Putin and Russian Civilians Invested in U.S. Election for Different Reasons

ZOE ROHRICH, STAFF WRITER | SEPTEMBER 26, 2016

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This year, not only is the U.S. presidential election being closely followed by those here in the United States, but it is also drawing attention across borders, including interest from Russian civilians due to longstanding frustration with their country’s own electoral process.

“It was fake, it was simulated,” Ilya Lobanov, a 21-year old exchange student from St.Petersburg State University stated bluntly, in response to a question about the recent parliamentary elections held in Russia.

“Everything was planned before, so everyone knew the results. It was not a real election.”

This kind of thinking is not unusual among Russian voters today. Lobanov, speaking solemnly, is rigid, a temperament perhaps learned during his mandatory service in the Russian army over the past summer. He is here in the U.S. for the semester, studying international affairs through an exchange program with Bard College.

Lobanov said that some of his friends and family members voted in the Russian elections, but they saw themselves as more of observers than participants. They cast their vote for the party opposite President Putin’s United Russia, though they weren’t expecting their vote to make much of a difference in the election. Lobanov himself voted here in New York, sending his ballot in early, but he too did not believe his vote mattered. “I decided it was just an experience to vote somewhere abroad, to see how it works.”

Perhaps this skepticism comes in remembering the 2011 elections, when Russian voters took to the streets to protest voting fraud, and were met with a harsh crackdown from the Kremlin. Or, the skepticism may stem from laws put in place by President Putin, making it extremely difficult for non-governmental pollsters to present unbiased political data to civilians.

These laws adopted to marginalize these NGOs were created to prevent the U.S. from funding the pollsters, which are believed by the Russian government to be promoting the idea of U.S. democracy and diplomacy, ideas on policy that largely differ from those of President Putin’s.

It is no secret that tensions between the U.S. and Russia have been steadily rising, and the U.S. presidential election this year certainly hasn’t helped. In early September, The New York Times published an article citing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as saying there were “credible reports about Russian interference in our elections,” implying that President Putin backed a victory by Republican nominee Donald Trump.

“For the Russian establishment, Trump is the preferred candidate,” Lobanov said matter-of-factly. “Hillary has already been a part of the American establishment because she was already Secretary of State, so Russia can expect the same from her. Trump is new, and [Trump] also says things that are good for Putin.”

Lobanov is referring to when the Republican nominee praised the Russian president for being a stronger leader than President Obama. Trump’s comments can perhaps explain why Russian intelligence has seemingly been following this election closely, Clinton arguing that they are potentially following too close for the comfort of her own campaign.

However, when asked about the reaction of Russian civilians to Trump’s praise of Putin, Lobanov responded without hesitation. “We do not care about Trump.”

He later said that American politics are not a topic of discussion among Russians. He then paused, though, and rephrased. “No, we are interested in American elections, but do you know why we are interested? Because we see them as the real elections. We don’t have elections in our country, so we are watching your elections because there is nothing interesting in Russian elections. In Russia, you know that Putin will be the leader.”

This statement reflects an old, long and sometimes quieted struggle between Russian civilians and their government’s electoral process, reiterated through the lens of the U.S. election.

 

Photo by Zoe Rohrich/ Bard Watch.

To respond to this article, or to submit an op-Ed, contact bardwatchmanaging@gmail.com.

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