presidential guard, walked into the Parliament building and demanded that the lawmakers allow President Kokoity to stay for a third term in office. This would require changing the constitution, which the lawmakers refused to do. Several of them, barricaded inside the chamber by the armed intruders, called the press to complain of a "military coup," and Kokoity quickly got nervous. "Such demonstrations of the people's love for the President," he said of the storming of the parliament, "only create tensions in various segments of our society." Within hours, Kokoity's men left the parliament alone, and the President confirmed that he would resign when his term expired.
So the Kremlin continued looking for a successor. One option was Dzhambolat Tedeyev, the coach of the Russian national wrestling team. But he turned out to be an awkward fit. Although he was born in South Ossetia, he lives and works in Moscow, which disqualifies him from running for President. His supporters, however, were determined. In September, they armed themselves with assault rifles and tried to storm the election commission, demanding that he be registered as a candidate. For the second time in three months, local officials began complaining of an armed coup attempt. "They knocked the doors down, busted in the windows," an election official told reporters during the siege. But Tedeyev, suddenly under the watch of the media and local police, also backed away from his campaign, and last month, he was deported back to Russia.
By that time, a committee of Russian officials had finished screening other candidates. "The casting went on all summer," wrote Russia's leading daily Kommersant. Its sources in the Russian government claimed that officials from the Kremlin, the Defense Ministry and two Russian spy agencies, among others, had been interviewing would-be Presidents of South Ossetia. Finally, at the end of August, they settled on the region's Minister of Emergency Situations, Anatoly Bibilov, who had studied to be a paratrooper in Russia when he was young. His platform was simple. If he was elected, he would make South Ossetia an official Russian territory, no longer a quasi-independent state. This won him the endorsement of the United Russia party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Moscow's political technologists called the elections then and there. "The support of Moscow will be the key factor in this presidential race," one of them, Sergei Mikheyev, told Kommersant in August.
But in November, when the voters actually went to the polls, things did not go as planned. Bibilov and his handlers were apparently so confident in their victory how could they lose with Moscow's support? that they did not bother to mount much of a campaign. The first round of voting on Nov. 13 had Bibilov in a dead heat with an opposition candidate, a matronly ex-Minister of Education named Alla Dzhioeva (pronounced Joy-eva). A runoff ballot on Nov. 27 then handed a clear victory to Dzhioeva, who was ahead by a margin of around 16% with most of the votes counted. The same day, surrounded by her supporters, she performed a traditional victory dance in the ice-covered central square.
But the celebration turned out to be premature. On Tuesday, the results of the election were annulled by the Supreme Court, which also ruled that Dzhioeva would be forbidden from running for office again. As justification, it cited massive election fraud, ignoring the fact that foreign observers, including those sent from Russia, had deemed the voting free and fair. Dzhioeva was distraught. "I have one question," she told Kommersant that night. "Russia, why don't you love me? I am a Russian in my passport and in my soul!" Hundreds of her supporters soon gathered outside the central election commission to defend her victory, and on Wednesday, she sent a letter to the Kremlin, asking President Dmitri Medvedev to intervene. "The Republic of South Ossetia is at the edge of a civil war," she wrote.
The only response so far has been a terse statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said on Wednesday that all parties should "obey the higher organs of power," meaning, in essence, that Dzhioeva should accept the ruling of the Supreme Court and concede defeat. Russia's political technologists have meanwhile started doing damage control. "This woman Joylova, or whatever her name is, she is backed by criminals, and they have acted very decisively to seize power," said Sergei Markov, one of the Kremlin's best election strategists. Asked by TIME what evidence he had to back this up, Markov said, "The men carrying around her ballots had a distinctly criminal appearance, and there are also other facts." Within a few months, he said, the Kremlin's favored candidate would surely win in a revote. "The people were just confused by criminals this time around," he said.
But the whole operation, from the use of armed goons this summer to the bumbling reaction when it all went awry, has revealed such clumsiness, such a total lack of tact, that even Russia's loyal media have been unable to hold their tongues. Moskovsky Komsomolets, one of Russia's most popular dailies, published an editorial on Wednesday titled "Stop the Morons," which railed that "the vote in South Ossetia has revealed the truth: the people who answer for our strategic external policies are not just bastards but morons. This is getting scary."
And what about the domestic electoral machine? In some ways it's better and in some ways it's worse. South Ossetia at least has a vibrant and viable opposition, which has not existed in Russia for nearly a decade, and when that opposition was steamrolled this week by the Supreme Court, South Ossetians actually went on the streets to protest. Thousands of them still filled the streets of the capital on Wednesday night, three days after the elections, a scene that will not be repeated in Moscow after Russia's parliamentary elections on Sunday, no matter how many reports of election fraud come pouring in. "The electorate here is used to it," says Masha Lipman, a political analyst in Moscow. "Every time there is an election, we gasp and say, 'My god, how can they rig it so shamelessly?' And every time they show us that they are not ashamed."